Heather Morton: Marketing in the Digital Age

Heather Morton by Robert lansdale

Ms Morton is a Toronto based Art Buyer. “Art Buying refers to the act of securing still imagery for commercial use. In a nutshell, she helps advertising agencies and design firms find the right photographer or illustrator for their concept and manages the process of producing that image.
“The Art Buyer fulfills two important but different functions: On one hand, it is a creative role,  collaborating with the creative team to source the right creative supplier (it takes a keen interpretive eye combined with a comprehensive knowledge of current photography and illustration trends and styles). In a completely different way, an Art Buyer is also a Project Manager.”

Heather was introduced by Felix Russo who noted that from the beginning of photography, those who entered the fledgling industry to make money had to come up with ways to market their skills. One example from the wet plate era was the popular carte de visite which could serve as a business card – and the popular use of an ornate back on the card images of all sizes to promote the studio.

Heather titled her talk “The Digital Age: Fear and Opportunity”  marking it as another perspective on the effect of the digital revolution on the photographic industry. She began with a description of the pre-digital way a commercial photographer marketed his talents: The photographer created a portfolio of his best work at considerable cost and dropped a copy off to a prospective client. With the need to have five or more portfolios in circulation, he may have as much as $5,000 invested in this means to market his work.

sample hard copy promos

Ten years ago, she called in books to see what the photographers could do. The samples she brought tonight are just a drop in the bucket compared to the volume she would get in a year. These books had to be catalogued and filed for quick reference.

Today she bases her hiring decisions almost completely by looking online and rarely “calls in a book” anymore. The modern photographer no longer needs to produce and maintain a number of expensive portfolio books.

The digital revolution has caused such a seismic shift on who can/is becoming a photographer. On one side it made the professional’s workflow faster and easier, but on the other it lowered the entry barrier for new “photographers”. This lead in the short term to a glut of photographers, many cheap but unqualified offering low bids rather than quality work. To amplify this state, Heather quoted in full a response by Terry Reinert  (#11) to the post “Stop Accepting $200 Assignments” on Ron Haggart’s blog “A Photo Editor”.

flickr and facebook

She characterized the forces photographers face today as “two F words: Flickr and Facebook”. Flickr represents the amateur/flickr photographer (cheap competition), while Facebook stands for the pressure to use social media as a big part of the professional’s promotional plan (pressure to stay current on the various social platforms).



Sharon Pruitt

As an example of a flickr photographer, Heather spoke of Sharon Pruitt. She is an American military wife and stay at home mom who began by using an under $100 camera and thanks to a Getty Images deal now earns an estimated $400 – $500 a month as a quasi-pro photographer.
Today’s $100 cameras which “can go to billboard” led to the  democratization of photography. Twelve years ago a professional would never use a 35mm camera to go to billboard – even medium format was just coming in to use for this purpose. Now these inexpensive “off the rack” cameras and amateurs are the competition the professionals are up against.



Domino Pizza

So many people are taking so many images now that some ad agencies have started using “consumer generated” content. In what became a viral video, Dominoes used a videographer at a food shoot to record the tricks used to get perfect food stills. This video ad then touted the quality of Dominoes pizzas and invited consumers to take pictures of their pizza when it was delivered and promised to use the best shots in an ad.  The resulting ads skipped both professional  photographers and food stylists.


James Ready

Another example of “consumer generated” content was a campaign by Leo Burnett of Toronto. James Ready is a small beer brand out of Niagara Falls targeting students with its low cost brews. The campaign idea was “help keep James Ready a buck”. The premise implied the brewer was cheap and couldn’t afford pictures for its bill boards and  instead would “rent” part of them out to amateur photographers. It was a very successful campaign integrating the consumer with the brand. No professional  photographers or art buyers were involved, only amateur images were used.


Today the professional photographer contends with a dozen different marketing tools. His web site is most important followed by his branded portfolio. The iPad is growing in importance, especially if the photographer does video too. Some photographers even insert an iPad in their branded portfolio. The device has a great display for stills as well as videos.

traditional style

It is crucial that a photographer’s web site intended for marketing be fast loading and easy to navigate. The art buyer has a lot of sources to review with no time to wait for background music or elaborate flash applications to load. (Also given the popularity of  the iPad and iPhone which do not display Flash, any Flash content must be duplicated with html.) Heather is not only inundated with print promotions, she also receives email promos. They are used by professionals in an attempt to compete with low price amateurs. The email promos must stand out to catch the art buyer’s eye. Heather showed the promo

Jon Saunders

from Jonathan Saunders who uses the subject line, “I Like to tell stories“. He often makes his email promos relevant to current news. For example, the day after George Carlin died, his email promo had a Carlin photo and associated story. He did similar quick promos after the BP Oil Spill, Michael Jackson’s death, etc. His approach shows he is someone who knows how to grab an art buyer’s attention. A blog is what a photographer needs to show himself beyond his images.  Heather commented on Finn O’Hara’s blog as an example. O’Hara posts regularly and experiments a lot. Photo District News magazine published an article on his motion pictures. Check out feeding frenzy on his blog and see his portfolio here on his website.

Finn O'Hara

Getting an art buyer’s attention can be tough. Heather’s reaction to email promos is to spend at the most 2 minutes viewing good images – all the rest go straight to trash. And there is also a growing opposition to email promos as address lists are being sold leading to a lot of spam. Added to this it is often hard to get an appointment with an art buyer. And there is even resistance to print promos – no room to store them, tedious to catalogue, hard to search.



There is even a web site in beta that offers to host photographer (and illustrator) promos. The site, First-Stop.org, touts itself as “an earth friendly hub” where creatives can find “their new favorite photographers and illustrators” while reducing the volume of paper promotion sent out.




image brief

Heather then described a new concept. Buyers can go to a stock house, or ask photographers to submit existing images for a job, but they do not expect photographers to shoot on spec. This new concept called “Image Brief” changes that. It asks photographers to respond to a project by shooting at their own cost in hopes their submitted work will be “awarded” with a contract.


Heather sees more change over the next decade: Social media is helpful for those comfortable interacting with like-minded people. Video is another pressure on photographers – and art buyers who deal mostly in still photography. The division between motion and stills is steadily blurring and there is talk of photographers becoming image makers encompassing both still and motion work. After five years of digital as the only media acceptable to art directors, traditional film is seeing new interest as an alternative process. Some art directors are now open to accepting film for its special look and feel.

Another pressure comes from the microstock industry which is extremely popular. These stock houses like iStockphoto license images for as little as $20 per non-exclusive use. This has really hurt the higher end stock houses and the demand for commissioned work.


From Heather’s point of view, such per use images should only be used for minor work like adding an image to a cell phone in an ad or when a client faces a tight time constraint. She gave an anecdote regarding a large corporation that used a stock image many times for advertising without paying for exclusivity. This worked fine until one day the company discovered a funeral home was using the same image in its advertising…

Summing up the digital revolution: It has dropped the cost of using stock. It has reduced the value of commercial images. It has lowered the barrier to taking and selling images. It has blurred the boundary between still and motion work. And it has opened up new ways for the art buyers and photographers to interact.

This page was designed in WordPress on an iMac running OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). The lead images of Heather were taken by Robert Lansdale. Some of the remaining images are screen grabs or taken directly or from the projector screen with a Sony NEX-5 digital still camera. All were subsequently adjusted in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V3.3 and Photoshop CS5. Presentation images are ©2011 by Heather Morton and may used only with her permission. Contents and all other images are ©2011 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada and may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Copies of photographs displayed during this presentation may not be used without the copyright holder’s permission. Contact PHSC at info@phsc.ca if you would like more information on the items discussed in this post.

This entry was posted in program and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.