Robert Kneschke took a brave gamble when he left university: he gave himself one year to make it as a photographer, otherwise he would get himself a “proper” job.
Seven years later and here he is being interviewed by Fotolia – nice work, Robert! Now, can you tell us how you managed it…?
Fotolia: Can you give a little introduction of yourself, what you specialize in and how you came to be working in the stock image industry?
Robert Kneschke: I was born in Berlin and had my first camera when I was eight or nine years old – at that time a camera for children, with film, and without batteries. One button. Done.
I saved up my money to buy my first SLR camera when I was 15 years old and took a lot of portraits of friends and all the usual beginners’ stuff like landscapes, flowers, cats, and so on.
It was an expensive hobby, having to develop all the film, so in 2005 I decided to find ways to monetize my hobby. I ran across an art market in Berlin, a mix of a flea market and a designer gallery, where I was able to sell prints of my photos to tourists.
It wasn’t easy; looking back, that was mainly because my images were not good enough. During that time I also bought my first digital SLR camera and found I could sell my images not only in “real life”, but over the internet as well. So, I signed up for some online stock agencies and gave it a try.
It quickly turned out that my amateur images did not meet the needs and demands of professionals.
Luckily a friend of mine asked me to shoot some images of her for a calendar for her boyfriend, so I made the deal that I give her the images and I can sell them online. She agreed, and these images sold much better than my flowers!
So, I asked other friends to do the same, and that’s how I stumbled into being a people photographer.
In 2007 I finished my studies at university and said to myself: I’ll try living off stock photography for a year, if it works, I’ll continue, if it doesn’t, I’ll apply for a job based on my studies.
So far, I’m still working as a full-time stock producer!
Fo: What are your ingredients for a fantastic photograph?
RK: It depends: If by “fantastic” you mean “great to look at”, I am the wrong person to ask. If you mean “saleable”, I’d say the image must fit a use. Most beginning stock photographers think to much in terms of “looks good”. They need to think more of “What could I do with that image?”.
Keep it generic and have a message come across, even if it doesn’t look good.
RK: I’m more of a numbers-driven guy who likes to keep spreadsheets and track data. So, I mainly check what current magazines write about and how they illustrate these topics, and then I try to offer another perspective. I also analyze my older images to see what sells and try to understand why, in order to do more in that regard.
Sometimes it’s like a real-life game with the benefit of getting paid for playing.
Fo: What advice do you have for someone buying their first camera?
RK: Forget about the camera – it’s not important!
I get these questions a lot from my blog readers: what camera I would recommend over another, etc., but I refuse to answer. Fotolia’s Instant Collection shows very well that even smartphone images sell just fine. Some of my smartphone snapshots sell much better than the images I took with $5,000 equipment, so it really has nothing to do with the camera.
When a new photographer really wants some advice, I suggest digging heavily into how “light works” and how to manipulate it. Be it by flash or by understanding the factors that come into play for great lighting, like waiting for some clouds to cover the sun to get your best softbox ever, and so forth.
RK: Yes, sure, I’m often surprised! However, I need to make a living from stock photography, so I can’t rely on luck.
However, I do try to include that kind of luck in my calculations, and many of my bestselling images are “out-takes” from a planned shot not on my shooting list.
I also try to create at least a couple of images that are completely different, or cover a completely different topic from all my previous images to test new waters.
Fo: Did you reach a stage in your career when you had to invest in expensive equipment or a studio?
RK: I have a very small studio which is also my office. My equipment grew over time and I didn’t have to take a loan or anything like that to afford it.
That’s the good thing about stock photography: since you choose what you take pictures of, you can adapt your motives to your equipment, rather than the other way around.
FO: You’ve been quite involved as a beta-tester during the development of the Instant App – what are the benefits of shooting stock with your mobile?
RK: The biggest advantage is that my smartphone is always with me. My professional camera weights about three kilogram, including lens, so that’s nothing I want to carry around in my spare time. But there are times when it’s getting dark outside and I think to myself : “Damn, not enough light for smartphone pics…”
RK: Well, I was surprised at how many rejections I got for my first Instant images. It took me a while to figure out why. But there are two reasons: first, sometimes I get so overwhelmed by a great composition that I forget about the technical image quality of a smartphone picture, so they get rejected due to excess noise or blur.
Second, I now ask myself prior to uploading an Instant image: would I or could I have done the same image using my regular DSLR? If yes, then the image must be really outstanding for me to upload it. Smartphone images are great for macro close-ups, for example, due to the smaller sensor, or to capture unplanned “funny” moments on the road.
Fo: Has buyer behavior changed in terms of trends – have they progressed and developed?
RK: Agencies keep telling photographers customers want “real, authentic” images, but I don’t completely believe that. I think generic images will always have their value in the microstock market.
Fo: What was the learning curve like in order to achieve your success? And how long did it take you to reach the level you’re at now?
RK: I think there’s still a lot to learn out there. Regarding the technical aspects of photography, my stock light settings are very basic but there’s no need to change this.
What gave me a good push was understanding that it’s all about keywords and trend research. That’s where I spend a lot of time reading, learning, and keeping spreadsheets.
Fo: What is your favorite theme to photograph and why? Have you a favorite photo from your Fotolia portfolio?
RK: My favorite theme is people, that’s why I do that mostly. I admire a lot of food photographers for example, but I could not do that myself because I am not patient enough.
Also, working by myself means sitting alone in front of the computer most of the time, so it is nice to have some interaction with other people.
I don’t have a favorite image, because I become dissatisfied with my own images quite quickly. There is always stuff to improve.
I do love this image though, because both models were a pleasure to work with, and it took some research to come up with the mood and message of the photo. It was a good feeling finally that the buyers appreciated all my work.
Fo: And finally, if you hadn’t become a photographer, what would you have done instead?
RK: I’d be either working as a journalist, in a political think-tank, or have my own chain of ice-cream shops.
Fo: Thanks very much, Robert – lucky for us you became a photographer!
You can enjoy (and buy!) a lot more of Robert’s work on his Fotolia portfolio and follow his work on Facebook and Twitter, but Robert also writes a great blog about microstock photography and the everyday life of a photographer – it’s full of useful information and we highly recommend it (although, you may need to use Google Translate if you don’t speak German!)