The tougher and more expensive the shot is to make, the more money it earns. Right?
One of the most complicated photographs I ever made was for an ISLANDS Magazine feature on the Out Islands in the Bahamas. We had to find a helicopter and a vintage airplane with floats (preferable a pretty yellow), two willing pilots who were adept at maneuvering low and close together, coordinate shooting days that involved finnicky tides and tricky weather patterns, and put all this together at a remote island with no airport.
It took weeks of logistics planning and thousands of dollars to get all the equipment and people at the right place at the right time. The shoot itself involved me hanging out of the helicopter while we flew almost on top of the airplane (being careful not to collide or interfere with the plane’s lift). A nearly disastrous fuel leak almost caused us to ditch in the sea.
It was worth the hair-raising flight. The resulting image was stunning and is one of my favorites: a bright yellow Piper Cub on floats skims over a turquoise sea off an empty beach. A killer image like that, I just knew, would sell over and over again through National Geographic’s Image Collection. I’d put my girls through college on that shot.
Guess how many times I’ve resold that image?
Shortly after my Bahamas assignment, I was on another assignment, this time on the island of Dominica. I was shooting a story about pirate treasure. I’d spent the afternoon thigh-deep in a pool below a waterfall creating slow-shutter speed images. On the way back to the hotel, just for fun, my assistant and I stopped to take a cable car on a jungle-canopy ride.
My Nikon had been acting up; the aperture ring wasn’t working. As we boarded the tramway and lurched onto the cable, I held my camera out over the side and fired off the motor drive, so I’d have a couple dozen images to look at while troubleshooting the issue later.
Back at the hotel that night, I downloaded the images. A few were blurry, but there was one simple shot in focus. It was a straight-down shot of a fern palm, an unusual angle, to be sure, but a pretty picture showing one of Mother Nature’s cool patterns.
Normally, I would have deleted all the images. They were just test images. But I kept the one I liked and later, when I did a submission to my editor at the National Geographic Image Collection, I included it for kicks.
That simple photo that was taken while not even looking through the viewfinder has become one of my best-selling images.
There’s a lesson in all this. The market doesn’t care how hard an image was to make, how long it took to create, or what expensive gear you had to use in the process. The market cares only about what images sell. I had stumbled onto a niche in the stock world—textures and patterns.
Ever since that photo began selling, whenever I’m on assignment, I’m constantly scanning the world around me for interesting textures and patterns. Computer companies, it turns out, love the images for screen savers and marketing backgrounds, and they’ll buy the images over and over.
Not long ago I met a photographer who actually specializes in this niche. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,” he told me. “Just look around your house, your yard, your neighborhood. If you find something that looks interesting to touch, or plays with your sense of patterns, photograph it.” No helicopters, vintage planes, or ace pilots required.
Jad Davenport is a full-time writer and photographer represented by National Geographic. His stories and photographs have won multiple Lowell Thomas Awards. You can follow his work on Instagram @jaddavenport.