A Stock Photography Journey in Asia. Featuring Kevin Lee.

Kevin Lee is a Singaporean photographer who shoots in Singapore and the South East Asian region. He started photography as a hobbyist and successfully turned his passion into a professional career seven years ago. Kevin aspires to take his photography to new levels and believes in constantly improving himself to achieve excellence in his craft.

In this post, he shares with us his journey as a professional photographer and being a part-time stock photographer in Asia.

When did you started photography?

Photography has always been my hobby since I was 14 years old but I have turned it into a professional career in the last seven years. My father played an influential role as he was an enthusiast himself. I first started shooting with my dad’s old but gold film camera before moving on to a full-manual film camera. It was extremely expensive to develop photos back then, but it taught me to be very meticulous and critical about the pictures I capture. I am indeed fortunate to have been exposed to photography at a young age because I have learned extensively while growing up. And it’s my career now!

How and when did you start stock photography?

The serious lack of Asian content in stock photographs has encouraged me to start creating stock photos. As a photographer based in Asia, I saw this gap as an opportunity for me to be the supplier for the increasing demand of such content.

What are some of the challenges faced in your stock photography journey?

There is a substantial sum of investment required prior to shooting stock photos in terms of cost and time. Photographers often spend immense amount of effort searching for the right location and models to shoot for stock. This can be very taxing, especially for those starting out.

As essential it is to plan a shoot, it is also equally important to shoot what the users want. To achieve this, stock photographers spend a lot of time researching across libraries and analysing current trends. Sadly, sometimes they still do not get it right.

Also, the rewards from stock photos are usually not immediate. Photographers need to have a large stock library in the long term to remain sustainable in this industry. The microstock companies in the stock photo industry pays a very meagre portion to photographers for their work. Thus, photographers usually make their income through volume and never the price. On average, a full-time stock photographer who earns a stable income through microstock priced photos has 30,000–50,000 photos in his stock photo portfolio.

Why do photographers still persist to produce stock images if the industry is so challenging?

Commercial photographers like myself, shoot stock photos during our spare time and we earn a supplementary revenue. There are full-time stock photographers who shoot every day with a goal of achieving a huge sustainable library, around 100,000 photos at the end of the day. As for amateur or semi-professional photographers, they upload their photos just for fun.

It really depends on what kind of photographers they are and their specific goals.

What are some of your experiences working with stock photo agencies and how do you think it can be improved?

Three years ago, I worked closely with a Japanese stock photo agency called Pixta. This collaboration did not flourish due to several reasons like cost. I have dropped working with them also because the process was admittedly laborious. However, they are now largely well-received in different parts of Asia like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Jakarta.

Based on my experience with Pixta, I think it will be meaningful to establish an authorized organization to monitor stock photos and regulate collaborations between users, sellers and photographers.

Do you think you will be more actively shooting for stock photography in the near future?

Yes, definitely! Recently, I have been spending some of my time shooting for leisure in Vietnam. I realized a plethora of opportunities in this market for stock photos. Businesses are beginning to grow in the market which leads to higher demand for stock photos. Apart from Vietnam, I believe other emerging markets like Cambodia and Myanmar within the region also demonstrates vast potential.

This region boasts a very rich and unique culture of its own, giving photographers a refreshing and new dimension to shoot from. Its people, streets, lifestyles and landscapes are so different from the rest of Asia including Singapore!

Does this mean that you will be focused on shooting specifically in that region (Vietnam) only?

Yes, because I want to produce authentic and localised photos. I believe focusing on this region alone will allow me to understand local trends, cultures and styles in depth. I want to produce accurate shots which ‘hit the spot’ of every local user, instead of churning photographs mindlessly. As the Asian market varies broadly in culture compared to the EU/ US markets, it is only sustainable for me to be able to fulfil the niche demand of a region with specific and localised photographs of high quality.

How can stock agencies improve the experience for photographers?

I hope that stock agencies can provide us photographers with the current and upcoming trends in order to help us learn better on what to shoot. These forecasts would be very helpful in ensuring that we meet the demands of users which subsequently, leads to higher downloads and purchases.

Do you think stock photos are undervalued?

Yes, definitely. When I first started my career as a designer, microstock images were taking over the industry. The photos were priced as low as a dollar which really depresses the true value of the effort taken. Photographers are rewarded only a portion of this dollar which does not even compensate for the cost of photographing it. This situation led photographers to generate as many images as they can since they are only rewarded by volume, never the price. Photographers sometimes even resort to sacrificing the quality of images to produce a large quantity of photos.

Recently, I have seen some high quality images that are sold at really low prices which drives me to question the pricing model adopted by stock agencies. From what I’ve noticed, even “poor quality” photos that meet users’ demand are sold well, so it is more about relevancy than price. Quality and quantity turns out to be a chicken and egg issue for many photographers. If users are more educated about the efforts behind our work and account for them when purchasing a photo, they will more likely be wiser about pricing.

What is one of your favourite photo and what is the story behind it?

*pauses and thinks *

My favourite collection now is, the “Vietnam 2016”. I have been travelling to and fro Vietnam. Every time I travel, I find myself shooting people, streets and cultures of the town. And when I visit the outskirts of Vietnam, I shoot some of the most breath taking landscapes, it’s so fun! Through my travels, I have met some local photographers as well as friends of friends who make Vietnam a warm second home for me.

Vietnam holds a close place in my heart, I have been there 6 times since the second half of last year and I will be heading there again this Friday. Every visit is a new adventure and its tranquillity is really refreshing to the city boy in me. I fell in love with Vietnam since my first encounter and ever since, I’m hooked.

How do you ensure that the quality of your work does not slip?

I always take ownership over my work and I believe in taking all my work seriously. It is impossible for organizations to police over thousands and millions of photographers therefore, photographers including myself must be ethical in maintaining originality and quality.

Would you say your passion and professionalism is aligned?

I think both passion and professionalism need to be fused together to produce a good piece of work. However, I am responsible to always be clear of what I shoot for work and for leisure. For example, the Vietnam series that I have compiled includes many scenic outdoor shoots but I do not use them for commercial purposes.

As for work, I engage with various companies to create photos for their main marketing campaigns. These campaigns are usually highly specific in theme, colour, style and design. I shoot according to what my clients want.

Will you be focusing on a specific genre of photography in the future?

I want to specialize in portraits because that is what I have been doing professionally and I love it! Outside of work, I capture landscapes when I travel. That will be the main difference of what I do for work and for leisure.

What keeps you going in photography?

There is really nothing like doing what you love. I value the satisfaction and happiness I reap out of work. It’s the joy of seeing happy faces of my clients, the “Good job’s” and appreciation I obtain after completing a project. The content from doing what I love keeps me going!

What do you think of the photography industry in Asia/Singapore?

I think we have a substantial potential growth in this region despite a fair share of competition. After being in this industry for seven years, I realised we face fierce competition here in Singapore. Internally, there are home-grown local photographers while externally, there are a handful of expatriates who stopover once in a while to shoot. With that, I believe it is crucial for local Singaporean photographers like myself to always go beyond the borders, travel and shoot beyond Singapore.

I also think stock photography has great opportunities in Asia. As I recall a joke my friend made which is quite true, “We Asians want it fast, cheap and good.” With that being said, stock photography is highly relevant to this market as most of the cost-conscious users will eventually divert to stock photo libraries like Raydar.

What are some of the more extensive efforts you have taken in stock photography?

Stock photography involves shooting a myriad of photos. As I am not a full time stock photographer, most of my efforts are more targeted rather than extensive. To me, I think the most important key to shooting stock photos is knowing what customers are looking for and recognising both current and future trends.

As trends evolve, I believe there will be a consistent rise in demand for specific Asian content from India, Vietnam, etc. I always believe that building an Asian library will be useful for every photographer based here in Asia.

Do you see yourself in this industry in the long term?

Definitely! Year on year, this industry gets more saturated and competition gets more severe. In order to stay in the game, I constantly remind myself to remain passion-driven whilst keeping in mind my commercial purpose. This helps me preserve resilience even when times are slow.

Thank you for your two cents, Kevin!

Kevin’s passion for photography has reminded me the importance in loving what we do. Despite coming this far in his career, Kevin is humble and earnest about constant improvement to achieve even greater heights in his photography career. I believe it’s really important we love what we do to have a rewarding experience in work and in life.