STOCK FOOTAGE PRIMER

Can I really support myself with stock footage in 2018?

And why would I care, as a writer, filmmaker, or actor?

[Edited April 18, 2018.]

BROWSE 4K CAMERAS AT AMAZON


One of the greatest frustrations to me, as a busy TV editing freelancer, is that my writing time so often gets squeezed out by a schedule that is outside my control.

On the surface, selling stock footage seems incredibly attractive. On my own schedule, I go out with my camera, take some video clips, and then coast on that income while I write. Hey, I can even take videos at locations that inspire my writing. If you’re an actor or filmmaker, you may find yourself with free time in between gigs, and sometimes even access to great film equipment before you return it to the rental house.

Even better, stock photographers can take vacations around the world, and pay for much or all of their trips by taking some shots while they’re away… plus write off trip expenses on their taxes!

But is stock footage income viable? In April of 2018, I can say a hearty YES! Despite only uploading a few clips this year, I am on track for my best year yet, with a whopping 100% increase of sales over 2017, which was already a record year. It is still only a side “hobby” income for me, but it continues to perform and grow… many of my clips have earned over $500 (one passed $3,500), and my modest catalog earns me a very steady passive income.

 

THIS SHOT MADE $75,000?

 

One of Pond5’s highest sellers, $75,000 and counting!

It’s true! This 30 second clip shot with a DSLR made over $15,000 from ONE SITE ALONE. Most stock footage is sold on an least 5 different sites simultaneously, meaning this single shot may have made over $75,000! And that’s not even counting the several similar shots the creator shot on the same day, which have sold almost as well.

Many will tell you that the Golden Age of stock footage is over. That is simply not true! One TV show I worked on recently spent as much as $25,000 PER EPISODE on stock footage. Almost every TV series I work on uses it in some way, as it is usually much cheaper than sending a camera crew out to get the same shot. And with more people than ever before creating video content for the web, stock footage is in as much demand as ever!

 

My experiment:

Always an entrepreneur, I decided to test the theory that stock footage could help my writing. In mid 2011, I bought a DSLR, with some lenses and support gear. My wife was unable to do her regular acting work because of a pesky knee injury, so we felt even better about the investment… We could share the camera, and have double the productivity.

We went to the zoo, took a bunch of videos of the animals, and uploaded them to Pond5, a well known stock footage site. I also do motion graphics, so I whipped a few samples together and uploaded those too.

 

010588050-fire-tunnel-rotating-vortex-fl
SAMPLE MOTION GRAPHICS CLIP – VIEW AT POND5
 

We waited excitedly for the money to come pouring in.

And waited.

And waited some more.

After a few months, we got a sale! One sale. $20, against over $2000 of gear investment.

Stock footage was clearly not a “get rich quick” scheme! But people DO make an income from it… some make six figures or more. What were we doing wrong?

I researched. A lot. Spent time on many stock footage sites, analyzing what sold, and who was selling. Bought and read books.

Our first mistake: only uploading to one stock footage site. Different sites specialize in different subjects, and have different customers. We decided to expand our footage to 5 different sites.

2nd mistake: just because you see a lot of something on the microstock sites doesn’t mean it sells. For instance, they are saturated with shots of zoo animals, because these are very easy to shoot. Only the very best will sell, and even these will be hard to find amidst the sea of similar shots. Other saturated subjects include flowers (my wife’s favorite), and clouds.

 

008187638-lion-yawns-and-licks-lips
ZOO ANIMALS, FLOWERS, AND CLOUDS ARE EASY TO SHOOT, SO WILL BE SATURATED ON STOCK SITES
BUT GOOD ONES STILL SELL!  VIEW AT POND5

It’s not that they don’t sell… for instance, my shot of this yawning zoo lion, taken on a family trip to the zoo, has had a few sales, but they won’t sell as often as unique subjects. Note here how I deliberately framed the shot to allow for ad text. This could have helped it sell.

That said, looking forward, our focus was to shoot and generate clips that were more in demand, and make sure they are uploaded to all the sites.

By 2012, we had about 30 clips, including our zoo stuff, on these 5 sites, and were averaging a $20 commission per week.

It doesn’t sound like much… Or does it?

 

022348188-niagara-falls-candy-lollipop-m
LOOK FOR COLOR, INTERESTING MOTION OR
ACTIVITY, COMMERCIALITY, AND UNIQUE SUBJECTS
CLICK TO VIEW AT POND5
 

The potential:

Consider this: if we stopped at 30 clips, those clips would generate $1000/year. In 2 years, our camera equipment would be paid for, and the clips would continue to make $1000 every year. This is called a “passive income” — a steady income stream that continues with no further intervention.

But what if we keep on shooting? Read on below for some real-world calculations after a couple of years of testing…

 

012753985-decorative-candles-background
THERE ARE STOCK SUBJECTS EVERYWHERE – JUST LOOK AROUND YOU!
This was shot without a tripod,
as I was sitting at a table of a holiday banquet.
CLICK TO VIEW AT POND5
 

REAL WORLD CALCULATIONS:

After several years at it, and after conferring with stock author James Orlowski, I’ve come up with some real world calculations that will help you to strategize your stock footage.

Each well-shot 4k clip you upload (usually 10-20 seconds long) should average about $25/year*, and have a useful lifespan of 10 or more years. Since it takes an average of 30-60 minutes to shoot, import, select, upload, and describe/keyword each clip (assuming a shoot day where you shoot 5-10 usable clips), you could say that you make over $300/hour shooting stock footage. Not bad! The only catch: you won’t see the full $300 for 10 years.

NOTE: 1080p footage that you have already shot is worth uploading and will still sell, but anything that you shoot going forward should be in 4K. It can be priced higher and will have a much longer lifespan. The exception is very high frame rate / slow motion — many cameras can shoot great slow motion in 1080p, but not 4k — this will sell well in 1080p.

So… the best way to make it work is to shoot and upload a lot, especially in the beginning. If you have 1000 good clips in your portfolio, they will generate $25,000 per year for the next 10 years, or $250,000 total. If you want a $100,000 yearly income from it, you will need a portfolio of 4000-5000 clips. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that you could shoot 4000-5000 clips in 1 year, and then stop shooting completely, and the portfolio would continue to generate $100,000 yearly with no further intervention**. $1 MILLION for one year of work is pretty impressive!

The more you practice, the faster you will get. With experience, you’ll begin to find interesting angles of a location you never would have found in the beginning, so one trip to a location or home studio shoot might net 20 usable videos, while in the beginning you might have only been able to find 4 or 5. Also, your keywording will get faster and more efficient. At first, it would take me 3-5 minutes to keyword/tag one clip. Now, I do it in 30 seconds. Also, some sites, like Pond5, offer templates that can greatly accelerate your keyboarding. All this helps your “per hour” figure increase, and frees your time to generate more clips!

* $25/year estimate depends on the clip being well shot, with appealing in-demand content, priced properly, and uploaded to at least 3 of the highest performing stock footage sites. Learn more about how to do this by reading the resources below. Some types of content may sell for much more — for instance, exclusive locations, military footage, or anything shot with high end production values.

** These are simplifications, and not a replacement for your own research and testing. Also, the market continues to get more and more competitive, so most experienced stock footage shooters suggest that you never stop generating new material.

 

036079265-blue-eye-iris-pupil-dilates-an
MY HIGHEST SELLING STOCK CLIP – Motion graphics sell too!
CLICK TO VIEW AT POND5

Another fringe benefit: most of the microstock sites have referral programs… If you refer another videographer to the site, you receive a commission on any footage they sell. This does not come out if their commission, so it is a win-win.
 

Stock sound effects:

Not handy with a camera? You can actually make a lot of money with stock sound effects too! Audio files are easy to record with an inexpensive hand-held recorder like the TASCAM DR-40, take up very little hard drive space and internet bandwidth, and don’t have to be converted into various formats or edited with an expensive video application. If you really want to do this seriously, it doesn’t have to break the bank: I recommend also buying a shotgun mic like the RODE NTG-2 (available in a cost-effective kit with boom pole, wind shield & more!). The shotgun mic is by no means necessary, but allows you to isolate sounds from what’s around them. Keep in mind of course you can use this audio gear on your film projects too! Browse more audio gear HERE.

 

 

Tascam-DR-40
This TASCAM DR-40 audio recorder has built-in mics — get started for under $200!

 

The caveats?

There are a few:

– you have to expend a lot of time and money in the beginning before you see any results. Luckily, great quality cameras are cheaper than ever, but you’ll need at least a decent DSLR and tripod, with a selection of lenses — telephoto, wide, and a good quality standard zoom. Expect to pay $1000-$3000, and don’t expect to see a significant return in the first few months.

– you’ll need a good internet connection, preferably with fast uploading and a high bandwidth allowance.

– it takes a fair amount of time to prepare and submit your clips to the various sites, including coming up with descriptions and keywords, and compressing to the different format requirements of each site.

010929898-supermoon-large-bright-moon-30
WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH A TELEPHOTO LENS! This was shot with a 300mm lens on a Panasonic GH2.
CLICK TO VIEW AT POND5

WHY 4K?

4K is roughly 4 times the resolution of 1080p, and is the preferred format for digital cinema projection. While there are many flavors of 4K, the main formats are either “Cinema 4K,” which is 4096×2160 at 24 fps, or “QFHD 4K” (also called “Ultra HD” or “UHD”), which is 3840×2160 at up to 30 fps. Several Netflix shows are shot and aired in 4K, and 4K televisions can be purchased for $599 or lower at your local Wal-Mart.

Unlike 3D, which is difficult to work with in production and post, and most consumers saw as an unnecessary gimmick, 4K is easy to work with and has many practical purposes. It allows you to project your image much larger, zoom in to your image without quality loss, and also future-proof your material. Are you still shooting anything in standard definition? We will be asking that question about 1080p soon enough.

Being an early adopter of 4K means that you will have 4K stock footage for sale before the market becomes saturated, as happened with photos and is steadily happening with 1080p. Plus, you can price it much more highly, which means more for every sale! And if you shoot in Ultra HD you can shoot once, down convert to 1080p, and deliver both versions at once.

 

How do you get started?

 

1. Get the gear

Don’t forget that this gear is also an investment for other projects you do, from short films and webisodes to kick-butt vacation photos.

You may wish to lease equipment, as this delays much of the purchase cost until you start to earn income from it. Also, you may be able to write off as much as 100% of the payment on your taxes. However, you end up paying a lot of interest over the course of a lease term.

It may make sense to plan a full weekend or week of shooting, and rent the necessary equipment. If you are in a major US city, you can check out ShareGrid — for instance, if you live in LA, you can rent from my ever-expanding gear catalog HERE.

You may prefer to just buy the gear outright. You can start small, with just camera and tripod, and add other gear later as you can afford it.

There’s no reason it needs to be complicated. Here is…

MY RECOMMENDED GEAR FOR STOCK FOOTAGE:

ORDER PANASONIC GH4 4K CAMERA AT ADORAMA!

PANASONIC LUMIX DMC-GH4

With a street price as low as $799 new and as low as $600 used (body only), the Panasonic Lumix GH4 is my first choice for stock footage:

– True 4K video at 100 Mbit (Cinema 4K: 4096×2160 at 24 fps and QFHD 4K: 3840×2160 at up to 30 fps)
– 1080p at up to 96 fps and up to 200 Mbit for beyond broadcast quality and amazing slow motion
– 1080p at 10 bit 4:4:4 via post processing
– 4K at up to 10 bit 4:2:2 via HDMI or SDI output & XLR inputs via optional accessory
built in timelapse controller
– true time code
– wireless control and viewing by iOS or Android device
– share lenses with Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
– lens adapters available to use virtually any lens

Yes, the GH5 and GH5s offer some advantages over the GH4, but unless you need it for other work, it’s not worth the extra $1000+ you’ll pay.

 

 

CLICK TO ORDER PANASONIC GH4 4K CAMERA AT ADORAMA!

PREFER TO ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM? NO PROBLEM!
To shop on Amazon for GH4, lenses & accessories: CLICK HERE

CLICK HERE for lots more info about the GH4 and sample footage.

 

 
LOWER BUDGET (<$800) OPTIONS:

New cameras are coming out all the time, and old ones are getting cheaper. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather a few good options to consider.

• DJI OSMO (gimbal stabilized, full 4K, great slow motion)
• PANASONIC LUMIX DMC-FZ1000 (larger form factor, full 4K, 20MP stills, long 25-400mm built in zoom lens)
• PANASONIC LUMIX DMC-LX100 (small form factor, full 4K and wide 24-75mm built in zoom lens)
• SONY DSC-RX100 IV (great slow motion options)
• GOPRO HERO BLACK (pick top of the line, and shoot with ProTune, in highest bit rate possible)

Consider — you could buy TWO or THREE of these for the price of one GH4 with lens — see the tips below on how this could be useful!

 





 

 

 

2. Research

Almost all of the microstock sites let you view their footage in categories, in order of what’s selling the most. Spend some time getting a feel for what you might shoot that would sell, and also what each site’s technical requirements are. Sign up for their email newsletters, because these show the week’s highest selling clips.

STOCK SITES: Shutterstock •  iStockPhotoPond5Fotolia/Adobe123RF

I also recommend these books on photographic technique and stock footage:

 

011014075-fashion-district-street-sign-c
ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO BE UNIQUE: SHOOT LOCAL SUBJECTS
CLICK TO VIEW AT POND5
 

3. Shoot!

Most stock sites won’t approve you to sell until you submit a portfolio of clips to review. These should be a wide assortment of unrelated clips. They need to be your best work, taken on a tripod, with proper lighting and focus.

ADVANCED TIP: You can double your productivity by just taking two cameras to a location. For instance, while one camera is taken recording a long time-lapse shot, you can be getting details with your second camera. Since the gear is so cheap now, might as well double up!

 

008156858-alpaca-chewing
WHEN IN DOUBT, SHOOT! This clip of an Alpaca chewing is overexposed because he was partly in the shade, and partly in bright sun. Yet… it has earned over $500, way more than the cost of a zoo membership! Just be aware many zoos have restrictions on commercial photography, and you may need to obtain releases.
CLICK TO VIEW AT POND5
 

Once you have shot and gathered this assortment of clips…

 

4. Sign up for as many stock sites as possible

Please use these links (I will get a referral bonus)

STOCK SITES: Shutterstock •  iStockPhoto • Pond5 • Fotolia/Adobe123RFCan Stock Photo

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Shutterstock has VERY fast approval times, easy tagging system, a high approval rate, and generates lots of sales. Highly recommended!

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Pond5 has a very high approval rate for clips (though can be slow to process), lets you set your own prices, has a flexible system for tagging the clips, and is where I get most of my sales. Highly recommended!

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

iStockPhoto has a cumbersome keyword system, very slow approval times, low approval rate, and very low percentage commission (18%, vs 50% at Pond5). Some report that they make up for it in traffic and number of sales, but that has not been my experience. They are most likely NOT worth the effort for you.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Can Stock Photo has slow approval times, and very low sales for me. Useful if you want to spread your footage around as much as possible, but probably NOT worth your time.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –


Stock Photos from 123RF

123RF is a newer player to the video game, having been primarily for stills before. They have quickly become my #3 selling site — they have a high approval rate, and relatively long approval times, but good sales. If you only sign up for 3 sites, this should probably be #3.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Fotolia used to have a very high rejection rate, and slow approval times. However, since Adobe acquired Fotolia, sales have risen sharply, and approval rates and times have greatly improved — plus, you can buy Fotolia stock right from within Adobe apps now (of course, called Adobe Stock). I would definitely sign up for this one.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

VideoBlocks is one that I am currently experimenting with. I will report back once I have enough results to draw conclusions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 


zoo-gym
NO TRIPOD? BRACE YOUR CAMERA STRAP AGAINST YOUR NECK. THAT’S HOW I GOT THIS SHOT.
CLICK TO VIEW AT POND5

5. Consistently shoot & upload

Once you’re approved, keep shooting and uploading, to grow your portfolio over time. Consistency is key, and always keep your eyes open for ideas. Even network dramas use stock footage! When you watch TV or surf the Internet, try to get an idea of what stock videos are being used, and what might be in demand. And continue to get familiar with each stock site, to see where holes might exist in their catalogs.

A stock researcher once told me he needed a shot of bacon frying, and couldn’t find one on any of the stock sites. You could’ve shot that in your own home, as you made breakfast.

Yes, it could be that easy!

 

008193368-meerkat-sentry-looking-around
ALWAYS HAVE YOUR CAMERA WITH YOU! Be ready for opportunities and they will come!
CLICK TO VIEW AT POND5
 

Q & A

1. WHAT FORMAT TO SHOOT?

Shoot and submit material as 4K UHD/30P. 30P It sells twice as much as 24P material, and has the most frame information if being converted to other formats. If you shoot slow motion 60P, slow it to 50% and deliver it as 30P.

The only exception — much television and film work is 24P. If you are specifically shooting to target those mediums, you may consider 24P, including the cinema resolution of 4K, 4096×2160 (if you shoot at 4096×2160 you can easily crop the right and left edges to deliver 3840×2160).

2. HOW TO ORGANIZE MATERIAL?

Even at the beginning, you MUST adopt a numbering/file name system — all my clips are dated when I shoot, and exported as 00121-ThisItem, 00122-ThatItem. Then keep an Excel spreadsheet for all the clips, with Title, Description, Key Words, and other information (like where you have submitted the material) all in one place.

Also, I suggest having short names for compression format – PJ75 for Photo Jpeg 75, PJ95 for Photo Jpeg 95, etc. That way you can easily find the right clips later. So for each clip I might have:

00121-ThatItem-30P-PR.mov (PR=ProRes, my editing format)
00121-ThatItem-30P-PJ75.mov (PJ75 is accepted by most stock sites)
00121-ThatItem-30P-PJ95.mov (PJ95 is required by iStockPhoto and MotionElements)

3. HOW TO PRICE CLIPS?

In the beginning, I priced my clips at around $40 each, which meant $20 per sale came to me. As I became more confident in my shooting ability, I bumped the clips up to $60 ($79-99 for 4K). This seems like a sweet spot between having the appearance of quality (i.e. not seen as “cheap”) but still very affordable for most buyers, and nets me $30 per sale ($40-$50 per sale for 4K).

In my testing, I have NOT found that dropping the price increases sales. There are many buyers who will deliberately avoid the lower priced clips, thinking they must not be as professionally done.

That said, buyers often sort the stock footage catalogs based on number of views, or number of sales. There may be an advantage to TEMPORARILY offering your clips at the lowest possible price after they are first approved, to gain views and sales. After about a month, you can bump up your prices, and your stock clips will appear higher in the searches. For the same reason, I suggest opting in to the “free clip promotions” offered on many sites — this is set on a clip-by-clip basis.

NOTE: Any material that is particularly rare, in high demand, very high quality, or selling well, may be priced MUCH higher. For instance, if you have special access to military footage, it can sell for as high as $1000 per download. Or, if you shoot with very high production values (for instance, with professional models and a 4K or RED camera), you may price the clips at $200-$400 per download. 50% of every download will go to you… pretty sweet!

More questions? Please leave them in the comments below!

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