Flickr and You, Part 4: Case Study - John Dohrn

This is the last part of a four-part series, which begins here. In this final installment, we'll be taking a more expanded look at the possibilities for one of Strobist's readers who uses Flickr.

Not even old enough to vote yet, John Dohrn has already built an impressive collection of striking insect photos. Clearly he has both a good working knowledge of bugs and a talent for shooting them.

For the sake of this piece, we are going to go on the hypothetical assumption that John might be interested in developing a specialty in insect photography.

What are some of the things he could be doing now, as a teenager, to better position himself for that future? If you are an aspiring bug photographer, you'll probably be interested in this case study. But on the off chance that you are not, I hope you will find some of the lateral thinking useful in developing your own strengths as a photographer.

After all, we are in an era increasingly geared toward specialist photographers. Specialist anything, actually. In a world where you can easily find someone who is an expert in any niche of a niche, why would you hire a generalist?

So I am going to use John and bugs as an example.

One Possible Strategy

The first thing I would do would be to lose the arty signatures embedded within the photos. Very "Buck's County Arts and Crafts Show," IMO. You want to be aiming higher than that. If you feel you must stick your name into the image area, make it very small, in a bottom corner, with a "©" symbol (created with an option "g").

As we have discussed earlier, John obviously should be making use of Flickr's metadata (tags) to help people find his photos. This would probably be more helpful to him than even to Sara Lando, given the taxonomic nature of John's tiny subjects.

A series of tags that start with John's name and drill down with increasing specificity would be simple to construct for each of his bug shots:

"John Dohrn"
category, (i.e. fly, butterfly, ant, etc.)
genus and species
any ancillary info specific to the photo

John, by the way, is totally into bugs and is well-equipped to provide this information.

As with Lando, his profile should explain his capabilities and provide contact info, without being so overt as to upset the Flickr Gods.

Be a Thinking Photographer

But what are some of the things he could be doing as a photographer to build a library that could have significantly more commercial value in the future?

In the same way that I learned from the experiences of photographer Ken Jarecke on an AOL message board 15 years ago I want to take a look at John's work from another direction.

First, the biggest negative for John: He is young and very inexperienced as a photographer.

Now, the biggest positive: He is young and very inexperienced as a photographer.

A little flippant, maybe. But the important thing to realize is that young John, who is already making some killer photos, likely has more of the most precious commodity (time) than most any photographer reading this post. As a teenager, he already has a good knowledge of his subjects, some strong photographic skills and a passion for bugs.

Ten years from now, John could be parked at a computer screen in a nondescript office park evaluating insurance claim forms Or he could be sitting on a very valuable catalog of macro insect shots, and shooting new bug assignments all the time.

Thinking strategically at this point and planning for the long term could make a huge difference in John's future.

The very first thing I would do is to start to consider the commercial potential of various insects when deciding what I would shoot. Who uses bug photos? And for what purpose?

Putting aside for the moment that fact that insects are beautiful and amazing creatures and they will eventually dance on our graves, our primary focus (as a society) is to consider them as pests.

To that end, were I John I would begin to build a library of the usual suspects: Roaches, ants, mosquitos, etc.

Why? Because that's where the money is. And those insects would be popular search choices for people looking to buy (or assign) photos of bugs.

And given the current worrying trend of disappearing honeybees and the drastic effects this might have on our food supply, I would be making friends with a beekeeper, too. Maybe locusts, too, if they continue to ravage subsaharan Africa.

Sure, John would rather be shooting beautiful, more exotic insects. And there is no reason why he should not be doing that. But you have to think about the bread-and-butter of your genre, and consider picking the low-hanging fruit first.

I would consider a two-pronged strategy: Shoot the glamour bugs for show and the pests for dough. That is to say, wow people with your exotic shots so that will choose you for the bread-and-butter stuff.

In terms of logistics, John's area of expertise has a nice little benefit in that his subjects are very small and easy to ship. So he would want to have a good knowledge of any supply houses that can produce insects on demand for a given species. Obviously, he would have to be mindful of potential issues with invasive species when shipping the bugs, but it is possible to get around that sort of thing with the right permits and paperwork.

Better yet, John could use his photographic specialty to rationalize - and deduct the expenses for - travel to some wonderfully exotic destinations. Think of what two weeks in the cloud forests of Costa Rica could do for his portfolio.

Another advantage of John's age: No family commitments to preclude travel. And when he gets to college, he should buddy up to the bug-studying profs and grad students. This will start to integrate him into the insect-centric community.

And those guys travel all the time. John could be a valuable addition to an expedition. He should just make sure he keeps the resale rights to the photos.

Baaack, backbackback... Gone.

So, he builds a library with a nod to commercial and artistic value, develops relationships with suppliers and tries to position himself near bug-watchers. All of these things are hit-for-average approaches, and tend to increase his odds of success.

But what about the long ball? What would be John's equivalent of a walk-off home run?

I would submit that given John's early skill, subject familiarity and technical knowledge, he should always be working on discovering a totally new way to photograph bugs. Why? Because this is the kind of thing that can make a career and amp the value of his entire catalog at the same time.

If the technique is killer and visually distinctive enough, it could obsolete all of the gazillion pre-existing bug shots out there.

What would the technique be? Where would the idea come from?

Who knows.

But if I had to guess, I think it would most likely come from another "small-things" photography area that has nothing to do with bugs. So I would be studying macro photographers in other genres. Ditto video techniques, electron microscope photographic techniques, etc. And I would RSS the photo stream of every single hot-shot bug shooter on Flickr, too.

You are just looking for the one, little idea that sparks a big technical or creative discovery. Someone could stumble onto the partial idea that unlocks John's epiphany without even knowing it.

These kinds of paradigm-shifting events happen all of the time, and not just in photography, either. But they tend to happen to people who have a systematic approach to exploring all of the techniques that do not work until they hit on the one that does. People who work hard tend to get lucky.

I would love to discover a completely novel lighting look. Maybe I am weird, but I give that kind of thing some serious thought on a regular basis.

So John would want to be very creative in his approach to the technical side, all the while doing the hit-for-average stuff with respect to subject matter. So if he did stumble upon something groundbreaking, all of the other pieces of the puzzle woud already be in place.

Working toward a goal in a disciplined way like this can be the difference between having an interesting hobby to go with your boring, white-collar job or having an amazing, passion-based career that others only dream about.

And even if he never finds the techique that totally changes the world of insect photography, he will still create a far more interesting - and valuable - collection of photos than if he had just gone about his mission is a haphazard way. Which, honestly, is what the vast majority of people spend their lives doing.

Whatever you hope to accomplish with your photography or anything else, there will never be a better time to analyze your goals (and develop a comprehensive strategy to reach them) than right now. After all, what is going to be so different about you in five years?

Start now, and you could be five years closer to the things you most want to do by then. If you're not doing them already.

I hope you'll forgive the hard right-hand turn I took with this last article in the series. I had every intention of just continuing the pattern that was established earlier. But as I thought about John's potential, the ideas became less about Flickr and more about the lateral and upstream thinking process.

And I strongly believe that a systematic, integrated approach really ups your chances of success, no matter what you goal might be. To bring things full circle, leveraging these techniques with a conscious Flickr strategy could prove a powerful combination.

Obviously, I realize that very few of you have any interest in shooting bugs. But I hope that John's example might spark you to think about your own goals in a more expanded way. Be they photographic goals or something entirely different.


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Anonymous very1silent said...

FWIW, folks who are interested in meeting beekeepers can often do so at local farmers markets. They've often got a pile of rather interesting non-macro sized equipment and clothing.

There are also a whole pile of agricultural pests and biological control insects which may have marketable images -- not just household pests.

May 05, 2007 11:59 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Can I second that? My father runs a market stall kinda like a hobby come job part time thing.. He sells fresh "exotic" (none native) fruit. anyway. He buys insects to kill other insects mail order, so as not to use pesticides etc...

May 06, 2007 5:39 AM  
Anonymous brian said...

it's about time that someone who people actually listen to says something about the ugly artistic signatures on photos.

good article too

May 06, 2007 9:56 AM  
Blogger okyeron said...


The big question in my head after your post is - HOW does john find the clients or the markets to actually make money from his bug photos? You only barely mention possible markets in your post.

Someone can create a fantastic library of images in a specialty, but finding a way to exploit those images is the really hard part.

At some point he could gain a reputation as "the bug guy" and have people beating a path to his door, but what can you say about the middle step of building that reputation?

May 06, 2007 2:39 PM  
Blogger David said...

That's where the Flickr metadata comes in. Proper tagging extends your search results to the outside world.

Example: Search strobist and "mountain dew" on Google, and the fourth hit is the Flickr photo page for my one-year anniversary. Without comprehensive tagging that doesn't happen.

So, now that you have good metadata use working for you both inside and outside of Flickr, if you are making the right images, people will find you.

And if you always insist on a photo credit (in part by charging them a very big premium if their policy is not to credit you) your name will be attached to the photo in print.

Once you are producing good work in print with your name attached, it is very easy for someone to find you and your work via the web.

I Google photographers from their credit lines all of the time to look at their work. And if I were a creative director, I would be doing that constantly.

May 06, 2007 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Brock said...

Another great piece and though it's "buggy" it's totally transferable to other types of photography.

One question: Isn't the correct phrase walk on home run rather than walk off? I always thought the former because of the way someone would "walk on" to the field (like a pinch hitter) and hit it out of the park.

May 06, 2007 4:11 PM  
Blogger David said...


Agreed. I was using them as an example of picking the loww-hanging fruit (WRT to commercial possibilities) first.


May 06, 2007 5:21 PM  
Anonymous colbyjoe said...

One thing to think about is entomologist are also photographers or a lot of them are.

May 06, 2007 7:02 PM  
Blogger Jerome said...

thanks alot david, this was quite helpful for me. building on okeyeron's question, how does one professionally(quite relative term) display his collection? is Flickr the answer?

May 06, 2007 8:29 PM  
Blogger Jerome said...

very helpful david, i'll be sure to check out the other three parts. building on okeyeron's question, how does one professionally( quite relative term) display his collection of work in an economical way? flickr?

May 06, 2007 8:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm... not sure about the real application of his bug photographs, in a purely commercial sense. An in a technical (and sincere) evaluation, John is not that great a photographer yet. He still does not master the inner thinking of photography, and doesn't seem too flexible out of macro settings. I'm saying that based on a hundred + images I just saw from him at his flickr. A high-level, high-earning modern photog MUST be creative and dynamic. Period. Think Ryan Brennizer. Of course, he's still 17, but so was I a few years back. He can develop to be a great shooter, but one thing he does NOT need is someone (or a lot op people) to tell him he's great, because he is not. Just my 0.02.

May 06, 2007 10:08 PM  
Anonymous Photographer Italy said...

Very interesting, during this series of article I opened my Flickr account...
It is not easy to make money from good picture, but Visibility and viral marketing help.
Something is moving...

May 06, 2007 11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think you're placing too much emphasis on the Flickr search engine per say. Some of the micro stock sites have better algos than Flickr. Personally, I'd be placing bets on Google picking up my work that Flickr. On a side note, (a note from Downunder), a News Limited weekend magazine published in Melbourne and Sydney (HeraldSun Sunday Magazine), had 2 full page ads by Virgin Mobile that featured (full page) images sourced from Flickr and licenced under Creative Commons. Payment to photographer? Nil. Each ad cost the advertiser AU$40k (roughly US$35k). Is Flickr really a viable way to earn a buck when it's stocks are filled with freebies such as these?

May 07, 2007 7:41 AM  
Blogger mason said...

Flickr is just one tool to use for self marketting. Another great one for me is photoshelter. Google indexes my photoshelter galleries very well and about 80% of my traffic now comes from google searches that land the visitor on the photoshelter half of my portfolio site. Plus it's all hooked up to my papyal account and has fotoquote built into the pricing part of it so photo buyers can not only find my stuff through google but also purchase a license and download the image on the spot.

Mason Trullinger

May 07, 2007 12:59 PM  
Blogger Jerome said...

wow photoshelter is quite impressive, i checked it out after i saw you post. it's a bit more expensive as far as SPACE go compared to flickr, but the look is much more professional. is nice place to display your work too, the have a print option and storefront available for free! though the amount of money you make on each photo is quite cut back.

May 07, 2007 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Bruce Barone said...

Thank You so much for this series!!!

May 07, 2007 6:52 PM  
Blogger geodesigner said...

Hello Dave,

Just like to report a really nice thing: today I was ebay-cruising and thought about searching "strobist". For my amazement, three products (strobes, of course) matched the search. I think it's a good idea to encourage strobist readers to add "strobist" in the product listing name, so we'd find good used stuff sourced from ourselves! We're becoming quite a community!

May 07, 2007 7:37 PM  
Anonymous I.M. Becile said...


I read your thoughtful John Dohrn post and was struck with a few things:

First - your long term point of view was and is a rare commodity in the world of blogs and free advice on the web. Of course, it is the only way something of value is developed - thru nurturing and staying the course - singularity of purpose is, after all, the secret to making greatness. Right on.

Second - you seem to have the a gift for caring about you readers. This is really something rare and wonderful. We appreciate it, even us old, worn out, used up hackers. Don't stop, this is important work.

Third - you pass on your solid professional skills without a fee - emotional or finanical - in this post and others. Contained within your patented, gentle and self deprecating humor are insightful commentary and wisdom. Thanks, again and again.


I.M. Becile

May 07, 2007 9:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many people seem to be missing the point, which I believe is that "Whatever you hope to accomplish with your photography or anything else, there will never be a better time to analyze your goals (and develop a comprehensive strategy to reach them) than right now. After all, what is going to be so different about you in five years?
Start now, and you could be five years closer to the things you most want to do by then. If you're not doing them already."

This is solid, prudent and succinct; I love you man...

May 07, 2007 11:42 PM  
Blogger Sean Cayton said...


I've been reading your posts on the advantages of Flickr. I think you're right on when talking about collecting a library of images, tagging them and selling them.

However, Flickr is no place for this poor boy to make any money. He will be taken advantage of and he will learn the hard way.

So my thought is this why not includes some alternative ideas and resources that John could tap that would help pay him for his passion ?

Why not find an agent specializing in selling stock photography for bugs. I searched and there are quite a few agencies licensing insect pictures.

Here are the first three I found. This would protect him from people who would take advantage of his youth and inexperience.

If he wanted, he might consider making photography a secondary pursuit that would help him fund an education in insect science. I'm guessing, but my bet is that this is a growing field:

He could also parlay his degree and his photography skills into something at least as productive as photography. Insect Research perhaps?

If he decides that the field doesn't interest him, but the market of insects does, he could specialize in photographing rare insects and market his work (through his agent or otherwise) to companies like this one:

Or he may want to approach chemical manufacturers who would pay handsomely for stock imagery that features their product and their prey:

Or he could go the agricultural route selling photographs to even larger companies that specialize in more than pesticides:

Or he could decide to build a stock library and then do stories on spec for magazines and television that LOVE to run buggy things such as:

Finally, in need of places to shoot, research scientists to work with and companies and magazines to sell to he could tap all things insect

Just a few ideas on how John can avoid some of the pitfalls of starting a businss in photography.

Obviously, I think John's work already is marketable and should be placed with an agent who can represent his best interests while he has the time to continue his shooting and yes, go to school. That's just my two cents.

Flickr is not a marketplace. Not yet anyway. To turn it into one would be a shame. Since most of buyers would obviously take advantage of the young and even the old and inexperienced.

No disrespect meant on your series. You're an inspiration and your forum is a great read. And you will, I'm sure, inspire young and old alike to tackle this business.

But my thinking here is that there's more than one way...maybe even a better way.

May 08, 2007 12:09 AM  
Anonymous Rygood said...

Firstly, i'd like to say, first time reader, your blog was suggested by a friend and i'm very impressed. It will definitely be one of my daily reads from now on.

On this post, great stuff. As a serious hobbyist, i've always wondered what it would take to turn my photo hobby/obsession to the next level and actually start making some money with it. The points in this post and series give me a lot of good insight into that.

Good stuff!

May 08, 2007 12:41 PM  
Blogger Ray said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 11, 2007 3:08 PM  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

I'm reading this series 18 months late, but after the discussion of the business of photography last night I think it came at exactly the right time. Your comment to me after I asked about stock photography really hit home. Yes, I'm producing images that look just like so many other millions that I see commercially available on stock sites, and you're right, if that's all I've got then I'm in trouble.
Ken Brown has his cars. I'm off to find a niche. Wish me luck, and thanks for knocking me solidly out of my comfort zone. Again.
Cycle 61 Photography

January 21, 2008 1:55 AM  
Anonymous TimDD (Flickr) said...

Strobist: Like another recent commenter, I came to this series late. But there are two great aspects to this story that I think are worth sharing with other readers... going back to the Flickr connection.

First: To the writer looking for a niche (in search of which I am still), use Flickr to help you. You get great information from the stats pages to help inform you of the effective / ineffective images and tags. Where and how did people find your image? What interests me is those that are found OUTSIDE the friends and family world of my contacts. They help me get interestingness, (I think), but what the broader search world finds is alot more interesting feedback to what I am doing will, i.e. what might be a strong potential niche.

Second, I love that this series about Flickr. I believe Flickr is at its core a very successfully designed community in many aspects (more on my own blog). And there is learning that is valuable and applicable beyond photography... as I hope the series there indicates.


January 22, 2008 7:17 AM  

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