Tom Grill Interview on Stock Photography

A master producer and consumer of stock photography and an ardent Leica enthusiast, his analytical brilliance transformed stock photography by defining images that sell.

Tom Grill is a consummate stock photographer himself as well as the CEO of two leading stock agencies, Stock Photos America, and Tetra Images, a stock distribution agency that supplies RF images to such world-renowned agencies as Getty, Mauritius, and Master Files. He is also one of the founding members of Blend Images, a stock agency specializing in images that showcase ethnic diversity. Grill was the founder of and principal photographer for the seminal Comstock Images stock agency for over 20 years. A dyed-in-the-wool Leica fan with an impressive collection of over 100 vintage Leicas, he lectures frequently on how to produce stock images having the highest selling power. To give you some insight on his impressive imaging and marketing savvy, as well as his heartfelt appreciation of Leica cameras and their unique capabilities, we interviewed him and herewith present his thoughtful and inspired answers to a wide range of provocative questions.

Q: How did you get involved with stock photography, and how did your pivotal role in working with stock agencies evolve?

A: I started the pioneering Comstock Agency more than 25 years ago. My present company Tetra Images is a different kind of entity entirely. It wasn’t set up as a traditional stock agency, but as a distribution network to Getty, Mauritius Images in Germany, Master Files in Canada, etc.

Q: How would you describe your own photography, and what are some of the defining characteristics of a successful stock image?

A: I’ve been shooting stock images as a pro for 35 years or so based on one guiding principle: The goal of a good stock photograph is to generate a lot of sales! This means that you want to capture images that have a universal quality­­—you want to avoid any specifics that define it too narrowly. A great stock image is one into which the viewer can project their own lifestyle—you want the viewer to read themselves into it. As a stock photographer you have no precise idea of who will be buying your photos.

I used to be an assignment photographer, but I stopped shooting that way about 20 years ago. Stock photography is a far more lucrative way to go. I did all of the L’Oreal ads for years, but I gave that up.

Q: How would you characterize your transition from working on assignment to shooting stock exclusively? Can you say something about your thought process?

A: I’m the person who really pioneered the idea of conceptual stock photography. Nobody ever thought about doing it before. I’m only talking here about commercial stock photography of course, but this insight still had profound consequences. While pondering about advertising, and what kind of ad images were the most successful I came to realize that concepts were at the heart of every single ad out there—over-arching ideas like ‘home values, family values, savings values.’ In other words you don’t address the particulars of a family—you are taking a picture that conveys the underlying concept of ‘family unity.’ Every time I pick up a camera I think to myself ‘where is this picture going to end up?’ If it’s commercial image is it going to be in insurance, banking, the telephone industry? The subject itself can be completely unrelated to its end use. For example, one of my best-selling images is of melting ice cubes— because it relates to energy.

If the concept isn’t rock solid going in, you’re sunk. If you take a picture of someone looking at a computer, you can’t just assume that it’s a universal theme and will sell. What are they looking at and what’s the sentiment? You need to define that sort of thing—the underlying contextual, emotional, and conceptual aspects of the image.  What you need to do is create is a reaction to something that’s happening—that’s what will direct the image to a marketplace. And that will also direct the keywords used in search engines. Pictures are primary but keywords are second, and that’s important.

Rembrandt was a commercial artist. You have to do what he did and predefine what you’re going to depict. It’s often a very subtle, underlying quality, but in the marketplace it makes a HUGE difference. If photographers can infuse a conceptual quality into their images they’ll do much better. A pretty picture isn’t necessarily going to be a best-selling image.

Q: As the founder of stock agencies and distributor of stock images who works directly works directly with stock agencies, how do you address the issue of image quality?

A: As I mentioned I am part owner of Blend Images and we are supplying stock images to the suppliers. They expect us to send them images that pre-fulfill all QC requirements because they don’t check our images beforehand—they rely on us to deliver images of highest quality with absolute consistency. They must receive 50-megabites tiff files (we now also deliver jpegs) in Adobe RGB, they must be completely free of any artifacts and noise and they have to be tack sharp. The Leica M8 and Canon were the only 10-magapixel cameras that would meet our standards. All the others were 12 megapixels or higher, and of course medium-format cameras are always going to be good.

Q: Where does the Leica X1 fit into this mix, and how does it perform at high ISO settings?

A: The Leica X1 is the first digital compact camera to meet our high standards. I’m very conservative with ISOs, and this is literally the best camera in its class. At the highest ISO settings it reminded me of film grain—it’s like having an old camera again but it’s digital! In short, I was extremely impressed by it. It fulfills all the qualifications for the type of work we do.

Q: That’s quite a statement given your QC specs. Have you actually used the X1 to shoot stock images yourself?

A: Absolutely. It’s a great carry-around camera and I’ve shot plenty of stock images with great satisfaction—they’ve already been submitted to almost every agency.

Q: What about the 24mm f/2.8 lens on the X1?

A: It’s exquisitely sharp, and the resolution is incredible—you can’t get better than that combo in a portable package–that sensor, plus the Leica-quality lens– I can definitely say that! It’s also true APSC-sensor camera, and it proves that cutting off a little more of the image circle so it covers the sweet spot of the lens may be the wave of the future. This is the best. There are plenty of good sensors out there, but this one is as good as it gets! The image-processing software is equally impressive. The sharpness plus the grain effect at 3200 is beautiful.

Q: I noticed on your blog that you did a test report on the Leica M9. What are your impressions?

A: I sure did and boy do I love that baby! I just got back from Dublin and Gettysburg and that’s the only camera I took with me. It’s the best camera out there as far as sharpness is concerned. You can actually see what’s going on inside the buildings when you blow up the images! I shot a picture of Gettyburg in the early morning and you can clearly see the dew on the grass!

Q: Which lenses did you use on the M9?

A: It varied. Either a 35 or 50, and for creating panoramic images I was just using the old Tri-Elmar. I own a 35mm f/2 Summicron and I’m testing out the new 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH. One thing that concerns me about digital in general is image quality when they push sensor size up to full frame. I’m not talking about Leica, but with many other brands, old lenses don’t really deliver corner image quality. This is especially true with wide-angle lenses—they can be soft at the corners and edges. I note that image quality across the entire field has been corrected to an even higher standard in the new 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH and that’s great.

Q: Which Leica-M lenses do you actually own?

A: I have pretty much all of the lenses, and they all take beautiful pictures. However, there’s another quality about the M9 that I discovered on these two trips. I’m used to shooting at sunrise where there’s huge difference in brightness between the highlights and shadows. I was expecting that so I used the auto-bracketing feature to shoot 5 brackets 5 stops apart with the idea of subsequently creating a composite HDR image. But then I decided to get an average of the highs and lows, and it beat the pants off the HDR, delivering the full dynamic range! I was able to open up the shadows and darken the sky. It was simply gorgeous. There aren’t many cameras that can do that.

Q: Are there any other Leica cameras that ring your chimes?

A: I had an M8 that I liked very much, and I still use old film Leicas. My favorite Leica of all time is an M4. I also have quite a Leica collection. In fact it includes every pre-war Leica ever made along with original cases and correct lenses of the proper vintage for each. I started photography in the ‘60s—my first camera was a Nikon F and I added a Leica M2 shortly thereafter. I have always admired fine quality machinery and for the same reason I collect microscopes too.

Q: Do you have any tips on stock photography for potential stock shooters?

A: Well, nowadays there are really two kinds, and the latest is micro stock photography. The criteria and quality control for micro stock is different from traditional stock, which is what I do. It’s not nearly as demanding in regard to image quality or as far as conceptual quality is concerned, but it still requires focus and intelligence.

My advice to anyone pursuing either kind of stock is to learn what kind of pictures to shoot, and to appreciate that they’re not easy to take. Attend lectures–not many books on this subject are very good. Start with low-level micro stock photography to acquire hands-on experience

Micro stock came into being within the past 5 years—it began as trading site for graphic designers and then mushroomed. In the beginning, images starting selling at $1, and of course the images were not of the same quality as regular stock. A good range for royalty free micro stock images is now in the $50-500 range. Even people who are not attuned to the subtleties stock photography can see the difference—achieving really good quality demands a much higher level of skill in directing the shot.

Micro stock is very simple—it’s not necessary to convey a lot of meaning but it does have to capture something with universal appeal. It’s used a lot on the Internet.

Q: What does it take to become a stock photographer that has a working relationship with your agencies? What exactly are you looking for in a stock portfolio?

A: On sites like ours we’re looking for photographers that have a command of both the artistic and practical aspects of stock photography, shooters with distinctive style, a unique perspective, and the ability to produce outstanding work on a regular basis. They’ve got to understand that stock photography is not a career for someone who wants to do a couple of photos at a time. You have to be totally dedicated and have a real commitment—it doesn’t really matter what type of subject you do. One guy we work with just shoots butterflies, but he does it better than anybody else and consistently delivers images of exceptional quality. He’s dedicated to it. He loves his topic. If you can emulate all these personal charcteristics and deliver the goods, you can make it in stock photography, but it requires rare a combination of excellent qualities—just like a Leica.

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Tom Grill, visit his personal website www.tomgrill.com or blog http://tomgrillblog.blogspot.com/. If you’re interesting in learning more about his stock image companies please visit www.tetraimages.com,  one of the largest distribution networks of commercial stock images in the world; www.blendimages.com, specializing in images featuring ethnic diversity lifestyles; www.stockphotosamerica.com, featuring images specifically related to the United States, showing the landscape, the people, and the icons of America.