Stockxpert Contributor Profile: Yuri Arcurs

By Ben Kessler of the Network

Dateline: January 3, 2008
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Known to the Stockxpert community as "logos," Yuri Arcurs is perhaps the global microstock community's most famous photographer and is often referred to as its top seller. Even a quick scan of his portfolio lets you know why. In his photos, bright colors and bright smiles warmly welcome the viewer into recognizable environments that possess just enough detail to resonate emotionally. He achieves surprising compositional depth in his work, creating a sense of authenticity through the clever juxtaposition of foreground and background information. Perhaps most impressively, these crystal-clear, high-quality images (made with the assistance of Arcurs' ten-person staff) are effective even when presented as a tiny thumbnail.

Arcurs kindly answered my questions via email, offering frank insights into the secrets—and the difficulties—of his success in microstock.

Ben Kessler: Who are you outside of microstock?

Logos: Yuri Arcurs, 28, based in Aarhus, Denmark.

How did you start out in photography? What led you to microstock?

Surfing around on the net I discovered shutterstock and signed up. Things have pretty much developed from out of that.

For you, microstock is a successful career in itself, but do you work as a photographer in other capacities as well?

Yes. I have been the primary shooter for two model agencies in Denmark and have worked a lot as a commercial photographer for various high-profile clients in Denmark. I have always set my prices high and hope to live up to it one day. ;-)

Do you only work with professional models? Would you ever consider working with non-professionals?

Professional in the sense that they get paid, yes always. Professional in the sense that they have a contract with a model agency, no. I have two model scouts that go about and scout models in Aarhus, and they provide about 50% of my models. The rest are hired through the agencies I work with, and sometimes we pay up to US $2,000 for a single shoot with a high-profile model.

Your models are a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, age, body type, etc. Is there a quality or set of qualities that all your subjects have in common?

Yes. They must be kind and friendly-looking when smiling, and they must have a charming/attractive smile. We try to stay away from too "cool" or "posh"-looking individuals, and our experience tells us that they don't sell well.

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Do you use the same model(s) for more than one shoot? How do you know when it is time to "retire" a model?

We often use the same models, but based on feedback from my primary customers I try to use a very wide range of models so my buyers won't say "Ohh no… not that model again."

The people in your photos have become increasingly familiar in the microstock community as you have become more and more successful. Do you know if your models have been recognized for their work in your photos? Has their association with you had an impact on their careers?

Yes. Pretty much every model I have worked with has been recognized or has stumbled into pictures of themselves in the streets. With Cecilie and Anne Sofie (my two most successful models) it has been pretty crazy. When we did a shoot in Greece this summer we found over ten front-page magazine covers that had Cecilie on them and found hundreds of my pictures just going around. In Denmark microstock is not so widespread so the models can live a private, undisturbed life, but when going abroad or in the airport, they see themselves all the time.

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You have said that to achieve emotional authenticity in an image, you "instruct models a lot and get them in the right mood when on a shoot." Can you give a specific example of a technique you used to set the proper mood while working?

It's not so much about a special mood or feeling, but more about training the model to see the difference between authentic behavior and artificial-looking behavior. I have private instruction and training shoots with my models on a regular basis where we practice "the full smile," the "half smile," etc. My best models are incredible in their ability to do authentic acting and give the pictures a genuine and candid feel. It takes a long time, however, to get the model conscious enough and paying enough attention to detail to make a difference.

How much improvisation do you allow for on a shoot?

Not much. Like a film director I follow a well-planned script, which both my art director, second shooter, stylist and assistants have had their hands on. If I start improvising too much the whole shoot falls apart.

At what point in the creation of a photograph do you develop your color scheme? For example, in "A caring young doctor" (shown below) did you always know that you were going to match the pen, stethoscope and the doctor's shirt?

Thank my stylist for this. She puts great care into details like this. My assistant goes around with a gray-card that we calibrate white balance on 5-20 times during a shoot.

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You've said that it's important to "weirden-up reality." Can you elaborate on what this means to you? What's one image of yours that you feel accomplishes this?

This only applies to artistic and fashion portraits. When shooting classic stock, "weird" is a distraction. In fashion photography it is important to create something mystical and intriguing, and if you can do this in a beautiful way you are sure to make a hit. People love to look at strange and original things, and you can use this to your advantage if you are conscious about it and are explicitly aiming towards it. (I don't have any of my most creative fashion shoots online. )

Behind every massive success like yours, there are sure to be at least a few failures. What are some mistakes you've made so far in microstock, and what lessons did you take from them?

Taking breaks and getting enough sleep. ;-) No, really. If you are tired and overworked you just will not be able to produce anything worth looking at. In the beginning I had a tendency to overload myself with work and I was not able to be very productive. Bad business, really, for a half a year or so before I got myself together and took some time off. Back then I believed that quantity somehow was a superior success criterion to quality. Today I know that it is the other way around. Quantity is the beginner's way of desperately trying to catch a hit picture and "fill space." The truly most successful approach is a balance between the two, but more in favor of quality.

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Can you accurately predict by now which images will sell and which won't? Are you ever surprised? If so, what were some surprising experiences for you in microstock?

With 50% accuracy I can tell if a picture I am looking at will be a success. Sometimes a picture you were so close to actually discarding ends up being the best seller in the shoot. It's scary sometimes.

How do you balance creating images that you know will sell with taking risks and pushing boundaries?

That's really hard. But I need to, because I have so many duplicators out there that directly aim to recreate my most successful images. I have to earn my money in the few months from when I upload a new concept picture to when it is completely duplicated by other users. I have to be one step ahead all the time or I would lose revenue right away, and this is probably the main downside to being the "number-one seller." I never look at other photographers' portfolios for inspiration and mostly get my inspiration from magazines and customer feedback, and I use this feedback to design new ideas and concepts that I want to do.

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Do you have outside interests that help you develop as a photographer?

Yes. I have spent four years at the University of Aarhus (psychology) and use specific techniques and concepts in psychology as guidelines in making stock photography. I find a lot of psychological concepts useful in clarifying why a picture is successful and why another is not. I also make search pattern analysis of my buyers to identify stereotypical behavior that I can have in mind when keywording and designing pictures. How I do this is my secret so I can't reveal that here, but I believe it accounts for about 20% of my success. I find the results I get from analyzing stereotypes are way more inspiring then looking at what others have already done as inspiration. For example, in the category of colors, red is the most prominent member, followed by blue and yellow. You can use knowledge like this to analyze your way to being a top seller, because stereotypical members of a category sell way more then non-stereotypical members.

My research indicates for example that in the category of animals the following animals are very stereotypical members and are highly searched for: Camel, Dog, Kitten, Horse, Goldfish, Monkey, Penguin, Frog, Elephant, Scorpion, Snake, French Bulldog and the American Staffordshire Terrier. When stock photography buyers are searching for animals, they will be searching for one of these twelve animals about 90 percent of the time. This means that if you want to go out and do a shoot with a poodle it will probably not be as successful as if you did a shoot with a more stereotypical animal. Analyzing stereotypes is how I come up with ideas for new shoots and pictures.

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What are your plans for 2008? Can you give us a preview of your upcoming uploads?

In the beginning of 2008 I will launch the Yuri Arcurs Keywording Software, which will be for sale on my website and is a tool for keywording/tagging files, and I think that a lot of microstock photographers will be very happy to get their hands on it. It is designed exclusively for the photographer and is ultra-user-friendly. I can't wait to get some feedback and hear back from people using it. 2008 will also be the first year where we will be producing exclusively with the new Hasselblad H3D-II-39 at 39 megapixel, and I hope that this will help justify that microstock is a series competitor to macrostock. I also just became officially sponsored by Hasselblad and hope that 2008 will bring opportunity to show off that title a little.

To see more of Yuri Arcurs' work, visit his gallery on the site.