How to Shoot Stock

(This article is re-posted from my deviantart.com stock account.)

In the last 3 days I have had 4 different people ask me "I am thinking of starting to shoot stock. Do you have any advice for me?" So, rather than answer each separately, I'm going to write a mini-braindump and post it here. That way I can edit it and attach images, etc. Because I am super busy, I probably won't follow up on comments posted here. Please accept my apologies in advance. Also, please bear in mind that there are many different ways to accomplish creative things - I don't pretend to know them all, or to be making a definitive statement of revealed truth. If you do things differently and it works for you, great. This is how I do things, and it works for me; hopefully some of this is useful to you and you take my suggestions in the spirit they are offered. There are 3 different areas I'll address:


Creativity

It's all about creativity to me. That's why I do this. I come up with an idea and say to myself, "Self? Wouldn't it be fun to shoot some pink bunny ninja stock and post it and see what people come up with in response?" Creating stock, for me, is a fun way of becoming part of the creative process of hundreds or thousands of complete strangers. It lets me play a game with the world - and the game is called Here it is! Have fun! If you want to shoot stock for money, you should research what other people want (i.e.: what kind of stuff is being used for ads and flyers, etc.) and shoot that. Look on the commercial stock sites and see what's selling, then go produce stock that will sell. If you're like me, and you want to have fun, then being creative and interesting is the way to go. If you're the one person on the Internet who's posted stock of ninjas with chainsaws (hmm.. that's a good idea...) or bride with a gun or death on a tricycle, you can completely dominate that field very easily.

Don't let the small stuff get you down. Take advice and criticism and know when to tell people to "shove it" and when to listen. I've gotten - I honestly don't know how many - loads of messages suggesting that I do some male stock. So I hired a male model, and then a couple, and I had some of the most fun shoots I've ever had. My most popular stock image, the "death rides a little red tricycle" image, was shot for Optycal, who asked if I could provide a piece of stock for a book project she's doing. Ignore the little crap, like the idiots who don't realise the image is stock and complain that you didn't photoshop out the seams in you backdrop - and fight like mad over what you think is important, like the cowardly fundamentalists who complain about mature content flags on images that show less skin than a typical bathing suit. If you succeed, you'll make enemies among that group of people you'll be qualified to refer to as "losers."

Come up with a strategy for posting your stock - have a naming scheme that lets your users search for all the images in a set. I.e.: "By the sword - 1", "By the sword - 2" etc. Since I shoot with a variety of models, I sometimes use letters in the names so I can tell which model was which. I.e.: "Art nudes S - 1" (aah, that'd be Sarah Ellis from shoot #2..) Some stock artists post entire sets as a .ZIP file, with a single thumbnail file index of images. That's also a really cool way of doing it, except I like being able to let people comment on individual images. Decide what you want to do and stick with it, because changing it later is going to be hard. For example, I used to not have comments turned on for images - and now, I have 500 images I'd have to edit the settings for, individually. Ugh. Look at what other stockers do and choose an approach that works for you that you can live with for a couple years and a few thousand images. If you enjoy shooting stock, you might find you've got a ton of data to manage and putting time into getting it right from the beginning is going to be time well-spent.

Come up with a usage policy that you're going to be OK with for a long time. No matter how you do it, make it so that it's updateable. Don't put it in every image, because if you need to change it you'll have to edit hundreds of images individually. The way I did it was a single journal entry
http://mjranum-stock.deviantart.com/journal/12259531/
that I link everything to. That way I can change things in that one place. Bear in mind that a lot of people won't even read your usage policy. Not everyone reads whatever language you write, and there are a lot of people who flat-out do not understand copyright and don't care.

If having your images ripped off bothers you consider a different hobby; maybe knitting. Shooting stock is all about putting your images where people are going to take them and do stuff with them. You cannot both relinquish control and keep it. Consequently, I make sure that I ask my models "is it OK to use you for stock?" separately from just "do you want to pose for me?" I've shot with some models who are not bothered at all by appearing nude on the Internet, but don't want to appear on some amateurish knock-off Tshirt for an unknown garage band. Whenever I shoot stock I make sure my model understands what they are getting into. For example :iconmiss-mosh: was willing to be used for stock (and has been a very popular vampire-lady) but didn't want me to post any nude stock of her. Make sure you assume that other people won't follow your rules (no matter how nicely you ask!) - the key to dealing with Copyright in the Internet age is to have very very low expectations.


Operations

Getting models is easy. You start with a fairly good-sized stack of $20 bills, and you end with a very small one. Or, you get good at talking your friends into posing for you. I prefer to work with professional models because - well - the results should speak for themselves. The main places I get models are:

There are countless threads on "dealing with models" so I won't go into that in great detail except to suggest that: Props are lots of fun but are not strictly necessary. There are some stockers who do great work with just a piece of gauzy fabric. There is great usefulness in ordinary clothes, too. If you have a nice business suit, dress up in it and shoot some "generic executive boardroom stock" or maybe some "you're fired! clean out your desk! stock" or perhaps "the day my boss came to work with a chainsaw stock" if you have a chainsaw. I work a lot with props but if I didn't have so much fun hunting for props I could probably shoot for a couple years just going through my old wardrobe. Sources for props:

A word about Ebay: It's where I get most of my props. What I do is low-ball bid something until I get it. Plan ahead and you'll save a lot of money. For example, I wanted a big white lacy bridal gown but didn't want to spend a lot on it. So I just kept periodically searching for one and bidding $20 here and there and - eventually - I got one for $14. It had some stains on it, and was a weird size but that's perfect for stock. Nobody can tell if the outfit is held together in the back with woodworkers' clamps! (that's what I use!)

Weapons are something I shoot with a lot. Sometimes I use real guns/swords and sometimes I use fakes. Some items are dangerous, others are not. I always ask the model first if they are comfortable with handling weapons (real or otherwise) or posing aggressively. Some people just don't want to be represented that way and I respect their feelings. I always explain what props are real and what are fake, and follow good safety practices. Don't hand a model a razor-sharp samurai sword without telling them it's sharp! The only injury I've had in my studio in 10+ years was a model who was hanging from a rope and lost her grip and fell 10" onto her backside. Even that can hurt. Be careful!

Model releases make good friendships. A model release is your model's written permission to use the images you captured. Basically, it's a statement of your shared understanding how the photos will be used:
Make sure you have that shared understanding before you push the shutter release the first time!
Always find out if the model wants names or websites listed, and how, before you post an image. I usually ask my models if they have a DA account and link to it. I keep a small web-page on my site, with samples of the model releases I use, and an FAQ, so I can direct a prospective model to that page and not have to repeat myself over and over. Feel free to borrow any of it, if you like. The model release I use is not a typical commercial release - typical commercial releases give the models no rights over the images whatsoever. Personally, I don't like that - but some models I work with are OK with commercial releases. Google for "sample adult model release" and you'll find examples.

Under 18 models are a pain to work with, generally. Not because of government regulation (unless you are shooting explicit content) but because a minor cannot sign a legal agreement like a model release without a parent. If you're shooting stock with a minor, it's probably a good idea to have their parent there. I've seen some photographers get parents to sign a statement that the shoot was conducted in a professional manner, etc. If you're that paranoid, you might want to take up a different subject - like your dog. There are government regulations in the US regarding photography that are intended to scare photographers into not exercising their rights. These mostly present themselves as things like section 2257A of Title 18 of the US Code. While laws like 2257A are scary, they deal solely with the production of commercial explicit material (i.e.: "porn") and do not apply to images that do not involve sexual behavior. If you're shooting sexual stock, you should consult a lawyer and stay the hell away from under 18 year-old subjects. Because of the headaches involved, I wouldn't recommend shooting stock of a minor to post on DA unless they were wearing full armor, a burqua, or scuba gear. There are too many fundagelical idiots on DA and DA's owners are unwilling to risk conflict. It's their site, so their rules apply.


Technical Stuff

Stay level with your subject when shooting them. For stock, you want your images to be as un-distorted as possible (let the artist do the distorting!) so keep your camera at about the approximate level of your subject's belly button. Have you seen pictures of someone and wondered why their head looked so big and their feet so small? That's what happens when a tall person shoots a picture of a short person; since the camera records 2-dimensional images there are none of the depth cues that your eyes need to tell what is actually farther away, and the image looks distorted. (Technically, the "wrong" image is right; it's just not being corrected in realtime by your brain). When I shoot stock, I usually sit on my favorite studio prop: a milk crate. It keeps me at the right height. Look at the picture of the girl with the vase, below, and you'll notice that the camera was about even with her hip; it looks very natural.

You do not need expensive lights or studio gear. Nor do you need an expensive, fancy camera or a whizzy super duper lens. Most of the great photographs shot before 1970 were shot on gear that's technically inferior to a modern "prosumer" digital camera. It is the photographer that matters, not the camera. Or the lights. Etc. I have seen way too many photographers spend more time worrying about their gear than their photography; end result: a nice camera bag full of gizmos and no photographs worth looking at.

Lighting on a budget is quite straightforward. There's this gigantic nuclear fusion-powered studio light called The Sun, and it's free. It's also really hard to get controlled effects like side-lighting with the nuclear-powered light, unless you only shoot at dusk or sunup. That's why studio photographers have controlled lighting and light modifiers. Your simplest form of light modifier is a "scrim" - basically a sheet of translucent fabric that is stretched in front of a light to soften it and even it out. If you search on Ebay for "scrim" or "diffusion" you'll find them for about $20. What you do is either:


Spend your $$ on your model, not your light modifiers! If you're on basically zero budget, consider using a mirror to direct the sun, and a scrim to soften it. Or bounce sunlight off of a sheet of white foam-core or a white-painted wall.



A scrim on a $10 frame made of PVC pipe. Setting up a scrim can be done horizontally or vertically - just get it between the subject and the sun:

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To get images with even and "sweet" lighting you need to know the single most important thing about lighting. It's a big secret:
the size of the light controls the size of the reflection of the light off the subject.

It's not the intensity of the light, it's the size of the visual appearance of the light. Sunlight looks "hard" because the sun is very far away and it looks really really small to us. So the reflections it makes on its subject are small and hard-looking reflections. If you were close enough to the sun that it occupied 1/2 your scene, the light would look very soft in your camera, for a brief instant before you vaporized into plasma. These are two images shot with the same (compensated using aperture and shutter speed) light:

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The lower image was shot using two $50 mini screw-in flash units that I got on Ebay, the upper was shot using a $4000 Speedotron black line studio strobe firing through a 7-foot diameter octodome. These images illustrate two things: one, it's not the amount of light and two, it's not the cost of the light.

The reason that the lower image looks sharper and punchier is not because it's under-lit, but because the shot that was done with the octodome reflects larger reflections on the model, because the 7 foot light surface is much bigger than the 2 foot light surface of the cheap mini screw-in units. (see the photo at the bottom of the page for a comparison of the little flashes and the big octodome) If you use a 5 foot by 8 foot scrim (see the shot above) the reflections of the light off the subject are very large and the image appears more even and less contrasty. Look at the image above of the girl with the vase and you'll see that there are large areas of white reflection on the vase - if the light source was a point, those reflections would be very small and hard-looking. For the image above, I used umbrellas on the little screw-in flashes, to make the light-sources appear larger. If I'd taken the umbrellas off, I'd have gotten very hard light, indeed. You can simulate a large light-source with several small ones close together, like I did with the two umbrellas side-by-side. What does all this have to do with stock?

For stock, you want your light to be flat, but interesting. Interesting, so it catches someone's eye and makes them think "I want to use that!" but flat so that there's enough detail through the entire image so that there's something there for them to work with. Don't make your images too contrasty - leave that to the post-workers in photoshop. The images of Rayn above are pretty dark in the shadows and wouldn't be as easy to use for stock as the more evenly-lit image of the girl with the vase. Avoid dramatic art-lighting, unless you want to limit the appeal of your stock.

What kind of gear do you use? A camera, 2 lights, and a backdrop. Some stock photographers use 3 lights, but I like to have a shadow on part of my images, to give them depth. You decide what works for you. Very simple, flat lighting can be done with 2 lights, one at a slight angle from the camera and the other closer to side-on from the camera:

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You can tell where the lights are by looking at the shadow that the model's knife casts on the backdrop. In this case, because the backdrop is a very neutral grey, it should be easy to separate the model off of it in photoshop. My favorite lighting is equally simple but a bit more dramatic. I use a small light to illuminate the backdrop and a main light to illuminate the subject. The main light is big (and makes large soft reflections) and the backdrop light is a gridded spotlight that makes a fairly hard light. The spotlight's reflection off the backdrop serves to highlight the subject and makes it easier to separate the subject off the background in photoshop. My usual lighting for stock:

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This is what it looks like, in action:

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Click HERE for an annotated version.

For a shot where your subject is wearing something dark or something that doesn't have a lot of texture, side-lighting with a spotlight, like this, gives a very clear "punchy" image that's still easy to work with. Another way of getting flatter lighting is what's sometimes called "Y-lighting." I don't have any photographic examples of how it looks because I don't particularly like the effect. It produces good detail and lots of depth, but (to my mind) the shadows on the subject look a bit contradictory. Y-lighting works well if you've got something that is dark and has lots of texture that you want to capture in fine detail:

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A word about green-screen or chroma-key: you've probably seen it used in movie-making, but it's not particularly useful for still photography with stock. The idea of chroma-key is that you've got a computer that can quickly detect a particular shade of blue or green and overlay it with another image in realtime. That's very useful for motion images, where you don't have the time to do all the detailed work in photoshop, but chroma-key colors "bleed" pretty dramatically unless they're lit extremely carefully. I've experimented with shooting against a green chroma-key screen and I've always hated the results; the models end up with a very thin "edge" of green that is hard to photoshop out. For still photography use, I recommend using a grey or mid-tone neutral-colored backdrop.

Backdrops can be as simple as a sheet, or very complicated and expensive. To get the "seamless" look, a lot of photographers use what's called a "sweep" - a curved backdrop that is arranged so that it's lit evenly and doesn't have a distinctive edge to it. Many photographers use sweeps made of heavy paper that comes in large (rather expensive) rolls. If you search on B&H Pro Video for "savage background paper" you'll find they are available in a wide range of colors. They are expensive to ship, awkward to handle, and should be stored vertically or their own weight will make them lopsided and may cause them to crease and warp. Another good source of backdrops is Amvona.com or Ebay. Low-balling bids on muslin backdrops is a good way to get them relatively inexpensively. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can buy wide roll canvas from Rose Brand Fabrics and paint it with latex paint using a roller. Rose also sells a fabric called "duvetyn" in large widths; it's a very soft-surfaced cotton that does a good job of not reflecting light. If you really want to be cheap, just buy a large canvas drop-cloth at the hardware store, and paint it. It worked for Annie Liebowitz and Irving Penn; it'll work for you, too. My studio, showing the sweep and some lights.

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Click HERE for an annotated version.

My sweep is constructed out of flooring board and fiberboard; I got tired of paying for all the paper and built a solid unit that's bolted right into the wall and floor. Whenever I need to re-color it or clean it for a shoot, I just roller about 1/4 gal of paint onto it and let it dry overnight. The total cost of materials to build this was about $140.00.

Elvis is your friend, and still The King. My plaster bust of Elvis is extremely useful if I want to test a lighting set-up before I have a model present. Other times, when I'm thinking of some complex set-up involving reflections or bounces, I'll simulate it on my kitchen floor with pans, pieces of foam-core, and a flashlight. You can teach yourself everything you need to know about studio lighting using 2 or 3 small flashlights, a barbie doll, some aluminum foil, and a couple sheets of foam-core. Of course, you'll lose your mind if you actually try to do it that way. Working with real people is easier and more fun.

Tripods are one of the best things you can have, to stretch your lighting budget. What? Huh? Yes -
if your camera is steady you can take longer exposures, which means you can save money by not having expensive, powerful, lights.

Unless you're shooting with very powerful lights and short shutter-speeds, a tripod will do more to make your images clear and sharp than anything else you can do. A cheaper camera mounted on a tripod will often out-perform a hand-held more expensive camera. A lot of my stock is shot with my camera mounted on a tripod, while I wander around the room with a wireless remote control, coaching the model and working props.

Exposure control is the other crucial aspect to making your photography be as good as it can possibly be. I'm not a big fan of trusting the computer in my camera to get exposures right, especially when I am in the studio and I am working with controlled light. I use an incident flash-meter, which measures the light falling on the spot where the subject will be standing. It's pretty much impossible to screw up your exposure with an incident meter, which means that my exposures are always very close to correct. Consequently, I save a huge amount of hard drive space by not shooting Camera-RAW; I can shoot ultra high-quality JPEG images and they're "good enough" and are 1/15th the size. If you don't want to get a light meter, and are thinking you'll just compute your exposure using histograms from your camera, there is a decent way of calibrating your shooting in this article I wrote on Happy Histograms.