How Stock Photography built my Grammar

Some photographers may have been fortunate enough to obtain professional guidance in their early endeavors at serious photography. I, on the other hand, belong to the camp that had to do on their own. I built most of my photography knowledge through my stock photography experience. My stock work and the associated challenges helped develop my photography grammar.

Stock Photography (1)

After eight months with a point & shoot, I bought my first DSLR in August 2009; a second hand Nikon D200. Combined with a brand new Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, I figured perhaps I could make some money out of my somewhat professional gear. I figured this would also ease the buying process of future gear with the wife. This was how I came across online stock photography (microstock) that would later become an enlightening experience.

Stock Photography (2)

Developing your skills as a stock photographer may sound like merely a means to an end, but it involves a very specific set of parameters that makes stock photography a challenge and a unique learning process. Stock photography, in general, consists of photo libraries that can be licensed for specific uses allowing entities to buy specific usage rights based on the licensing model. In a way these entities save time and money by using existing stock images instead of hiring photographers on assignment. The advantage of stock photography to photographers is that they can make money from images created without assignment, and when the images are successful they can keep selling over the years. Microstock is one type of stock agencies that is entirely internet-based and focuses mainly on the “Royalty Free” licensing model where pictures are typically sold at very low prices. With microstock agencies, amateurs are welcome to contribute and sell their images, if they are able to produce high quality pictures. This provides a great opportunity for amateurs to generate some income from their hobby. Of course the income generated is somewhat proportional to the number of images in the photographer’s portfolio.

Stock Photography (3)

My first step towards being accepted into the microstock agency was by submitting three of my best images which I managed to accomplish on the third attempt, but it was the subsequent rejections to submitted work that made the heaviest impact. Stock images demand strict standards, and every submission gets inspected for content and quality. It is not at all uncommon that even the most experienced will occasionally have submitted work rejected. In my case, it was the challenge of rejections that pushed my photography as well as post processing skills. It also developed some thicker skin in the process. I had to start paying more attention to such things as composition, lighting, and focus. I learned how to control contrast and make more use of the histogram. I recall one rejected submission for having extreme tonal adjustments. The agency rejected the image specifying their reason to leave extreme tonal adjustments to be done by the customer buying the image so that they may edit it according to their taste. So I simply re-submitted the same image with moderate contrast. Seeing that all images get inspected at 100% crop, I learned the benefits of shooting raw vs. jpg and my eyes became more trained to subtle differences. I became more familiar with issues like noise, posterization, chromatic aberration, and how to avoid or address them. With the D200 noise performance I made sure to capture properly exposed images in-camera. I also became more aware of detail loss that results from too much noise reduction, and of the artifacts that result from too much sharpening. With stock images, the larger the better; this forced me to shoot my D200 at 10 megapixels with no cropping in mind.

Stock Photography (4)

In the process, the lucky rejections were those that came back with specific reasons. Otherwise most rejections included a response along the lines of: “WE FOUND THE OVERALL COMPOSITION OF THE LIGHTING COULD BE IMPROVED, SOME OF THE TECHNICAL ASPECTS TO CONSIDER ARE: FLAT/DULL COLORS, INCORRECT WHITE BALANCE …”, and other aspects were listed. In other occasions when I had nailed the technicalities, the images were rejected as unworthy of addition to the library, which thinking about later were sometimes truly unworthy of hard drive space. After all, the inspection is done by human beings and not by a computer program.

Stock Photography (5)

I think it is important for anyone pursing better photography to acquire some basic skills that can get easily overlooked in today’s world of digital cameras. The rejections in my stock photography experience worked for me, but I’m certain that other photographers made the move into the “serious” camp through other means. Seeking feedback and criticism remains a great deal in guiding you towards improved skills and practices.

Stock Photography (6)

I have long since lost interest in stock work and the money I made from my very few images is a little shy of the price I paid for the used D200; it was nonetheless a fulfilling experience with a long lasting effect on my photography work. I am currently exploring film photography as a new way of slowing down to spend more thought in the process, and I acquired a cheap analog light meter off eBay to go along with that. The images selected for this article were captured by either my very first point & shoot camera or the Nikon D200.

Stock Photography (7)

Stock Photography (8)

Stock Photography (9)

Stock Photography (10)

This guest post was contributed by Samer Rizk. If you would like to see more of Samer’s work, please visit his 500px page.


  1. 1) Autofocusross
    October 14, 2013 at 4:14 am

    I really enjoyed reading of your thoughts and experiences in a really well written article, and supported by some really great images too. May I thank you for sharing this with us, it is so refreshing to see that the real photographers are still alive and doing great things with cameras, not just chasing the next great camera, or lens etc.

    I had a similar path to your own but my real crunch moment in photography came when I moved into shooting weddings on a paid basis. I did a couple, at first, for a nominal fee, lacking experience and confidence. At the time it was film only, so my trusty Canon A1 was put into great service. I had owned it for over five years, and I knew every control, every switch, backwards and forwards without thinking. This is the true art of making the best photographs with what you have – being at one with the camera.

    I fear the rapidity with which camera models are launched (under 18 months is getting to be the norm) to replace the previous model, is eroding the precious commodity of being ‘at one’ with your camera. It can take quite a long time to get to the stage where you can pick up the camera and adjust things to what is needed, quickly, and without thinking (through practice, experience, and knowledge of your own camera).

    I had some bad shots from my first few weddings, but had to rely on my own judgement, and those of my wife and friends, to determine which were the keepers and which would not be shown to the clients.

    It’s similar to your experience with the stock agency, though I imagine you had already pre-selected your best shots, some of which got rejected, just like some of my submitted shots to clients were never ordered for albums etc.

    It is a humbling experience, and you really DO learn a tremendous lesson in what sells, and why, and what is wrong with rejected work too… in fact, you learn, or I do anyway, much more from the failures than I ever do from the best shots.

    I Really enjoyed reading your article, thanks again, a very refreshing change from much of what we see online these days.

    • October 15, 2013 at 7:13 am

      Hello and thank you for your feedback and for sharing your own experience..
      I completely agree with your point about the rate at which new camera models are launched, I’d even add that it sometimes gets too overwhelming with the amount of gear that we think we must have.. Many times I have to stop and think what camera system to grab along; my DSLR, mirrorless, film camera or just my iphone; at these times I really wish things were much simpler..

      Thanks again for your feedback..

  2. October 14, 2013 at 5:32 am

    ” I am currently exploring film photography as a new way of slowing down to spend more thought in the process, and I acquired a cheap analog light meter off eBay to go along with that”.

    A very interesting article. After 20 years of abandoning film photography I have returned to film, although my Nikon D800 and D7100 are still my principal tools. The reason I have done this is 2 fold.

    Firstly, I belong to a strong Monochrome group where much work is produced on film, then either scanned or darkroom printed. I have become very keen on the use of B&W film again, so will process and scan.

    Secondly, I have become too fast when shooting digital, mainly because the camera does the work and the result is immediate. Time to slow down and get back to basics.

    I have recently bought my first SLR second hand, an Olympus OM10 (my last was the OM4Ti), a Nikon f80, so I can use my Nikon lenses. Most of all I have bought what I could never have afforded in its day, a mint boxed Bronica ETRSi + two lenses. I now, once again have a fridge full of film and set up a small facility for processing them although chemicals are expensive! I already had a light meter, a Gossen Digipro which I even used with digital.

    I have found the experience inspirational. Film is on the up in the UK and recently Ilford even resurrected its darkroom classes. Film cameras are dirt cheap compared to the days when we used them and if one is a Nikon user every lens launched after 1959 with only a few exceptions.

    What have I learned? I now take more time, use a tripod when appropriate, concentrate on exposure and composition (film and processing’s expensive) and this care has been transferred to my digital work too. I would recommend anyone who has the time, the budget and the space to have a go. A cheap Olympus OM10 with a 50mm f1.8 lens cost me £25 ($37) and a mint Nikon f8 £27. If one doesn’t want to self process, then plenty of companies offer reasonable cost processing.

    Give it a go!


    • October 15, 2013 at 7:36 am

      Richard, thank you for your feedback.

      While new to me, I’m as well finding the film experience inspirational. It’s true anyone can explore film for cheap today. However, depending on where you are, the film processing/scanning part might be a little bit of a challenge and somewhat expensive. It has been for me especially that I had decided not to do any of it myself.


  3. 3) Ronald Dewar
    October 14, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Thank you for such an interesting post. The follow up posts are so interesting as well. I found that photographing with film made me stop and think of what I was dong. What was my subject and what was I trying to achieve. Doing photography that way is almost a form of meditation. Great for the mental health! Yes, digital photography, even with a very expensive camera can be turned into a point and shoot exercise with the camera doing all of the “thinking” for you. I have a stressful job, a stressful second job, and a couple of adopted children with health issues. The time left over for photography is really limited, much as I love heading outside with a camera. Thinking that I too would love to continue with film, I bought, several years back, two Leica SLRs, still in nice condition, but have not shot a single roll of film through them. I take them out once a year to test the shutter and light metering and generally check them out hoping that some day I will have the time to shoot some film.

    Thanks again for your insightful post.


    • October 15, 2013 at 8:07 am

      Ronald, thanks for your feedback.

      I know how it feels when you wish you could enjoy using a certain camera more often. To keep things simpler, I had decided not to do most of the film processing and scanning parts. I get my 35mm film developed and scanned at Walmart which offers low resolution scanning only. I will then re-scan the few images I like most at higher resolution. Might not be the best quality for some, but it is cheap that way and has allowed me to shoot more film.


  4. 4) Bill
    October 14, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    If a photo enthusiast were interested in finding out how to go about submitting pictures for stock photography, where would we go?

    • October 15, 2013 at 8:47 am

      Hello Bill,

      I personally had to go nowhere but to the agency website itself; the forums in particular had tons of information. Also the folks there were always very helpful when I needed assistance; more specifically when I needed critique for my images.


  5. 5) Lilantha
    October 16, 2013 at 1:47 am

    Dear Guest Poster

    Seventh photograph (man with a heavy lord on his head)definitely taken at Adams peak (we called Sri Pada) of Sri Lanka. Am I write?
    By the way I m from Sri Lanka.

  6. October 16, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Hello Lilantha, yes you are right, this was taken at Adams Peak :)


  7. October 18, 2013 at 3:49 am

    Very nice photos! One of the photo, is it taken from Toroto centre island? I see the canada goose.

    • October 18, 2013 at 7:37 am

      Thanks Jason, and yes you are right, the photo was taken from Toronto centre island..


  8. 8) Antonius
    January 15, 2014 at 9:13 am

    Awesome post. It is interesting to read that the emotions and feelings newbies have when entering the microstock arena. It is sometimes a roller coaster ride when the mundane is accepted and when your best efforts are rejected. It is a massive learning curve and you have to change/shift you eye towards commercialism to the image.

    One of the first comments was how fast tech changes and how often we “have” to change our equipment, well, I am still shooting with a D70! And my images are accepted. One way to force you to think about each image is to use a small card (I use only a 500MB). With all the limitations of the D70 I cannot shoot too much since it will corrupt the memory card.

    We’ll by now all your members are probably laughing at me so I will stop writing, maybe I must upgrade to a Df…lol.

    Cheers :)


    • January 17, 2014 at 7:21 am

      thank you Antonious for sharing your thoughts and your own experience… I must say you have a unique talent of resisting all the marketing forces seeing that you are still on a Nikon D70 :)


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