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What Are Stock Photos?

The starting point for anyone interested in microstock photography is "what is a stock photo?" It may sound like a simple question, and while that is true, many new photographers find themselves struggling with issues like low commercial value for their work because they understand the basic definition of a stock photo but don't understand how to create one or where to envision its use. Put in simplest terms, a stock photo is a picture that is ready to use at a price, which makes it valuable to designers because it saves the time and expense of arranging a photo shoot. However, although a stock photo is a picture, that does not mean that all pictures are stock photos. To understand the difference we need to be familiar with how such images are used.

Stock Photo Uses Where are stock photos used?

The world would be a bland place full of uninterupted blocks of text if not for pictures. A picture engages the user and conveys quick meaning without words. Without pictures, advertisers would face a brutal battle for attention. This is where stock photos find their place. You are exposed to images every time you flip through a magazine, pick up a book, access a website, skim a brochure, open a piece of mail, watch television, pass a billboard, or enter a department store. Those are just some of the many venues where millions of stock photos are used every day all around the world. In a fast-paced society you may only have a couple seconds to grab a viewer's attention. Therefor, a stock photo should convey an idea or message as clearly and efficiently as possible. If you landed on this website via the home page, then you probably saw the image of two birds sharing a photo. Even before reading the accompanying message about image sharing, you probably already knew what the statement would be about based on the content of the bird image. That is the role of a stock photo. They are certainly not limited to a single purpose, but regardless of the use, the goal of the stock photographer should always be to create a clear and effective image.


What makes a strong stock photo?

The first time you get your hands on a DSLR camera is an exciting moment. It's a curious enjoyment, like a young kid who gets their hands in some fingerpaint for the first time. The sound of the camera's shutter, the turning of the focus ring, the zooming—what's not to love? Most people enjoy taking pictures even if they're not fond of having their own taken. But to take it to the next level, we need to learn that pictures are not taken, they are created. A camera is no more effective at creating pictures than fingerpaints are. They are both just the medium; the artist creates the picture. However, dropping a subject in the middle of the frame and hitting the shutter release does not make you an artist. That is how you create snapshots, and snapshots are not stock photos. One of the most common mistakes new photographers make is that they are so focused on their subject that they ignore the bigger picture. They don't see the scene.

I was an artist long before I made the transition to photography, and I found my former background particularly instrumental in shaping the way I see the world through a lens and eventually dropping those bad snapshot habits. That is because the approach to creating a picture through a camera is very much like the approach to creating a picture via a canvas, though the process is reversed. In painting a picture, an artist starts with a blank canvas and adds to it. The resulting work is judged, among other things, by what the artist includes. Everything the artist paints should have a place; it should add to the cumulative power of the picture. On the contrary, a photographer begins with all the details filled in. The job then becomes a process of elimination. By utilizing framing, angles, zooming, and depth of field, a photographer can remove or blur elements that do not have a place in the final scene they envision. If an element is not adding to the photo, it is taking away from it.


Stop, slow down, think

When composing your shots, stop and take your time. Study everything in the viewfinder, paying close attention to the corners and background. That may sound obvious, but when I first took up photography I was often editing things out in post-production and wondering how I missed them in the viewfinder. This is especially true when composing for a scene with very selective depth of field, because it's easy to become so focused on, well, the focus, that something unwelcome slips into the background. A tripod is your best friend here, because it allows you to take your time making adjustments without worrying about swaying the focus or moving the framing. It's best to get it right in the camera or you'll find yourself making up for it in post-editing.

Composition As you frame your main subject, think about the positioning of all the supporting elements. In a natural setting those elements may be immovable, so you must reposition yourself to control their placing within the scene. I often ask myself, "If I were painting this scene, where would I paint this object in it?" Consider the image at right. If you were an illustrator you wouldn't put all the important elements in the center of the scene would you? It results in a bad aesthetic and gives your eyes nothing to explore, simply dropping them in the center of the scene. Secondary elements can be used to frame the main subject and lend strength to the story of the scene. As in the example, reordering the elements to something more sensible draws you in. It takes your eyes on a journey through the image exploring the key points. Those points can be enhanced when placed along lines or intersections in the rule of thirds.

Rule of Thirds The rule of thirds is a compositional practice of visualizing your photo to be divided by two horizontal lines and two vertical lines to form nine equal parts. By aligning the horizon with the top or bottom line and placing primary and secondary subjects where lines intersect, photographers can avoid bad habits that lead to weak photos, such as dividing the image through the middle with the horizon or dropping the subject in the center of the frame.

It's not essential that every important element within the frame falls on an intersection, but it's good to get in the habit of off-centering your main subject when appropriate. There are certainly exceptions where the horizon works in the middle as well, but you should always ask yourself what creates the most power and interest in the scene. This is particularly important in landscapes when showing more sky or more land can drastically change the mood and energy of the shot, as well as increase or decrease the scale of the subject or environment.

You might say that many of the aspects that make a great photo in general also make for a great stock photo. However, there is one area where stock photos are decisively judged and held to entirely different standards than the rest. That area is image quality, and it is the stumbling block for the majority of new stock artists trying to enter the market, even many who are professional photographers. Practice makes perfect though, and once you know what to look out for you will be better prepared to avoid mistakes. To learn what mistakes to avoid, let's have a look at how to be a stock photographer.


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