On The Road: Editor’s Eye: Why I’m Slow To Hit Delete


En route from Denver to Washington, my connecting flight out of O’Hare Airport in Chicago was delayed, so I thought, okay, I’ll walk around and make some pictures. This one, of the moving sidewalk area between two sections of the United terminal, ended up making some very good sales for me.

Done for the day, I’d relaxed at the end of a two-week shooting trip to Costa Rica. Just to be safe I’d brought along one camera and one lens, and when the sky began to clear and the riders came by, I took this photo. Wouldn’t you know that it turned out to be the best-selling image of the trip?

Chuck Berry was right. “It goes to show you never can tell,” he wrote, and sang, and that phrase is as appropriate a way to begin this column as any I can think of. I certainly never can tell which photo will please the client, fulfill the assignment, or sell well through my stock agencies; in other words, which one will succeed in the marketplace.

And because I never can tell, my photo editing is pretty much an in camera process of deleting the obvious technical-problem pictures (not sharp, not well exposed) and downloading everything else to the laptop for keeping. A really small percentage of my photos end up edited out.

I can also never tell whether a successful picture, in terms of marketing, will be the one that I deliberately set out to take or the casual shot I made while essentially doing something else; or an image made during a throwaway moment in which I had nothing else to do.

Sometimes a successful picture is one that I think is marginal, a photo that works okay, but isn’t exactly what I’d call a showcase for either my style or my ability.

I took this photo aboard an icebreaker in Finland while shooting an assignment on the icebreaking industry. I thought the image was pretty dramatic, so I put it in a sourcebook ad. I ended up making all sorts of sales for the image, including one to promote a murder mystery novel because the publisher thought it looked like the men were viewing a dead body.

I led a photo tour group into the Jaisalmer Art Palace in India because the rooftop offered a great view of the city. On leaving, we stopped to allow the staff to show us some carpets, and if there’s an interesting photo to be made, I’ll always make it. As a stock shot, this one earned $10,000 when seen by a client who had a need for it.

Two views of the Rainbow Bridge arch at Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Arizona-Utah border. The one above has made a lot more money, probably because its fisheye view tells a better story than the 70-200mm lens (at 75mm) view below.

Planning and preparation don’t guarantee success. The photo I took great pains to get, the one that I planned and waited for, chose the exact spot and time of day and for which I was rewarded with great light—that photo might not do as well in the market as one of my more informal efforts. And sometimes the photo that I worked so hard to get still needs an additional element—maybe a person for scale, or a change of lens—to become a money-earning winner.

There’s one final “never can tell” element that plays into my practice of keeping most of what I shoot: it’s impossible to predict someone’s need. Out there in the wild, wide world of stock photography, who knows what’s going to be the photo someone just has to have for an ad, a brochure, a campaign? There’s always the surprise factor: Gee, I never thought that photo would make any money.

Chances are you’re not in the business of selling your images, so your definition of success will be different from mine. But the idea of the eventual appeal of a photo—perhaps even greater appeal to you after time has passed—is very real. My advice is, the next time you’ve got that layover between planes, take some photographic advantage of the opportunity. You never can tell how successful the result might be.

It was a grueling hike up the Gros Piton in St. Lucia. The view at the top was okay, but when I asked a fellow hiker to stand on a summit rock, I had a photo that was far more than okay, a photo with scale, composition, and the human element, and a photo that has made 80 percent of the stock income from the trip.

If I’d been staying at this Tunisian hotel I wouldn’t have taken this picture. I’d have waited until sunset for better light. But it was a quick, after lunch, take five pictures, get in the car and go somewhere else situation. It’s not an award winner—the light’s kind of dull and the patterns of the umbrellas and the shadows are not too interesting. I was very surprised when it turned out to be one of the trip’s best sellers.

A selection of Blaine Harrington’s travel images can be viewed at his website, www.blaineharrington.com. Information about his 2015 African photo safaris can be found by scrolling down the homepage to “…learn more about Blaine…”