What's it all about?

This blog is about photography and photoediting. Its purpose is to provide hints and tips and links to interesting and useful resources for digital photographers, regardless of their level of expertise or experience. It is aimed at people who use digital SLR cameras and who process their images using the latest versions of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

The author of this blog is Glenn Springer and you can read more about him at his web portal at faczen.com. Information on workshops, and links to everything is at photography.to. Glenn's original blog, which is an ongoing journal of his photographic meanderings goes back to 2006 and contains many additional hints and tips, as well as representative images that he has made. Gallery quality prints are available through his Smugmug gallery site. It is an interesting place to visit to see a variety of quality images, as well as an ongoing general journal of photos going back several years.

Photography workshops are scheduled every few weeks starting in the Spring. For an overview of what's happening, please visit the photography.to website.

The most recent blog post is below. Scroll down to the bottom to see the list of previous postings or search for any particular topic.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Shooting for Micro-Stock

If at first you don’t succeed...

You know how that saying ends. I don’t fail at a lot of things, and damn it, I haven’t given up on this one yet, but this is difficult.

I’m going to talk about shooting for stock. Most of us have surfed the stock photography sites, at least a little bit. Have you ever wondered about becoming a contributor? About shooting for stock photography?

Another saying:
  • Those who can, do.
  • Those who can’t, teach.
  • Those who can’t teach, write about those who do and teach.

 OK, I stole the last line but it fits. Just so you don’t have to Google it, the original quote is “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” And it was written by George Bernard Shaw in Maxims for Revolutionists: Education. Man and Superman, 1903. Just another piece of trivia if you ever get to be on Jeopardy.

Here’s how this all started. A member of our club, Les Palenik, shoots for stock. He told me that I have some great images, and asked if I’ve ever considered it. I was intrigued and went online to research it. If you start by Googling “Stock Photography”, you come up with over 8 million hits so this is a serious business.

So I did some research, looked at Les’s links and went over to the big guy – Shutterstock – to have a look.

There are different levels of stock photography. Shutterstock (SS to the cognoscenti) is a “Micro-stock” site where you have to do big volumes to make anything. I think the maximum price you’ll pay for an image today is $28, and that’s for unlimited use, even if you’re creating a National ad campaign for Coke (that’s “Coca Cola”, not the other kind). Limited use of a screen-size image, if it isn’t free, will cost a buck. So you have to sell lots of photos to make any money at it. It’s a numbers game. Put 20,000 images up and some of them will sell to someone! They have millions of buyers.

Getty Images is different. I haven’t delved deeply into their structure but if you select an image as a potential buyer, they want to know what use you’ll put it to, and charge accordingly. I selected one at random and said I wanted to use it on the cover of a travel brochure and got a price of several hundreds of dollars.

Here’s the catch, though. Not just anyone can post images on these sites, you have to be authorized as a contributor. Getty has a very involved and onerous process, go to their site to read about it. http://www.gettyimages.com/.

What Shutterstock does (http://www.shutterstock.com/), is asks you for 10 images. Seven out of these 10 have to meet their criteria and be accepted, and then you get your contributor card. If you’re not approved, you have to wait another month before submitting again. Even then, all images you send them are vetted. So what are these criteria? I’ll tell you in a minute.

Here’s a really good thing. There are a set of forums for Shutterstock contributors and wannabe contributors and in one of these, there are people who will help you to understand the requirements. If you submit images to the forum, you will get critiqued. They will tell you what is right and what is wrong with the images. They don’t pull punches, they’re not out to make you feel good, they don’t care much about your feelings: they just tell it like it is. Put on your flameproof suit, leave your ego at the door.

 So I dug out my best image and sent it in. They want a 500px wide image to look at, and a 100% blowup from within the image. Just figuring out how to do that is a challenge! Here:


No brainer, right? I removed the logo on the front of the canoe because I know they don’t want any logos. I cleaned it up and sharpened it. You know what reaction I got?
“OOF” (that’s short for ‘out of focus’). Too much noise. Artifacts. Unacceptable.

 WHAT? You’re kidding me. OK, the very tip of the canoe isn’t totally sharp, but you’re kidding right? Nope. They’re serious. So I tried again. And again. And again. Bottom line – looking through over 30,000 images I found TWO. TWO. That the experienced moderators on the forum thought might be accepted. I spent a lot of time discussing and trying to figure out why. And I think I tracked it down: I overprocess my images. Too much sharpening produces artifacts. Imperfect exposures create noise. Excessive noise reduction makes it unsharp. It’s a vicious circle. The “RAW vs. JPEG” article I wrote earlier came out of my experiences at Shutterstock.

 The premise is, at SS, that they don’t know what a buyer wants to use an image for, so all images on the site have to be technically correct and usable, I suppose, up to printing on the side of a bus. Also they are super-sensitive about any commercial identification in an image. If there is a car in an image it better not be a Ford (they’re really picky) and if you’re using an image in an ad for Subaru, that would be logical. If you take a picture of the Toronto skyline, you have to get rid of that “Bank of Montreal” logo on their building.

There is an exception: newsworthy images for editorial use only.

 Want another example?

Here’s a shot of the Lynx at Muskoka Wildlife Centre. Nice picture, right? Sharp focus, good composition and lighting, interesting subject, right? Buzzzzzzzzzzzz. It would be rejected. The main reason: I was told, “OOF”. They’re seeing some motion blur, if you look at his whiskers really closely (caused by the fact that although I used flash fill, the shutter speed was slower than it should have been. I wrote this up here). And again, something they call “artifacts”.

 What’s that about? Well if you sharpen a picture, you get little texture oddities in the smoother areas. If you try to get rid of them by using noise reduction, then you lose sharpness. You’re between a rock and a hard place.

I haven’t solved it yet. Here’s a picture of Cottonwood Manor that I did last summer at Lake Erie. Nice, huh? Not for Shutterstock. “OOF”. “Can’t see the textures in the bricks”. Can you believe that? Oh and by the way: that might be a recognizable building. You need to get a Property Release from the owner before they’ll accept it.

 I haven’t given up yet, but it’s frustrating. I’m especially perturbed by the fact that I can’t seem to shoot a picture with acceptable focus, even using all the right techniques – tripod, cable release, mirror lockup, I had a suspicion that there might be something wrong with my camera because it’s common to all 4 lenses I have.

 If you’ve been reading my blogs, you know that indeed, I had something wrong with the camera, but I have to admit that the problem may lie elsewhere. When I get it back from Nikon next week, I’ll be out of excuses and will have to look at my techniques, both behind the lens and at the computer. I’m pretty sure I’m over-processing my images.

 Certainly, I’m not shooting the right kind of pictures for stock. First of all, I’ve developed a bad habit of thinking I should shoot a wider image and crop the bad parts out. I have to start thinking in terms of the full frame. If nothing else, it will certainly improve my composition techniques. Artistic pictures do not have that “CV” SS is looking for. “Commercial Value”. Saleability. Commercial appeal.

 If you’re interested, go to Shutterstock.com, sign in as a contributor, then access the forums under “resources” and go to the “critique” one. Stock photographers are another breed entirely and you’ll learn a lot, just hanging out there. Be prepared to be humbled.

 In summary, here’s what they’re looking for:
  • Technically perfect images. Pin-sharp focus, perfect exposure, noise and artifact free, minimum 4Mp size. Don’t even think about using that el-cheapo 2x teleconverter. It won’t be sharp enough.
  • “Commercial Value” (CV). Images that people might buy. No ducks. Everyone sends in ducks. Nobody wants to buy them.
  • No identifying logos or anything else that might be construed as a copyright infringement. You can’t shoot a pair of basketball shoes because even if you’ve removed the Nike Swoosh, someone might identify them as being Nikes. You can’t shoot the CN Tower unless it’s only part of a skyline scene. You can’t include a car in a scene especially if it’s a Ford.
  • Any person in any image must sign a model release. Not only that, but his or her signature has to be witnessed by a third party. Ditto the owner of any recognizable building or structure. There’s an exception to this rule: if the image is topical or newsworthy, and then it might be approved for editorial use only. This is a very tricky category and new submitters are discouraged from sending in editorial images.
  • They want a broad spectrum of images in your first 10. Not all landscapes. Not all tabletop shots. No ducks.

Les has a couple of thousand images up on Shutterstock. Shooting them requires a whole new vision – some very mundane things have a high CV potential: the latch on a briefcase. A house with a 2-car garage. An old TV set. You don’t make much on the sale of an image – maybe 50¢ or $1 – but if you sell 1000 images a month... (Getty is different. You make more but it’s HARD to get hired).

I’m sticking with this because I know that if I solve the technical issues I will be a better photographer. The techniques will spill over into my other work. And besides, I don’t give up so easily! Stay tuned.