As an appendix to the Selling Nature Photography guide, I talked with Greg Basco of Deep Green Photography – a nature photographer specializing in Costa Rica rain forest stock photography. He’s been shooting since he first arrived in Costa Rica in 1992, and now offers you 7 tips for shooting and selling nature stock photography.
In the early 1990s, a young Greg Basco worked with the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, fostering a life-long commitment to sustainable development and driving him to complete his doctoral research on the politics of ecotourism. During these initial years in Costa Rica, Greg would find time to sneak away for a day or two to photograph with his Canon Elan 7 camera in the country’s picturesque rain forests.
Sooner than you could believe, he sold his first photos to Lonely Planet, encouraging him to buy more pro gear (Canon D30, the first Canon DSLR!) and take more photos. He sold a few more pictures, bought more gear, sold a few more pictures, and then finally realized that he was hooked: Greg had a serious addiction to nature photography.
But when Greg was looking to break out into the world of nature photography as a full-time professional, the stock photo market had already been getting considerably smaller year-to-year and it was harder to sell photography. “I knew that the stock market, perhaps especially for nature photography, was shrinking,” says Greg, “probably due to the emergence of digital. A lot more people were shooting, and suddenly there emerged a lot more places for photo buyers to get cheap imagery.”
“At the same time,” he says, “I noticed that a few professional nature photographers were beginning to do other things to supplement their incomes.” That’s when Greg co-founded (with Costa Rican ecologist Paulo Valerio) Foto Verde Tours, the first and still the only tour company in Costa Rica that specializes in nature photography travel.
“Tours are a great way to turn a potential negative into a positive. On the one hand, all of these people with digital cameras meant that the stock photo market was flooded from the supply side. At the same time, more people with digital cameras means more people interested in learning how to use their cameras and improve their photography. I enjoy the teaching component so getting into photo workshop tours was a natural for me,” says Greg.
Now Greg and a cadre of professional nature photographer friends lead workshops and private tours, each with their own themes (e.g., “Intro to Rain Forest Photography”, “Hummingbird Photography”) and specially designed itineraries.
Foto Verde Tours has been up and operating for over six years now and continues to attract a healthy number of new clients for any given tour. Greg will tell you that their growth has mainly been a result of word of mouth, but one look at his web presence and it’s obvious that a lot of thought goes into the marketing strategy for both the tours and his stock photography.
For his individual photo business, Greg has a comprehensive, customized website – Deep Green Photography – that’s divided mainly among his print, stock, and tour offerings. The print and stock areas are powered by PhotoShelter’s image hosting services, and the tour section actually links to a standalone site for his company Foto Verde Tours.
The key to Greg’s online success is primarily the fact that he continuously creates fresh but substantial content on his blog and links to all other parts of his site. Gear reviews are a huge draw for any photographers’ website, and Greg employs those judiciously, featuring products that he really thinks are potentially useful in his own photography.
Another one of Greg’s most popular blog series is “Behind The Lens” – essentially a “How I Got That Shot” type of post. So he’ll write an extremely detailed post about how he shot this photo of the strawberry poison frog, and then link to the image in his PhotoShelter gallery where buyers can license the image or buy a print. That fresh and informative content drives visitors to his blog, ranks his site higher in Google search results, makes it more likely that buyers will find his site, and ultimately enables him to sell more images to clients and attract more tour participants.
How does Greg know this process is working for him? Google “Costa Rica rain forest stock” and see for yourself how easy it is to find his website. Just this past Februrary, he made a big sale to Nature Conservancy Magazine after their editor did a similar keyword search and found Deep Green Photography. Then the editor searched through Greg’s photo archive, and selected one of his panoramic images for a double-page opening spread in their feature on protected areas in Costa Rica.
It also helps that Greg is an award-winning nature photographer, with such honors under his belt as prizes in the BBC/Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice contest, the most prestigious nature photography competitions in the world. He’s also had some extraordinary opportunities, like being published in National Geographic and working with Canon on several marketing campaigns to show how real photographers use Canon gear in the field. The promotion from this type of exposure has been invaluable.
But don’t go thinking that Greg just sits back and lets these opportunities fall into his lap. In addition to his stock and print business and photo tours, he is also a forum moderator on NatureScapes and an affiliate for B&H Photo, ThinkTank Photo gear, and Induro tripods and heads. See what he means by supplementing your income with other business endeavors?
These days, Greg estimates that he makes about half his revenue from stock and prints, and half from Foto Verde Tours. His greatest advantage over other rain forest stock photographers, says Greg, is the unique nature of his images plus the fact that his photo archive is hosted on PhotoShelter.
“Buyers can browse my photos and find what they’re looking for right then and there,” he says. “It’s also great to have set prices for when I’m out on tour and don’t have internet access – photo buyers can license or buy the image right off my site without having to get in touch with me beforehand.”
So just what type of rain forest stock sells best? Answers Greg: “The thing about nature photography is that there’s not a set group of typical photo buyers. Take this – earlier this year I made a direct PhotoShelter high-res download sale of one of my hummingbird images to a company that was doing a trade show exhibit on wind turbines. Now I’m not thinking about what type of hummingbird photograph the wind turbine industry would like when I’m out shooting hummingbirds, but they loved the imagery! Rain forest photography is all about capturing the spirit of a place – images that are emblematic and a little bit different from the norm.”
Greg is also a huge advocate for nailing photos in the RAW format, and not employing any serious post-production techniques. Most of the time, he spends 90% of his efforts composing and measuring his photos before even shooting, and only about 10% doing some standard tweaks in Lightroom. “I do this because I think it’s the way nature photography should be done, and I like to challenge myself in the field. This type of photography also coincides with what the major international photo contests and many of my magazine clients (like National Geographic Kids, Geo, and Ranger Rick) want. It’s not at all uncommon for magazine editors to ask for the RAW file because they need to assure their readers that a photo in their magazine is not a product of Photoshop trickery.”
“I also think it shows photo buyers that your work is going to hold up to what they need. I would never want to be in a situation where I have to tell a potential photo buyer that the photo they’re interested in won’t work for a double-page magazine spread or a trade show banner because it’s been heavily cropped and manipulated. I want buyers to know that what they see is what they’ll get with my images.”
The quality of Greg’s images shines through in his sales: he doesn’t generate the majority of his stock revenue through volume of sales, but rather from a few top-grossing sales, like that to Nature Conservancy Magazine.
That being said, Greg has tried something a little different this past fall in an effort to boost fine art print sales: sell high-quality but affordable posters in a variety of sizes (20×30 inches for $29.95) and super special images printed on aluminum (known for its superior detail and luminescence).
“I used to just offer standard prints for every photo in my archive. Recently, I decided to offer only select images and in two collections – one is the very affordable poster prints and the other is expensive aluminum prints of my favorite images. It seems to be working. Literally in the past two months since I started offering these printing options, I’ve sold 10 times more prints than I have in the past year.”
“I think diversifying your revenue stream is the answer for stock photographers moving forward in this business,” he says about all photographers’ future in the photo industry. “Shooting stock is not going to make a living for most nature photographers. I think everyone needs to find a niche and try to get that work in front of photo buyers. At the same time, you have to try exploring revenue opportunities such as tours, workshops, and product reviews. Put your best effort out there and you’ll find that there are opportunities everywhere.”
“When I go out and shoot, I don’t shoot for stock. That is, I’m not thinking that I need a picture of this beach, a picture of this bird, etc. I aim to take photos that have a little something extra and that I like as artistic photographic portrayals of Costa Rica’s biodiversity. In doing this, I believe that I’ve been able to forge a personal style that is identifiable in my images and attractive to photo buyers. That means that I can confidently present my work as being top-notch and worthy of good compensation from photo buyers.”
And this approach is paying off. Greg’s work recently caught the attention of a book publisher looking to do the first image-driven coffee table book on Costa Rica’s national parks and biological reserves. “It’s a dream job for a nature photographer,” says Greg, “because they want a couple of outstanding, artistic images from each area and are giving me free rein to produce the images that I think will capture the spirit of each location. I focus on taking great pictures, and they worry about publishing, distribution, and sales – what more could a photographer ask for?!”
Given the frequently pessimistic view of the stock industry, Greg’s point of view is a welcome oasis of genuine positivity, paired with a sensible approach to the art and style of a successful photo business.
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