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Boutique Stock Agencies

Specialty stock sites provide an alternative to mainstream agencies 

By Toni McQuilken

When a stock photograph is needed, your first inclination is to go with one of the big boys, like Corbis or Getty. Perhaps you should take a step back and explore the alternatives. There are hundreds of small boutique sites that offer photographs relating to specific themes such as flowers, lightning or Alaska. Some get as specific with their subjects as to offer images relating to coffee or Elvis. Type in ‘stock photography’ on, and the first few entries that come up are the familiar names. But scroll down, skip forward a few pages, and it becomes clear that there is a stock photo site for every imaginable theme or occasion. It then becomes a treasure hunt, scrolling through sites and being continually amazed by what you find.

Aces High
Doyle Buehler went online with his site,, in August of 1996. "I dabbled in photography as an amateur until I was 23 or so. I have always loved aviation and had a keen sense of photography - thus I combined the two for a unique combination," he began.

Initially Buehler tried selling his photos to the larger agencies, without much luck. Today, he still retains complete control over the company - as its only employee. Buehler personally completes all transactions and takes assignment photography, although he does feature several other photographers on his site.

"I loved air shows and really began my career there, taking photos of airplanes from the ground," said Buehler. "As I gained experience, I approached some of the air show performers and offered to take some pictures of their aircraft. It took a while to get established, but it has paid off."

On average, Aces High gets around 50-100 unique visitors per month and 3-5 stock requests per week. He sells around 10 photos per month, with some customers ordering just a few while others may order as many as 20 at a time. Images are continuously added to the collection - 50-100 per month come from assignments he has done for clients and a few dozen a month are done on spec for the files.

The images at Aces High are rights protected, with a typical contract for one-time, non-exclusive use. While he has developed a price scale based on usage, sizes, etc. over the years, Buehler will adjust the prices for multiple images or if other rights are needed.

Military Stock Photography
Hans Halberstadt’s family history is steeped in photography - although it’s a field he swore he would never make a career in. However, a degree in film taught him story telling, which eventually led to writing books illustrated with his own photos.

"I have a degree in film production, and my first job was supposed to be a combination of film and some photography and it turned out to be more photography than film. I come from a family of photographers of some repute and I always said I would never, ever get into photography," he recalls. "So I started making photographs when I was a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. My father, who was a studio photographer, had loaned me a camera to record what I saw. I didn’t really know how to use a camera until I learned by trial and error."

Halberstadt started selling his photos four years ago after an agent stopped paying. His site, www.military, went online three years ago. Today it is the only agency in the country that specializes in the armed forces. The Department of Defense used to have a website, but that no longer exists. Virtually nothing that the Dept. hands out today that includes a model can be used for advertising purposes. Halberstadt makes sure to get a model release from everyone in the area of a shoot, just to be sure.

There are approximately 100,000 photos in the Military Stock Photography archive, with about 15,000 online. Of those, only around 1,500 of the images are popular, selling multiple copies. The average price for an image is $500, with extra fees if the image includes a model or if there was "personal effort," which includes photographs taken under hazardous or dangerous conditions. All images are rights protected.

"I don’t make motion pictures anymore, but I use motion picture techniques to write books," said Halberstadt. "Most of these are essentially documentary films on paper. I condense it all into a package that ends up on paper. Some time very early in this process a marvelous photographer named George Hall, a brilliant guy who did aviation books for the same publisher, told me that he would write the books for free just for the stock photo rights. Frankly the sale of a single photograph from a project will represent more income than all the advances and all the royalties that a book will produce."

All of Halberstadt’s images are taken on film and scanned at 4000 or 2700 dpi using a Nikon LS4000. Uncompressed the files range in size from 30-55MB; if the images are delivered via e-mail, it is generally compressed to a 2MB JPEG first. Military Stock Photography also offers uploading/downloading images via ftp or they will burn them onto a CD for an additional fee.

Right now the site has features that allow potential clients to search for images online and receive them digitally. But Halberstadt still personally looks at every request and negotiates every contract. He has plans to fully-automate the site in the future. He is also experimenting with fees based on usage.

"The industry I think is tending toward niche agencies. There is no way that one photographer can have a good, what used to be called the general library, you know kids, flowers, sunsets and other stuff. Basically I provide images in one area, in depth," said Halberstadt

Halberstadt does have some trouble with pirated images. The offenders are most often t-shirt vendors, who scan an image out of a book and put it on a shirt. Other offenders have taken his images and used them on their websites or in printed materials. To combat this, he embeds all his images with a copyright statement that pops up in a separate window when the images are opened. When he finds an infringement, he first sends a polite note or phone call just to make sure it really is an infringement and not an image he doesn’t remember selling. Beware, infractions will cost offenders 10 times the normal fee.

Striking Images
When Nick Wantland’s father, William, was taking pictures 25 years ago, he wasn’t expecting what he got back. In the background of one of his pictures he had managed to capture a bolt of lightning. Thus began what started as a hobby, and eventually became a business that the entire family became involved in.

For about seven years, William Wantland chased storms and took lightning pictures as a hobby. As interest in the images grew, he decided to start a business. Nine years ago, Nick took over the business full-time with his wife, Grace. William now just helps out and gives special assistance when needed.

"My Dad accidentally captured a lightning shot - he was using a little Olympus clamshell-type camera - and literally ran a whole roll of film through it and by happenstance got one really great lightning shot. It’s still one of our best sellers actually. It was just one of those things where just absolutely by chance and by luck it all came together - it was the middle of the day, it was just an impossible shot to get and he just lucked out. It was so appealing to him he started getting into it as a hobby," explained Nick Wantland.

The website,, gets hundreds of new visitors daily, most of which are weather enthusiasts or individuals looking to buy prints of the photographs. They bring in several new commercial clients per week, with prices ranging from $50 up to $2,000 depending on usage. Most images, according to Wantland, are used in print campaigns such as posters and point-of-sale pieces. There are currently between 75,000 - 80,000 photographs in the collection and more are being added constantly…especially during the storm season.

Striking Images is partially set up for e-commerce. Everything except credit card validation and passwords is automatic. If an image that a client is looking for is not online, or if they have done contract work, the Wantlands prefer to throw the images up on to a private page on the site and direct the clients there rather than send transparencies.

"It didn’t turn into a business for quite a while. After 6-7-8 years we started having a large enough collection of images that people really enjoyed and we started hearing ‘Hey, how can I get one of those.’ Small businesses around the area started needing them - by word of mouth they found out that we had a collection of lightning images, and wanted them for advertising purposes - and we had to develop a way to try and recoup some of the massive expenses that were going out as the hobby developed," said Wantland. Talk about catching lightning in a bottle.

Fragile Ocean Photography
Steve and Carolyn Clawson have been diving for 34 years. They started their underwater photography business 20 years ago, with their website,, going online about 7 years ago. It is a sideline to their auto repair and boat sales business.

"It’s a lot different than land photography, where you have a lot of available lights on land. Underwater you have to do what we call ‘painting with light’ with our strobes. It’s a lot harder with exposure - where a land photographer is perfectly happy with 15 saleable frames out of a roll of 36, we’re really ecstatic with three," said Steve Clawson.

The Clawsons prefer direct sales to e-commerce and while they will e-mail clients a link to view images, they prefer to set up the contract by talking to a live person. There are approximately 1,500 unique visitors to the site each month, with 2 percent of them actually purchasing an image. According to Steve Clawson, their main client base comes from returning customers. The company does about $35,000 in sales per month.

In addition to the photographs taken by the Clawsons, there are images from 11 other photographers on the site. Seven of them work for Fragile Ocean on a steady basis, sending in shots from places like Australia, Spain and Japan, where they are based. There are currently 1,500 images in the online gallery and 800,000 images in the Fragile Ocean archives. The entire portfolio is also available as a catalog on CD-ROM.

In explaining his craft, Clawson added, "If you’ve got a really pretty fish, it’s nice to have that fish around a nice piece of soft coral or something that’s sort of contrasty or different in color from the subject that you’re trying to take. It’s kind of a waiting game. I’ve spent a whole hour’s dive shooting 36 frames of one particular subject and maybe only get two that are what I consider saleable images out of the roll. It’s not just swimming around snapping pictures, that doesn’t work."

The Clawsons’ most recent trip was to the British West Indies, to dive a wreck with lots of coral and pretty fish. They prefer to dive at night because there are more things awake and moving around. Altogether, they took 250 rolls of film with them of which, they explain, maybe only 2-3 shots will turn out perfect.

True North Images
Michael DeYoung has lived in Alaska for 14 years. He served in the Air Force as a meteorologist for 12 years, and when he left he decided to peruse photography. His site,, has been up for a year. When he first picked up a camera in 1982, he did not know it would lead him to where he is today – Alaska, a state 2.5 times bigger than Texas and most of which is accessible only via boat or plane.

DeYoung’s main focus is in tourism, adventure travel and landscapes. He believes that the dangers of the Alaskan frontier are exaggerated, citing that it is "more perception than reality" and that it is less dangerous than your typical big city.

"I was not afraid to let it take me where it wanted to lead. There are a lot of cultural and family pressures of leaving a good job and doing something artistic and going into the world of the unknown - being self-employed. But I didn’t let that stop me - I just let it take me where it would lead and this is where it led," recalls DeYoung.

DeYoung takes approximately 1,200 rolls of film per year. And while he does not track the number of visitors to his site, he estimates that 5-6 percent of the visitors actually purchase an image. He sells 5-10 images per month, with most of his income coming from other sources. He would like to expand this part of his business and "sell the Alaskan Dream" by generating more assignment work and commercial clientele. He tries to add new images every 6 months, with new ones going up this fall.

All photos sold at True North Images are rights protected. DeYoung will do collections of photos if asked, once doing a collection of 100 fly-fishing images for a particular client. His average price is $500 for print use, including one year of unlimited rights for collateral uses.

"Alaska is unique in that we are geographically isolated - so it is sort of a region, sort of a country, all by itself. Someone who lives in one of the western states - Nevada, Utah - they might focus on all the western states. Alaska is huge - it’s a lot of country to cover," DeYoung concluded.

These are just a sample of some of the interesting and extremely focused stock photography sites available. No matter what the subject matter, you are almost guaranteed to find at least one archive dedicated to it.

Even a subject as specific as coffee has a stock site,, where you’ll find hundreds of images of things related to coffee. Or, where pictures of the King include shots from his fans to his movies and everything in between.

So the next time that important project needs just the right image and the Big Boys just don’t have what you are looking for, try looking up one of the plethora of boutique stock agencies currently dotting the cyber landscape. You may be surprised by how intriguing the treasure hunt can become.

Oct2002, Digital Output

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