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How to be a Stock Photographer
Selling your photos online as a stock photographer usually requires first passing a brief test. Microstock agencies design the test to gauge a person's skill and understanding of stock photography so the agency's reviewers can spend less time rejecting poor photos. Once accepted, you will be able to submit photos at your leisure, though each submission is still reviewed to meet quality standards. Don't worry if you get some rejections after being accepted, your account will not be terminated over it and you will improve with time. Even seasoned photographers occasionally get rejections.
The application process varies by agency. iStock for example requires you to pass a short quiz first and then asks that three samples of your best work be submitted and approved. Shutterstock on the other hand requires that you submit ten samples of your best work and at least seven must be approved. Regardless of the formula though, every agency looks for the same things. This page covers the most important mistakes to watch for. Study them carefully because if your application gets rejected you will be asked to wait anywhere from days to weeks before a retry is possible. It is very common to fail your first application, so I would advise posting your planned submission on a critique forum before going for the real thing. Photographers who have already been through the process can let you know if you are on the right track. Shutterstock's forums are great for this.
COMMON REASONS FOR FAILING THE TEST
Causes: Taking pictures with a snapshot mindset. Concentrating only on the subject while ignoring the background or other elements.
How to avoid: Consider off-centering the main subject when appropriate. Position secondary points of interest in the scene in a way that will draw the viewer's eyes across the image or place them along intersecting lines in the rule of thirds. Avoid splitting the picture evenly through the middle with the horizon unless such a composition serves a purpose. If a human or animal primary subject is looking to the side, frame the scene so that the subject is looking into it, not outside of it. Same goes for depictions of action or movement, direct the action into the scene. The goal is to draw the viewer in, not lead their eyes outside the frame. Objects within the existing environment can be used as framing, such as buildings, trees, rocks, etc. Avoid busy backgrounds that weaken the subject. Simplicity can be very effective in concentrating the power of the scene into fewer elements.
Causes: Operator misjudgement, lens vibration, movement in subject, slow shutter speed, or diopter isn't set correctly.
How to avoid: Make sure your diopter is set correctly before considering other causes for soft focus. Your camera manual will have instructions on how to check this. However, probably the most common reason for soft focus is simply a misjudgement by the photographer. The subject may look sharp in your viewfinder, but it can be surprisingly difficult to judge as depth of field decreases, in particular for new photographers. As you become familiar with your lens you will learn to rely not only on the viewfinder but also by how far the focus ring has turned. Practice and many failed shots makes perfect here. A tripod will help tremendously in eliminating soft focus from lens vibration via the photographer, even for vibration reduction lenses. And of course make sure you have enough light and a fast enough shutter speed when dealing with movement in the subject. A gentle breeze on a flower can be enough to ruin the focus.
Causes: Wrong exposure, low-end camera, high ISO, and sensor heat.
How to avoid: Most noise in digital images is due to incorrect exposure or a high ISO setting. Noise usually occurs as grain or random colored dots when the camera's sensor is unable to gather adequate information about the subject. This is most often the result of underexposure, caused by using a shutter speed that is too fast or an aperture that is too small for the available light, or a combination of both. Exposing correctly will eliminate noise in most situations. When working with very low light, increasing the ISO setting may be necessary to freeze action as a higher ISO makes the camera more sensitive to light. However, high ISOs increase noise significantly and should generally be avoided for stock photos. An ISO between 100-200 is best for stock photography. Exposing correctly for idle subjects in low light can be accomplished by using long shutter speeds. Noise can occur even at correct exposure in low-end cameras due to their small sensors, generally below the DSLR range. Heat can also increase noise caused by the sensor. With the exception of some sky shots, significant noise removal in post-processing is often a difficult to impossible task, and software designed for this purpose generally will not bring an image up to stock standards. Moreover, because noise is usually indicative of additional mistakes like incorrect exposure, it is best to deal with this issue preemptively by getting it right in the camera first.
Causes: Using an incorrect shutter speed or incorrect aperture for the available light. Shooting at the wrong time of day.
How to avoid: Incorrect exposure is without a doubt one of the most common rejection reasons for stock photos from new photographers. Underexposure tends to be more common than overexposure as photographers often find themselves in low light situations indoors, during mornings and evenings, or even on overcast days. Using an aperture that is too small or a shutter speed that is too fast for available light will result in the camera having insufficient time to properly expose the image. Underexposure can sometimes be used intentionally to achieve a desired effect, but it's best to understand the rules before you learn how to break them. As a beginner it's good to get in the habit of checking the camera's histogram frequently. The bars will fall largely in the center or ideally center-right for most images with correct exposure. Bars largely on the left or touching the left side are usually an indication of underexposure and will result in loss of detail in shadows as well as the introduction of noise.
Causes: Using an incorrect shutter speed or incorrect aperture for the available light. Shooting at the wrong time of day. Wearing insufficient clothing.
How to avoid: Overexposure is most common when a large aperture or slow shutter speed is used in conjunction with a strong light source, or when shooting into a light source. Unlike underexposure, overexposure can be corrected in post-processing if the image is only slightly overexposed, which is why many photographers advocate the "shoot to the right" approach; a reference to the histogram data being aligned slightly right of the center. However, excessive overexposure results in a washed out image and loss of detail, known as blown highlights. An image with blown highlights cannot be corrected. Overexposure is also common in long exposures used to create an effect, such as smoothing a waterfall. In these cases, bright areas such as water droplets can become blown or pure white. This can be countered by using a neutral density filter or shooting in the early morning or late evening.
Causes: Direct flash or full sunlight, or other forms of intense lighting.
How to avoid: A direct flash is often problematic for stock photography when used as the single light source. In addition to dark distracting shadows it often creates flat or uneven lighting that can make your subjects look two-dimensional. There are ways of dealing with this, such as using a fill flash or aiming an external flash at a wall or other bright object to bounce light onto your subject rather than hitting it directly. Even cheap solutions like covering a built-in flash with a piece of waxpaper to diffuse the lighting can work in some situations, but it's usually best to avoid flash altogether when you have other options. Long shutter speeds work well for exposing still subjects. Window light provides a nice soft glow to light your subject from the side and bring out highlights. An overcast sky provides great opportunities outdoors, as does daylight with the shade of a tree or building. If you have to use full sunlight, light your subject from behind and expose for the subject. Plan ahead and wait for the right moment. Sometimes leaving the lens cap on is better than trying to steal the moment with a quick flash.
Causes: Low JPG quality setting in camera or software, poor camera or software, or repeatedly saving to the same JPG file.
How to avoid: If shooting in JPG, make sure your camera's quality setting is set to "fine". If shooting in RAW, be careful to avoid using poor quality software that might introduce artifacts during the process of converting to JPG. Also ensure that JPGs are saved at the maximum quality setting. Even at 100 quality, very minor artifacts from compression will occur every time a JPG is resaved if it has since been reopened. In most cases, artifacts introduced at 100 quality are so minor they are only noticeable when the image is enlarged multiple times, but resaving dozens of times can eventually make these artifacts more pronounced. If you are editing your work that much, consider using a lossless data format until the image is ready to be finalized.
Causes: Using a large aperture on a high contrast scene or shooting into a light source when a dark object is in the foreground. Common in edges of photos when using ultra wide-angle lenses.
How to avoid: Fringing can occur in various colors but is most common as a purple fringe as in the case of chromatic aberration. It occurs when the lens is unable to focus multiple colors of light at the same plane. The best way to prevent it is to avoid using large apertures when shooting high contract scenes, such as the sun shining through tree branches. UV filters also help by cutting down ultraviolet light. It is still very likely you will deal with chromatic aberration at some point, especially with wide-angle lenses. Fortunately, there are a number of easy ways to correct it in post-processing such as sampling the correct color nearest the effected area and then using a small brush set to "color" to touch it up. Or alternatively, using a desaturation brush on the problematic area or editing the blue channel, or a combination or these.
How to avoid: The world is full of billions of trademarks and copyrights, and there is zero tolerance for including them in stock images. No one wants to get sued. This applies to logos, brand names, designs, illustrations, and other forms of intellectual property. Even Rudolph is off-limits. Rules have become more and more strict over the years and now apply to things like cars, planes, and trains if they have recognisable colors or patterns. Additionally, other forms of property such as houses or skyscrapers require a property release unless included as part of a cityscape or skyline.
Causes: Rough edges from sloppy clipping path or background remnants missed in editing.
How to avoid: It's best to isolate objects by shooting over a white background and using stronger lighting on the background than on the object. Photographers who do this regularly may use a lightbox for small objects or a full studio setup for larger things like people. However, sometimes post-processing is needed for touchups, or to isolate a large object such as a hot air balloon. Watch for things like jagged edges from clipping paths. In fact, if it appears obvious to you that an object has been clipped, chances are you'll get dinged for it, because it will appear obvious to the reviewer as well. The magic wand or lasso tool may work for clearly defined edges, but in most cases it won't compare to a brush. Best to handle isolation via setup and exposure when you can. Also watch for editing remnants or off-white areas in the background. It's easy to check for these with the levels tool in your editing software. Bring up the levels adjustment and move the slider all the way to the right to reveal any spots in the background. If a spot shows up you can hit it with the dodge tool set at an exposure intensity of about 5-10% and recheck the levels to see if it's gone. It probably goes without saying, but do not save any drastic level adjustments.