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Photo by Tyler Stalman

A couple of weeks ago, we had a party here in Calgary. Which isn’t so out of the ordinary – we have quite a few parties. This one was special though. We had more iStock members together in person than at any other time before. There were more than a hundred of us: photographers, videographers & illustrators, from as far away as Argentina, South Africa, and Russia. People came to meet our staff, see our office, and have a few beers and laughs in person with the people they spend so much time with online.

For the most part though, people came to work. They came to shoot, create, and talk about stock images. We’d organized a solid weekend for them, with a full squad of art directors, stylists and models, plus lots of time for talking and teaching with each other, and our artists came to make the most of it.

Creating and selling stock online can be a bit of a lonely calling. So having all these iStockers in one place, to meet and learn and work together, to discuss and practice their profession as a group, was a real treat. It’s one thing to talk shop on a website forum. It’s another thing to stand around in a knot looking at the LCD screen after someone’s clicked the shutter on a great concept, and being able to say ‘that’s great stock’ with other people who know exactly what you mean.

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Image by Rob Dabisza

Great stock. What does that mean? It’s not just about taking a better photograph of a handshake. It’s not all about smiling business teams and finding new ways to say ‘Success’ in a picture.

Stock is about distilling the world around us into ideas and concepts, and then finding new and compelling ways to illustrate those things. It’s about representing things in idealized, generic ways. It’s about utility and being useful. A good stock artist has to not only be a technically excellent photographer or illustrator. They have to be a bit of philosopher – to see through to the hearts of concepts and coming up with innovative ways to visually explain them. They have to be savvy business people, they have to stay abreast of technology and trends, and always be learning and improving. Above all, they have to be professional. I think professionalism is more than just a matter of whether or not you’re being paid for what you do. It’s about committing to a craft, about self-criticism and constant personal development.

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Image by Andrew Rich

All of that takes a heck of a lot of hard work.

Maybe that’s why iStockers get so antagonized when that other word – amateur – gets applied to them. It usually gets worked into the initial of who we are and what we do, something along these lines: “Take a site like iStockphoto, where amateur and hobbyist photographers offer images for a dollar…” Let me tell you, there is nothing that gets under the skin of an iStock contributor quite so much as being called an amateur. Watching them work over the weekend, it’s no wonder. They’ve come a long way from amateur and hobbyist.

Your average iStocker 8 years ago was a self-employed web designer who’d been enticed by our Free Image of the Week. They hung around to find some more images for other projects, talked a bit of shop with the other designers in our forums, and then got to thinking about that Canon Powershot sitting over on the end of their desk. They took some shots of the bell peppers in their fridge and fired them off our way, just to see what would happen.

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Image by Rob Dabisza

That bell pepper might have netted them a few dollars. But it probably sparked a question for them: how can I do this better? What other subjects are there out there that will make for good stock? How can I shoot them better? What do I need to improve? So people worked at it. They learned to make the best of the light in their home. They put away the peppers and talked their spouse into getting in front of the camera. The dollars and cents started to grow and as soon as there was enough, the Powershot got traded up for a Rebel. Now when they went to the iStock forums, they were talking less CSS and more prime lenses.

It’s that attitude, that dogged professionalism, that created the artists I got to watch at work here in Calgary. The camera is now a 5D Mk II in a lot of cases, and the spouse has graduated to full-fledged photographer’s assistant, metering light, holding reflectors, and directing models. When the CF card is full there’s probably a long night ahead of them in Lightroom and Photoshop, finding the best shots from the day and processing them. But if the gear and the skills are different, the dedication is still the same. They’re still asking themselves ‘How can I do this better?’

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Image by Todd Keith

We have 85,000 contributing artists at iStock now, and we pay them out about $1.2 million every week. They create all kinds of things: illustrations and 3D artwork, and animation and video clips and even songs and sound effects. They create a lot of great stock. So what does that mean? I guess it means, they find new ways for all of us to visually communicate our ideas. Every day they come up with new ways of saying things with pictures. It sounds simple, but let me tell you, it’s a calling, and its a calling you can dedicate your whole life to and always find new things to learn about.

Our party up here in Calgary is over now and the members who came have all headed home, however near or far away home might be for them. We had a great time seeing them all and it was tough to say goodbye when 2 AM rolled around on Sunday night. But not so tough I guess, because we’ll all see each other again soon. You know, at work.