Using Drones For Stock

If you’re producing stock you’ve probably already asked yourself whether you should (or could) get one of those quadrocopters and shoot stock with it. I’ve done this for roughly 3.5 years (using a DJI Phantom 1 with a GoPro 3 / 3+ for 2 years, then upgrading to a Phantom 3) so yes, it can be done and it can be great fun.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind and I’d like to give you a starting point for your own research into the matter. None of the below is to be considered legal advice and some info may be outdated, inaccurate or plain wrong. This is just my experience, how I went about the whole thing and the lessons I learned. For you, it should be no more than a rough overview and a starting point for your own research.

Let’s start with some of my favorite videos:

You probably noticed these are all landscapes. No cities, no people, no industry. Which brings us to the first big issue:

Are You Allowed To Fly?

If you intend to fly around with a drone, you’ll have to figure out if you’re actually allowed to do so at all and which restrictions apply. The problem is that legislation is very different from country to country and something that’s allowed at home may be forbidden abroad. If you want to play it safe, you should always check your local legislation and the legislation of the places you travel to. This can be a huge pain and if you want to take a risk, just go ahead. The truth is: In 3.5 years of flying, nobody ever asked me for a permit (which I have) and I was never questioned by police or authorities. Still it’s important to keep in mind that if you don’t know what you’re doing, you may be at risk.

I’ve only flown in a few European countries but the only country I’ll mention is France: It’s very, VERY restrictive with a very complex legislation. Don’t do it. At least not without a proper permit (which you probably won’t get).

Every other country I flew in or read about has roughly the following rules:

  • Absolutely no flying above or near military installations, airports, airfields (Just in case you didn’t think of it yourself). As an example, iIn Germany, there’s a no-fly zone of 5km around airports and 2km around airfields. This means absolutely NO flying, not even at a height of 1m.
  • Maximum flight altitude: 100m above ground (120m in some countries). Yes, your drone can go much higher. No, you’re not allowed to go higher.
  • Fly within visual range. This means you have to see your drone at all times, without using binoculars or other visual aides.
  • Do not fly over groups of people, industrial installations, railroad tracks, highways or basically anything which can take serious damage in case of a crash.

Additionally, rules may be different depending on whether you’re flying for fun or commercially, the weight of your drone, the time of day (some countries allow flying only between sunrise and sunset) or there may be additional restrictions for urban areas, natural reserves or just about anything you can think of. Depending on your location and your individual situation, you may also need a license, a fire-proof plate with your name and address attached to the drone, a flight log and, in most cases:

  • Liability insurance!

This is particularly important. Even if you don’t need one (and in all cases where I checked, it was required), it is definitely good to have. Chances are high that your regular insurance doesn’t cover drones so you will need a special one. Also, you will want one that explicitly covers commercial use and photography / videography. There are several options but if you’re based in Germany, DMO is definitely a good choice (roughly 180EUR a year).

How Hard Is It? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Not very hard. Absolutely everything.

This will depend a lot on the hardware you’re using. I’ve only used DJI Phantoms and can’t speak for any of the Parrots and Yuneecs and Karmas out there. In any case, flying a drone can be difficult so you’ll want one with a good flight controller and (at least) GPS. Anything which improves flight stability and adds failure tolerance (like an auto-return to the home position) is a big plus, too.

This being said, a good drone can make things seem very easy: It goes in the direction you tell it, holds position even in windy conditions, returns home, shows its position and altitude on a map on your phone, maybe even avoids obstacles by itself. And yes, with some luck you can enjoy lots of hours of flight without any problems. But you may not be so lucky, so here’s a selection of stuff that can happen (and has partially happened to me):

  • Flyaways – due to some error, the craft may just fly away. Maybe you’ll find it, maybe not.
  • Battery failures – I had many of those with the Phantom 1 (none with the Phantom 3), particularly in cold weather. LiPo batteries are quite sensitive to cold – they will not break, but their performance may not be what you expect.
    Failures come in two flavours: The aircraft may decide to land due to low voltage and – provided you notice this at all – you may be able to still exert some control over it. Quite useful if you’re above a lake or so. Or the craft may simply drop from the sky.
  • Engine failures. No explanation necessary.
  • Necessary software updates: It can be quite annoying if an update is mandatory and you find yourself in the field and suddenly unable to fly because you’re lacking a firmware update. Before going out, better check you’re up to date.
  • Bird attacks. Yes, predatory birds have been observed to attack drones.
  • Crashes. You’ll have them. After a crash it’s recommended to recalibrate the craft (e.g. the compass, gimbal, etc) and of course check that your propellers are intact. Don’t fly with broken propellers!
  • Video link failures. This can and does happen and is very annoying. If your drone is out of sight, try an auto-return to the home point, if your drone can do that. If not, good luck.
  • Losing GPS. This can happen for several reasons, but the most common is flying in areas without enough sky / satellite visibility, for example in canyons or near mountains. Flying without GPS is a lot more difficult and you’ll have to do a lot more controlling, e.g. to account for wind (particularly in canyons and near mountains where there’s a lot of air circulation).
  • Probably a whole lot more. Remember: Your drone is a flying computer-camera, probably worth over $1000. It’s easy to use in most cases but if it crashes, it crashes badly. Not only will you lose your $1000 investment, but it can get other stuff damaged or it can get you or other people hurt or killed. I’m not joking. These copters may be classified as toys, they may be all plastic, they may weigh just 1kg – but they can do a lot of damage. Just imagine what would happen if you threw your DSLR up in the air, to a height of about 100m.

Piloting Tips and Tricks

The above are mainly technical problems. However, if you crash (and you most likely will) it will be because you messed up, not the tech. So here are some things to keep in mind:

  • First and foremost: Practice, practice, practice. Don’t just unbox your drone and then fly hundreds of meters away. Learn how to use it first, familiarize yourself with the controls, ramp up your flying slowly.
  • Avoid other aircraft. If you hear a helicopter or anyhting else, start descending immediately. First of all: it’s the law. Second: If you start looking for the source of the sound first, you may be too late for a descent. Helicopters are fast and can go very low.
  • Keep in mind that your drone is flying through the air, not driving on a road. There is quite a bit of inertia and all your maneuvers will need a few seconds before having an actual effect. If you need to brake or steer away, do so in time. This is particularly important in this case:
  • Descending: When descending, your drone enters the air turbulences its propellers create, which means it will have a lot less “grip” than in calm air. You should always descend slowly and/or while moving sideways (i.e. not vertically towards the ground). If you descend fast and in a straight line, your drone may need more than 10m of height to stabilize or stop the descent. Keep this in mind when landing. Some drones have a built-in speed limit when descending to avoid this (e.g. the Phantom 3 descends much slower than the Phantom 1). I’ve rammed my Phantom 1 into the ground quite a few times when trying to land too fast.
  • Flying in the cold can be a challenge (as mentioned, LiPo batteries are sensitive to low temperatures). If you decide to fly anyway, follow these:
    • Keep your batteries warm during transport. Rather than in the backpack, try to carry them in an inside pocket of your jacket.
    • After takeoff, let the craft hover at a low altitude for about a minute. Draining power warms up the batteries and after a minute, they should be on a good operating temperature. Plus if the craft behaves well during this time, it will probably behave well during the rest of the flight.
    • Keep an eye out for any battery telemetry (if you have it, and in cold weather it’s highly recommended). If your phone app tells you the batteries run low, return immediately.
    • Keep in mind your flight time may be quite a bit shorter than in warm weather.
  • Flying in any wind stronger than a soft breeze can be a challenge. As long as you have GPS, you should generally be OK as the craft will hold position. But if for some reason GPS fails, get ready for a challenge. As mentioned above, be especially aware of this when flying in the mountains or in canyons.
  • Don’t get disoriented. From a distance of 1-200m, your drone will be a tiny spot in the sky and even if your video link works, the landscape can look very different from up there. Always try to keep track about where you are, where your drone is and in which direction its nose is. If you mess things up, you may mistakenly fly in the wrong direction and lose the video link, too. Hope you have that GPS-return-to-home function.
  • Familiarize yourself with your drone’s different flying modes, if it has any.
  • Starting near large metal objects. This can make you scratch your head, as it is sometimes not very obvious. If there’s a lot of ferromagnetic metal near your craft, the compass will go nuts. Keep a few meters distance from manholes and the like.
  • People coming up and starting a discussion about what you’re doing there. I’ve had a few of these, but people were always very friendly and most said things like “Oh cool! I want one of those!” (But even if they’re not friendly and polite, you should be). The important part is: Don’t get distracted! Tell them you have to concentrate and that you’ll gladly talk to them after you’ve landed. They can’t object to that and it will show you’re a responsible pilot.
  • If your drone vendor offers some kind of premium servicing options, consider it. DJI offers DJI Care, don’t know about other brands. I don’t have the extra plan and the two timesĀ  I had to send in a drone for repairs, it took 2-3 month to get it back. If you don’t want to wait that long, get the extra.
  • Not actually a piloting issue, but none the less important: LiPos can catch fire. For storing (and while charging) it’s recommended to use a LiPo “safe bag” – these cost a few dollars and are well worth the money. If you want to be even safer, store the batteries in an ammo box.

    How About Privacy?

    If you’re sticking to landscapes and rural areas there should be no problem, but as soon as private property comes into play, you should be careful. Even if your country has something like a “freedom of panorama” which allows you to shoot anything you like, this generally doesn’t apply to pictures shot from non-permanent aides: this includes ladders and sure as hell includes drones.

    When in doubt, get a property release or stay away.

    Is It Worth It?

    Yes an no. Taking into account that most of the commercially interesting stuff (industry, cities, etc) is off-limits (either due to legislation or because the risk may just be too high) you’re basically stuck with landscapes – and maybe city shots you can take while flying above the sea or a lake or river. These can have value and do sell a little bit, but you won’t get rich. Also, as with everything in stock, if it’s easy to do it has probably been done already.

    Of course you can also use drones to shoot footage of people – people who know what’s happening, obviously. But before doing that, I strongly recommend you to have quite a bit of practice and routine. Due to the wide angle lenses mounted on most drones, you’ll probably want to get in close, which leaves little room for error. You don’t want to accidentally fly the drone in the wrong direction and leave your model with some ugly bleeding slashes on their face. Those plastic propellers are sharp and spin fast (for some drones you can get propeller guards and you should consider buying some).

All in all: Yes, you can use drones for stock and at the current prices it probably makes sense to spend $1500 on a drone rather than on yet another lens. A drone lets you capture lots of stuff you wouldn’t get otherwise, but there rather complex laws and rules to follow and the whole thing requires quite some responsibility from your side.

If you decide to get one, have fun and fly safely!

Quitting iStock Exclusivity – Part 1

(Part 2 can be found here)

I’ve been an iStock contributor since 2003 and went exclusive on day 1 of the exclusivity program, though I don’t remember when that was (2005 or thereabouts, presumably). After quitting exclusivity in December 2016, some fellow contributors seemed to be interested in how things would go as an independent so I’ll try and keep you updated.

Should You Go Independent At All?

Short answer: I don’t know and nobody will be able to tell you beforehand (bummer). Depending on your motivation, your portfolio, your luck and probably 1000 other things, going independent can make things better or worse for you.

However, looking at financials only, I came upon one number while googleing on this topic: The industry average seems to be an RPI (=revenue per image) of $0.50 per month. This means that if the “industry average” is of any relevance for your own individual case, every month you should be making roughly $500 for each 1000 images in your portfolio. Assuming this actually is the industry average (and not just some number somebody invented, which I have no way of verifying), income will still vary a lot for each photographer depending on content type, uploading strategy and more.

Still, it’s a number and we all love numbers! My monthly RPI was close to $4 at its best but generally oscillated between $2 and $3 between 2008 and 2012. However, since 2012 it’s been in constant decline and ended up being quite a good bit below the $0.50 mark in the second half of 2016. Also, I was on the 40% royalty level under the RC-based system and have been uploading close to 2000 images every year between 2012 and 2016 so it’s not that I had been particularly lazy.

Whether the decline was caused by my content, by the stock photo market in general or iStock/getty’s performance within this market is something nobody can answer so let’s just leave it at this: By the second half of 2016, my monthly income had dropped by over 60% when compared to my best month ever (May 2012) although my portfolio almost tripled.

Be Prepared

Let’s face it: If you decide to drop the crown, you will (initially) see a considerable drop in income. Now, the December/January period is generally very slow (and the iStock site doesn’t currenlty show any numbers because they’re migrating to that ESP system) but from what I can guess I’d say that my iStock income is down by ~66%. This means that if you heavily rely on your stock photography income for your daily expenses, you better have some savings to bridge the time until you build up your portfolio on other sites. Which brings us to:

Building your portfolio on other sites. This will be a lot of work, but maybe less than you expect. How much less depends on several questions:

  • How well are your images (and releases) organized?
  • Do you have keywords in your images’ EXIF?
  • Did you use DeepMeta for uploading?
  • Can you code? (‘coding’ as in ‘computer programming’)

(For me the answers would be: quite well – no – yes – yes)

One central tool to know about is StockSubmitter (I’m not affiliated with them in any way, in case you should wonder). It does what the name says: It will upload AND submit stock photos (and possibly videos and vectors, but I don’t know anything about that), which means it handles the uploading AND the keywording AND selecting categories AND attaching (and uploading) model and property releases. I’m using it to upload/submit my photos to seven agencies (see ‘Where To Upload’) and it works great – I’ve submitted roughly 1000 images to each of these 7 agencies in one week (again, I can’t say anything about the video, audio or illustration part). Once you have your data in the app, it’s really just a single click and your content goes to all agencies.

Getting Your Metadata Into StockSubmitter

The simplest (but most time consuming way) is to just import your files and re-keyword them in SS. If your portfolio is small, this may actually be an option as the app can do batch editing and has a nice copy-paste system. Don’t know if it can read keywords / title / description from EXIF, though.

If you don’t want to go down this route (and with over 11.000 files I didn’t), you can migrate your metadata from DeepMeta. Provided you used it for uploading, DM has a CSV export (see below) which contains everything (title, keywords, releases, categories, local file path) and SS has a CSV import (the Windows version of it at least, the OSX one has much fewer features, but of course you can just use Parallels to run the Windows version on a Mac). However, formats are obviously different so you’ll need to code some scripts which transform the data from one format into another. I do have the Java code I used myself (as an Eclipse project) and if we’ve met (which means I won’t give it to just anyone), I can just send it to you but you should be aware it’s far from being a finished application and you’ll have to do a bit of fidgeting and coding yourself.

DeepMeta’s CSV export (in case you didn’t know about it) works like this (only tested on Windows, don’t know if it works on Macs as well): Open DM, select all rows in the files list, press Ctrl+C, open a text document in your favorite text editor, press Ctrl+V. This should be it.

Where To Upload

I chose to upload my stuff to any agency which is fully supported by StockSubmitter and which doesn’t demand image exclusivity. For me, these are: 123RF, DreamsTime, Pond5, BigStock, Shutterstock, Fotolia and DepositPhotos.

Other interesting options are probably Stocksy and Westend61 – But to my knowledge these require image (or better: series) exclusivity and also look for a certain image style. As nowadays you can’t deactivate images from iStock anymore and as I have (almost) no content which I haven’t uploaded yet, these are options to explore in the future.

One word on model / property releases: Most of my portfolio is people imagery and until 1-2 years ago I had been using the German version of the iStock MR and PR. Recently, I have switched to the English version of the iStock documents. You should know that of the seven above agencies ALL – except for Dreamstime – accept the German (and a few French) releases without any problems. Dreamstime is a tiny bit more complicated, but doable: Contact them, explain your situation and they’ll send you some forms which you have to sign. Then you’ll have to upload those forms and an English version of the release along with the rest of the – say German – documents. You’ll only need to fill that form once for every release type (e.g. one for the German MR, one for the German PR), not for every individual release. Also, StockSubmitter allows you to specify releases which are to be uploaded only to specific agencies, so that part is taken care of as well.

Uploading Strategy

I can’t tell you what a ‘good’ strategy is, but here’s how I decided to do it for myself: Upload 30-40% of my portfolio (approx 4000 files) in the first month, another 30% over the following half year and the rest over yet another year. The idea is to ensure that I get a lot of files online (and thus an acceptable income, hopefully) in a relatively short time, but still have enough content to keep uploading over a rather long period. At least some agencies seem to factor in your uploading activity into your placement in searches so uploading constantly is rather important.

Also, I upload my content pretty much at random (except for seasonal imagery), so there’s always a mix of high-production-large-groups-of-people-stuff and some crappy apples-on-white.

So far, acceptance rates are well over 90% – so if iStock accepted the image (under the old policy, when there was still quality control), chances are very high that other agencies will accept it, too. Worth noting that some agencies have some weird restrictions, like a minimum number of words in the title or description. I didn’t normally fix that (esp. because it seems to only affect the low selling sites), so the number of actual submissions is quite different for the individual sites (see below).

First results

I’ve been into this for just a bit over a week now so it’s way too early to draw conclusions, but because we all love numbers, here you go:

Submissions (because some agencies take longer to inspect, acceptance numbers vary wildly, with only 4 on Pond5 and over 1000 on DepositPhotos and others)

  • Shutterstock – 1380
  • Fotolia – 1360
  • Pond5 – 1330
  • 123RF – 1250
  • DreamsTime – 980
  • DepositPhotos – 1220
  • BigStock – 880
  • TOTAL – 8400

Downloads

  • Shutterstock – 290DLs / 114$
  • Fotolia – 5DLs / $2.80
  • Pond5 – 0
  • 123RF – 2DLs / $0.50
  • DreamsTime – 2DLs / $0.70
  • DepositPhotos – 0
  • BigStock – 6DLs / $1.75
  • TOTAL – 305DLs / $119.75

 

This isn’t great, but taking into account the short time span (and that I’ve uploaded ~10% of my portfolio), I find it rather encouraging – due to Shutterstock. Hoping that sales will begin to pick up on other sites as well.

You should also note that royalties per download are roughly $0.30. This is not a lot so if you feel that your images are worth more and you don’t want to give them away for pennies, maybe these stock agencies (or independence in general) is not for you.

FAQ

  1. What about the 30 days notice? Will I still have all my exclusive benefits during this time?
    From my experience: yes. I noticed no change whatsoever.
  2. Will iStock/getty offer me any “special deal” to make me change my mind about quitting?
    No (at least not in my case).
  3. Will my Signature / Signature+ files be moved to Essentials when going independent?
    Apparently not. It may be too early to answer this, but it seems that files do remain in the S / S+ categories.
    The same happened when I quit video exclusivity a few years ago: Videos uploaded while I was exclusive have remained in Signature until this day, but content uploaded after quitting ended up in Essentials. I guess this is what happens to photos as well.
  4. Will my images mirrored to getty be removed once I become independet?
    Yes, and rather quickly. It’s been a week of independence for me now, and my getty portfolio is now at 170 files (from >4000). I’m assuming it will be completely gone soon.
    No. While my 4000 files were (almost) gone at a moment (down to about 100), they magically reappeared a few weeks later and are now complete again. Whether the “disappearing” or the “reappearing” was a glitch in the getty system or whether it was all just a normal part of making my account non-exclusive is up for guessin.

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