How to Take Stock Photos
Want to start a stock photo business or add stock photography to your existing business? Rohn Engh, author of Sell & Re-Sell Your Photos, offers tips on how to take stock photos and avoid the pitfall of creating trite stock photography. You can read an excerpt from the stock photo article below or read the complete article in the 2016 Photographer’s Market or on ArtistsMarketOnline.com.
Keep creating and good luck!
Taking and Making Stock Photos by Rohn Engh
The stock photo as we know it today has evolved from a documentary snapshot to a subtle and sophisticated art form. This evolution can be traced in magazines such as National Geographic that have existed for one hundred years. Following the progression in bound National Geographic volumes at the library can be entertaining as well as informative.
As we learn in zoology class, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (the stages in the development of the individual mirror those of the species). A photographer entering the field undergoes the same sort of progression. She begins by taking simplistic photographs, similar to the early photo illustrations, and gradually incorporates new ideas and technical knowledge that enable her to produce better and more interesting pictures, until, if she endures, she eventually turns out fine photo illustrations—editorial stock photos. This evolution is a valuable learning experience for the photographer, but it can be accelerated. Here’s how.
Many photographers are conditioned to take photographs that reflect the world, somewhat as a mirror does. A documentary photographer takes a picture: He simply records things the way they were at that moment.
However, to limit photography to mirrorlike documentation is to restrict knowledge and understanding.
Stock photography opens up a vast new field of interpretive endeavor. The fact that stock photos are in a large measure workaday pictures doesn’t preclude innovative and creative treatment of them. Photo illustration allows a photographer to make photographs. The stock photographer creates a situation as it could be, or as it should be, or distills the essence of a scene or event. As we all know, painters rarely paint their landscapes true to nature. To limit their illustrations to exact duplications of nature would be to confine their creativity and their viewers’ enjoyment. They rearrange the elements in their paintings to achieve a composition of wholeness and meaning that didn’t exist earlier. Similarly, jazz musicians improvise on the melody and rhythm of a familiar tune not because they wish to seem clever or self-consciously different, but because they wish to discover, for themselves and their listeners, new meaning in the music. Photographs, like other expressive media, can offer fresh insights and deeper understanding. A photograph can become a microscope or a telescope for the viewer to see into or beyond what is being photographed.
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In photo illustration work, then, you are frequently and legitimately making a picture, not taking it. For example, you see something happen, you feel it was significant, and you would like to photograph it. You have two alternatives:
1. You can hope it happens again in your lifetime.
2. While you’re still on the scene, you can attempt to re-create it, “improving” it (stripping it of distracting elements).
In stock photography, you can also create scenes that never happened, but could happen. On an assignment to photograph a child’s visit to a toy factory, for example, I realized my little model wasn’t at all intrigued by the assembly-line production. The bits and pieces didn’t look like toys yet, the pounding and banging of the machinery was hurting his ears, the paint smell was disagreeable—yet I needed to illustrate a small boy’s excitement at seeing toys being manufactured. In desperation, I wadded up a piece of bubble gum (when working with kids, always have a supply of goodies handy) and stuck it on one of the panels of a toy truck as it moved toward the next assembly stage. I stood on a ladder above the moving belt and asked my model to point out the bubble gum as it came into view. He did so with enthusiasm, and I snapped a picture of a delighted youngster pointing at a toy truck on an assembly line. In stock photography, it is true, you may bring elements together that never happened. You are, in effect, contriving. However, you can keep your illustrations authentic by selecting situations that could happen and then reenacting them in a way that appears unposed.
Danger Ahead: Trite Pictures
There’s a trap waiting for the photographer who is new to stock photography. Although I continually remind you that workaday pictures are the most marketable, that kind of subject matter can fall into the trite category—if you let it. Corny pictures are easy to produce. Beware of the temptation to take pictures that are trite, cute, or clichéd.
“There’s nothing new!” you’re probably saying.
Stop. Think about the pictures in your portfolio, print notebook, or recent slide show. If you were to eliminate (1) dramatic silhouettes, (2) sunset scenes, (3) postcard scenes of mountains and clouds, (4) portraits of old men, (5) the father lovingly holding his daughter, and (6) experimental abstract shots, how many pictures do you have left?
I don’t want to imply that the previous subjects are always trite. We have all seen these subjects treated with compassion, depth, and a sense of beauty. Many of them can qualify as standard excellent pictures. However, the more photographs we see of these familiar subjects, the less charity we have available for them in our appreciation bank.
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How to Avoid Making Trite Photos
Let’s say a publisher has assigned you to produce a photo essay on “The Circus.” Take a scratch pad and jot down ten picture situations that come to mind. Don’t read further until you’ve jotted down at least ten. . . .
That was easy, wasn’t it? Well, if it was, I’ll bet you’ve listed ten trite ideas. Producing untrite pictures takes thought.
Before you rush out and snap away hundreds of photos on a subject that every man, woman and child is familiar with, take at least a half hour to sketch out some picture possibilities. This brief exercise will save you hours of location and computer time spent on pictures that a publisher would probably reject. It will also eliminate those blinders we often inadvertently wear when we arrive at a picture-taking locale and become immersed in the scope and immediacy of the situation. Objectivity is easier to retain if you have a preplanned sketch of what you want to photograph before you get there. By the same token, don’t go overboard and lock yourself into a plan that has no room for spontaneity and innovation sparked by on-the-scene elements. Always be ready to discover and adjust to new picture possibilities.
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In most cases, you will want to apply the principle of making a picture rather than taking one. You can reenact or improve picture possibilities by asking the cooperation of spectators or performers. To a clown: “Would you mind taking a bite of that cotton candy again?” To a teenager: “Could I ask you to do that again—over by the zebras?”
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Are trite pictures salable? Like trite paintings, songs, and handicrafts, they are. There also are directories, websites, and catalogs devoted to displaying trite stock photos, and books devoted to making trite photographs—but not this one. If, after reading this admonition against trite pictures, you find some culprits in your stock photo file, send them to a stock photo agency. Veteran photographers are familiar with stock agencies’ need to provide standard trites to their (mostly commercial) clientele. One photographer friend says “I market the best pictures myself, and I dump my clichés on my agency, which can use all I can send.” While agency cliché sales do come in, for any one photographer the checks are “every now and then.” You don’t want to depend on them to pay the rent.
Rohn Engh, accomplished stock photographer, publisher, author, has had an enormous influence on the business of stock photography for more than three decades. His best-selling book, Sell & Re-Sell Your Photos, is considered by both veteran photographers and newcomers to be the premiere desktop guide on marketing principles for the stock photographer. Engh worked out of his 80-acre farm in rural Wisconsin, where he and his wife lived and raised two sons.
Excerpted from Sell & Re-Sell Your Photos © 2003 by Rohn Engh. Used with the kind permission of Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of F+W, a Content + eCommerce Company.