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