06 May 2009 Generating Ideas – The Foundation of Good Stock Photography

This is a guest post by well-known traditional stock photographer John Lund. Who better to learn from about generating stock photo ideas than the master of conceptual stock photos?

In Underwear stock photo - John LundWe all know that old phrase ‘Practice makes perfect’.   In the case of ideas for stock photography it certainly holds true.   By having a disciplined and ongoing practice of coming up with stock ideas I have made the process much less daunting and far more productive.   That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when I feel like I will never come up with another good idea¦that happens to me regularly.   I am, however, able to keep in mind that such feelings come and go, and yes, I will have another good idea.

Since ideas are the lifeblood and building blocks of stock photography it makes sense to incorporate the process as a regular part of your business.   For me, that means a combination of regularly scheduled idea generation supplemented with some exercises to jump-start me at those times when I need a little extra help.   All of it, whether it is a regularly scheduled idea session, or an impromptu exercise, begins with intention.

The First Thing to Do is to Set Goals

Elephant in the Room stock photo - John LundI have a goal of averaging five concept stock photo ideas a week.   Pick a goal that is realistic but challenging.   My goal is based on the desire to create an average of five concept stock pictures a week.   To average that many I have to have a huge list of ideas.   I need available ideas that suit any particular circumstances that I am dealing with at a particular time.   Those might be circumstances dealing with budgets, emotions or time constraints.   The point is, I can’t rely on coming up with ideas on a moment’s notice.   I need a regular practice to build up a library of ideas that I can draw upon when I need them.   Ideas on a moment’s notice do happen, but I can’t rely on them.

Set your intention and set a goal.   The next step is the actual idea generation.   I can’t tell you what will work for you, but I can share what works for me.   Again, intention is key to it all.   If I set the intention then almost any source material can become inspiration.   For years I would set the intention of coming up with at least one idea during my commute.   That doesn’t work anymore because my commute is down to six minutes¦darn!   Back then the radio was a great source of inspiration.   Quite often someone on the radio would mention a phrase that would set off an idea.   That still works for me, generally when I am on a longer car trip than my commute.

Just a few minutes ago I went to Yahoo news with the intent to come up with a stock idea.   The headline was about this new threatening swine flu epidemic.   Is there something I could do with that?   Is there an image that could be used by publications (including online) to illustrate such articles with¦and that could be also used in some advertisements?   How about an office full of people wearing protective masks?   I think that would work!   It would be hard to do, and expensive, because of the models and location, but probably still worth doing.   OK, it goes on my idea list for some time when I will have a bunch of models together in an office.   Next, how about a photo of a pig wearing such a mask¦now there is an idea!   I could shoot the pig at a petting zoo for free; shoot the mask on a friend, and put the image together in Photoshop. Done well, it would be such an unexpected visual that I know art directors would find a way to use it for a variety of things.

See how this works?   The more you practice the better you get at it.   You can set the intent to come up with stock ideas before you read a newspaper, listen to the radio, watch TV, or drive down the street.   Intent is the most powerful tool in the generation of stock photo ideas.

Here are five tips you can use when you need a jump-start:

Try the Opposite

Richard Steadman, founder of the Stock Market stock agency (since acquired by Corbis), once told me of a great stock image:   A hammer shattering as it struck a light bulb.   The unexpected makes a great stock image.   So try inverting your idea.

Stampede stock photo - John LundFind an Image that Really Excites You

Then figure out how you can do it differently, putting your on signature on it.   It was a shot of running buffalo that inspired my image of stampeding longhorn cattle (right).   Don’t copy someone else’s idea; rather let that idea inspire you.

Use Your Own Feelings to Come Up with Ideas

If you are feeling overwhelmed, close your eyes, really dive into that feeling of being overwhelmed, and see what mental images arise from that.   If you can create an image that truly expresses your feelings they will be great stock images.

Keep a Paper and Pen Handy

Ideas are delicate.   When you come up with an idea, write it down, don’t wait! I always keep a pen and paper with me for that purpose.

Plunge stock photo - John LundKeep an On-going List of Your Ideas

For me ideas fluctuate in their interest.   Sometimes I come up with an idea that seems like the greatest idea ever.   Then a week later that same idea might seem totally lame, then yet another day that idea might seem great again.   I keep my list forever.   Even when an idea seems weak, or I have already completed it, I keep that idea written down.   You never know when that idea will spark a new one.   A permanent master idea list is a must.

Having a disciplined approach to idea generation, creating goals and the intent to come up with ideas, and keeping a written list of your ideas, will make the rest of your stock photography business easier and far more productive.   Especially if you have limited resources (time or money), you are much better off putting those resources into only the best ideas.

You can see more of John’s realized stock photo ideas at Getty Images or on his personal website. He also has a selection of invaluable interviews with other top traditional stock photographers on his blog, and you can follow John on Twitter.

  • Matt Antonino
    Posted at 12:46h, 07 May Reply

    Fantastic article! 🙂

  • Luis Santos
    Posted at 16:29h, 07 May Reply

    pretty cool..! i am very new to this business but i think i know what should i do, like following and learning from others, and create new ideas and concepts, but it is pretty hard to imagine, but yeah it is possible, we MUST be/stay always focus with wide open eyes and ears to absorve everything new that probably will sell a lot, like the new disease talked in the article..!

    if anyone wants please visit my really new blog, hope someday will be something..!

    thanks for sharing again Lee!

  • Henrik
    Posted at 17:03h, 07 May Reply

    Excellent article! Defiantly something I have to read sometimes again, just to remind me.

  • travis manley
    Posted at 12:37h, 08 May Reply

    lots of great tips here. thanks!

  • Nikita Buida
    Posted at 15:23h, 08 May Reply

    Great tips, thanks! 🙂

    It is fun to see how masters think about the same things –
    not very originally. 😉

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 23:15h, 08 May Reply

      Thanks for that link Nikita. Great minds think alike, even if it is an obvious example in this case.


      • Nikita Buida
        Posted at 05:47h, 09 May Reply

        Agreed. I wish I had such quick reaction to the buzz of the day like those masters have!

  • Jan
    Posted at 09:25h, 09 May Reply

    Thanks for the interesting and inspirational article! Right away I made use of it and had some good ideas. Btw what you are doing with your Elephants is amazing. Something to aspire to with my penguins 🙂

    I also took a look at your portfolio at Getty. WOW!

    Posted at 01:56h, 13 May Reply

    you’ve inspired me to create my own website….it’s a different approach…
    i’m showing all my uploads and earnings starting from zero cuz i’m totally new in this
    hope it will work!!

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 06:13h, 13 May Reply

      Good luck Augusto. Blogging to learn can be very effective.


  • Tyler Olson
    Posted at 05:14h, 14 May Reply

    Ohh, nice new look 🙂 Very fancy looking!

  • Mandy
    Posted at 09:57h, 14 May Reply

    I think pen and paper are invaluable and I always try to have some close at hand. If I don’t write it down then and there I’ll forget it, that’s what happens when you have 2 kids.

    I’ve even been known to get out of bed and write an idea down, when it comes to me in the middle of the night!

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