Photo workshops - Trust your instincts instead. Some stock photography guidelines.

There's a current Fuji competition  - 'Those who buy a Fujifilm X-Pro2 from a registered UK dealer and register the warranty via the UK Fujifilm site before April 8th 2016 are eligible to win a place on one of three free workshops with three different Fujifilm X-Photographers.' Unfortunately the winners will be far from lucky if they win this prize. Quite simply the three photographers are unimpressive (and that's being kind) This is cliche ridden stuff and the 'street photography' exponent has one of the worst portfolios I've ever seen, which is saying something in this poorest of all contemporary photographic genres. It's the usual B/W mid 20th. C. copycat drivel and it's lack of creativity and sheer dullness is mind blowing. 'Street Photography' seems to have one requirement these days. It's taken on a street. That's it. Oh and a shop window would help. Use that and you're really 'living the dream'.

So what to do if you're new (ish) to photography and want to improve? Well first off look at lots of photography. But don't look at it on internet sites that feature the work of 'rated' photographers. Go look at commercial, advertising and editorial photography to see what photographers who get paid shoot. Apart from anything else this can usually allow a bit of clarity, since anything that has the tag 'art photography' these days can send you down the wrong path entirely. Because we all have to work out what, how and why we create images and what we want from our hobby / passion / job. And no workshop or course with some out of work snapper telling you how to copy them is going to help with that. 

Digital photography offers great opportunities for trial and error and it's not hard to spot your work improving. And if you really are unable to tell whether you are getting better or not, then no amount of time spent on workshops will really help and maybe it's time to consider something else as a hobby. Ultimately the best advice is 'keep it simple', concentrate on presenting your subject matter, accurately, well exposed and without any 'clutter'. Too often inexperienced photographers and those lacking in confidence try too hard to include too much in a photograph, or spend too much time looking for an 'artistic' approach when that is neither appropriate or needed. And the vast amount of commercial photography has no artistic pretensions and in the main is getting the product, the place or the person presented in the best possible way.

And of course don't forget that there is still room in all of this for your own personal point of view. Yes it may take a while to be able to work out what that is and to refine it to a state where it works. And copying others doesn't help with that. There are some guidelines that we all embrace. i.e. for landscape photography there is no excuse for sloping horizons and the rule of thirds is a useful place to start. For portraits, focusing on the eyes always makes for the strongest compositions and there are many examples of useful guidelines that make a good starting point for many different styles of photography. And much of this is already out there on the internet, so why bother attending some workshop? which will probably pass on much the same advice.

Finally, my biggest complaint about these workshops / courses etc. is what kind of teaching skills do the practitioners have? I made the mistake of attending a so-called 'workshop' at one of the photography shows on DSLR video. Basically, I just wanted to see what it was like. It was, I have to say, truly awful. The 'teacher' or workshop leader (or whatever he called himself) spent the entire session talking about how important it was to get the white balance right. This involved him running through the various options on his Canon DSLR and then passing his camera round so that we could see the difference. For some reason he seemed to think that we were all incapable of running through those options on our own cameras and then deciding (surprise surprise) that it was probably best to shoot video using a neutral WB. And if you think I'm joking, or making that up, I'm not, that is exactly what happened for the entire 1/2 hour (or at least until I walked out!)

Coming from the music world I am well aware that the best practitioners don't make the best teachers, in fact why would they? There can be some value in demonstrating why choices are made, what it takes to develop technique and the value of practice that can be useful in developing skills in any artistic endeavour, but too often workshops and courses attempt to indoctrinate rather than encourage and while letting a group photographers shoot away at a subject and then discussing what emerges does have a point and a purpose, it's difficult not to let personal choices influence any critical analysis. And I speak as an accredited teacher, that it's not always easy to disassociate my own preferences from any attempt to be helpful to somebody without my experience. 

So before you sign up for that course or workshop, think about whether you really need it. Personally I found a lot of useful guidance in studying the work of landscape photographers I admired, when I was starting out and that's always a good place to start. There IS value in advice on how to start a business and running it and how to keep up to date with new developments and new fashions in certain styles of photography and of course, in my line of work stock photography, it's always a good idea to know what kinds of images sell and what don't. However that can easily be done by going to one of the most popular sites, choosing a subject you're interested in and seeing what the best sellers are. Now this doesn't mean that you should just copy those and in fact that may well be counter productive, but it should at least give some indication as to where your work stands in relation to what people are prepared to spend their money on. 

Finally, so this isn't all negative, I'm including something I've published before. Now in terms of advice, I only really feel qualified to pass some on in terms of what I do, stock photography and I thought I'd share this again. It was in response to a question on a forum about what somebody needed to do to make a success from shooting stock. For what it's worth, this is what I come up with.

"I make 90% of my living from this, and have been doing it for over 20 years, so here are a few tips that might make it easier if you're trying to get started.

1)You have to spread yourself as wide as possible. Don't go with just one library, go with as many as you can. I have work with 16 currently.

2)You need quantity AND quality. There's a rough guide that says that once you have a certain quantity online, you can expect to make an amount equal to $1 per image per year. However you need many 1000's online for sale before this kicks in.

3)Its a long term job. It can take years before you start to make any real money. People think its an easy option to make some extra cash. Its not. It takes as much work and persistence to become successful, as it does to make a living from portraiture, weddings, advertising, commercial etc.

4)One rejection is nothing. My first library wanted to see 1000 "sellable" shots before they took me on. The first batch was turned down, so I had to shoot another 1000!

5)Have a good look at whats out there. Check out all the sites, looking at what the competition for your kind of image is. Do you have better shots? If not why would anyone buy yours?

6)Ignore the fact that somebody on the internet said your pictures are good, ignore the fact that you have taken competition winners. Stock is about what designers and picture editors want. In virtually all cases, your images are there to serve the text, not vice-versa. Look in newspapers, magazines and on websites. How are pictures used? What kind of pictures are used? Many of the pictures you see are fairly ordinary, but most will be well composed and technically OK. My most sold image is of a bathroom!

7)Be prepared to work really hard and long. Shooting images, editing them, captioning and keywording them takes a long time and much of it is far from fun.

8)Shoot ALL original images raw. The final product is going to be sold for download at jpg.8 usually, so shooting on jpg. originally means the image will degrade too much.

9)View all images at 100% to check for CA, fringing, noise, artefacts. Make sure your levels are within printable limits. Most libraries require 5 to 250. i.e. no pure white, no pure black.

10)Shoot everything you can at the lowest ISO possible, including interiors. If you don't own a tripod, GET ONE!

11)Make sure your image is bright and well-exposed. Learn to get this right in-camera as it means less work later and your images will look better.

12)If you shoot travel, landscape etc. never shoot in dull, overcast light. Nobody is going to buy pictures like that, unless you are shooting extreme weather. Blue skies sell pictures.

13)If you shoot lifestyle, people etc. you will need model releases. You will also need to update these kinds of image regularly as clothes, gadgets, cars, interior design etc. go out of fashion very quickly.

14)You may get get pictures rejected simply because the library has too many of the same, they don't think it will sell or its technically poor. With the amount of images available, libraries can now be incredibly choosy about what they take. They expect top quality, both aesthetically and technically. If you can't give them that, there are lots of others who can.

15)Stock photography is now global. You are competing with the whole world! Libraries tend to have all the pictures of cats, dogs, sunsets over lamposts, cute toddlers etc. they are ever going to need. Modern online libraries have millions of images online. Alamy in the UK has 60 Million + for example.

16)Does your image look good as a thumbnail? Because thats how people will view it first. What is going to make them click on it to see the larger version?

17)With regard to the above, keep it simple. If you need to write a couple of paragraphs to explain whats going on in your picture, then you are in trouble.

18)Stock photography is nothing to do with art.

19)Did I say stock photography is nothing to do with art?

20)With regard to 18 and 19, take as much trouble and care over photographing ordinary domestic objects or street furniture as you would over a glorious landscape or a beautiful model. If you can do that then you are in the ball park.

21)Don't be afraid of the obvious. Don't be afraid of simple. Just make sure your image is as close to technically perfect as you can make it.

23)Yes size does matter. The more MP's you have the larger your image, the more potential it has to sell to the clients with the biggest budgets.

24)Actually reading the libraries submission guidelines helps. I used to run my own library and people who thought that they were "different" and could ignore my requirements got rejected. To be honest the technical standard of the material I received was also pretty dire on the whole. "It'll do, its only for a library" seemed to be the attitude of many. 

25)Finally, following on from the above, send only your "best" work to a library. Also send what people like. I used to use flickr a lot. I'd post several images and see what gets the most hits and the most positive comments. These would often not be my personal favourites.


Still interested?

There are advantages.

1)You get to photograph what you want, when you want, in the way that you want.

2)If what you happen to like photographing has a market, you can do very well.

3)You have no client breathing down your neck and looking over your shoulder and giving you the benefit of their "artistic" advice.

4)If you shoot "non decade specific" images your pictures can have a very long "shelf life" and be earning you money for years.

5)You get to try your hand at all kinds of photography. Landscape is my love, but I've shot house interiors, industry, still life, performing arts, lifestyle, models, transport, animals, product shots and sport as well.

The most important lesson in all of this is to look at photography in all its commercial manifestations. Can you shoot an image like you see in the adverts, the billboard, the magazine article, the brochure etc. that pass your eyes every day. Absorb what you see, think how its done, say to yourself "Can I do that?" Chances are what you are looking at is a "Stock" photograph.

Its often been said that if Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray etc, submitted images to a picture library they would probably get turned down.

Finally, I work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year doing this. I happen to love it and think that I have the best job in the world, but not everybody feels he same. If it just turns into another chore, then it may not be for you."