Working with models

There is no doubt about it, by far the best way to earn an income from stock photography is to shoot models. Just scan through the pages of a glossy magazine or newspaper and note how many pictures there are with people in them. People sell products and people sell services. Therefore, it is important to master the skill of taking pictures of people.

But there is a problem with photographing people. They need to give their consent. If you shoot people in the high street, for example, you can only use the images for ‘editorial’ purposes and not for fully commercial or advertising. The big fees from stock photography come from commercial and advertising use of images, not from editorial.

Thankfully, there is a solution. Use models and get them to sign a ‘model release’ form. You upload the model release with your pictures and hey presto, you can sell the rights for fully commercial use.

I will discuss model release forms in much more detail in later posts because it can often be a complex subject. For now, I will concentrate on the use of models, not the paperwork. But do remember to get your model to sign a model release form before you start taking pictures.

Find a model


So, let’s start with the model. Where do you find a willing subject. Okay, so your partner or friend could make a great photo model. A word of caution here though. I would never use a relative or friend for commercial stock photography.

The bottom line is, you never know who will buy your images or where those images will be featured. It is best to avoid conflict in the future should your partner or friend find themselves on the pages of a magazine advertising a product they don’t like. Of course, the same could be said of a paid model. However, the difference is that your model will have been paid and they will have accepted the terms of the deal. I would always say, if you are going to upload images of a person to a stock agency then always use a professional, or at least a semi-professional.

Another thing that I always advise is – to pay for your model. I realise this can be expensive and you might be taking a chance on getting your money back, but there are two good reasons why you should always pay a model.

Firstly, a paid model will usually have a track record. She will have been in front of a camera before and therefore she will be used to working with a photographer. A model that is being paid will be in the right psychological frame of mind. Imagine asking a friend to model for free. Although she might be willing, she will be less motivated than a person who is earning money from the shoot. I find that paid models arrive completely motivated and they stay in the zone longer than an amateur.

The other reason for paying a model is, again, psychological. You will perform at your best if you have paid out hundreds of pounds. You will be motivated to get a good set of pictures. Do not underestimate these psychological aspects of photography. Money helps to motivate!

There are many model agencies around the country. Some will only accept photographers if they have a track record and a good portfolio. Some will be a little more accepting of a newbie. The agencies I use allow the photographer to post a photo-shoot brief and then short-list potential models. Fees for a half day (long enough for your first shoot) range from £150 to £300 plus the agency’s commission. With a good set of pictures from the shoot, you can expect to get back five times that amount.

Which model should you chose?

The concept comes first


The choice of model depends on the choice of concept. For your very first model shoot, you should think about the concept first. Shooting stock is not about taking pictures of a pretty woman or man, it is about supplying images that tell a story. Think about your concept and write it down. Tinker with it a few times before you finalise your thoughts. For my first model shoot I came up with a very simple idea: ‘a young woman walking through a park while talking on her mobile phone’. That simple idea then allowed me to work on variations, which included: holding a brolly, sitting on a bench, and sitting on a swing.

After you have identified the concept for your shoot, you can then select the most appropriate model.

Before the shoot

It is important to contact your model before the day of the shoot. You need to convey your concept. Discuss your ideas with your model and the variations that you want to shoot. Discuss clothing, hair style and accessories. And, don’t forget to mention designer logos. Emphasise to the model that clothing and accessories should not have visible logos. The stock agency will reject anything that shows a brand name or logo.

Identify the location for your shoot. Public parks are wonderful places for photography. In springtime, the bright green foliage can contrast nicely with dark-skinned models, while in autumn the richness of colour and fallen leaves make an excellent backdrop. Summer is a great time for shooting activity-based concepts and winter is perfect for capturing models with scarves and big coats. Models can be photographed all-year, so pick your concept and away you go.

Just remember one important thing about shooting in a public park. Other people. It is easy to miss a young child running across your shot, or a dog deciding to relieve its bladder at the edge of your frame. I know, because I have been there. I remember taking a fantastic shot of a scantily clad model on a motorbike. The image was brilliant; great framing, beautiful lighting, and a great pose. But when I checked the picture on the computer I noticed a black and white border collie weeing against a tree in the background!

The gear that you select will largely depend on your concept, but I would suggest a very basic kit for your first model shoot. A DSLR with a 24-105mm zoom lens is the perfect tool. The zoom will allow close-up shots and full body pictures too. You should take lots of variations so a good quality zoom is ideal.

In addition to your camera and lens, a flash unit that can fire on a ‘high-speed’ setting is very useful. I use a Canon 5D camera with a Canon Speedlite as a very basic setup. The flash is set on high-speed sync and I use the camera on aperture priority mode. Depending on your lens, a wide aperture will give a very pleasing effect; a nice soft background to separate the model and the fill flash will ensure the model is perfectly lit.

Time to meet your model

Ideally, it is nice to meet face to face with your model before the day of the shoot but this is not usually practical. However, it is important to spend a little time with her before your camera comes out. Chat over a coffee for 30 minutes to get to know her. This is a good time to check for interesting features the model may have, and to ask her about previous shoots that she has done that might be relevant to your concept.

Your model may be nervous, particularly if she is new to photography work. Take time to introduce yourself and ask lots of questions about her. Find out about her life, her interests and, if she is not a full-time model, about her job. It is amazing how 30 minutes chat will benefit your shoot.

The middle bit is the best


With introductions and coffee over, it is time to get to work. Photoshoots, in my experience, consist of three parts; the first 20 minutes, the middle section, and the last 30 minutes. You are unlikely to produce your best work during the first and last sections, but the middle piece is by far the most productive.

During the first 20 minutes, you will both be quite nervous. It is important to give lots of encouragement during this time, even if your shots are looking rubbish. Praise and direction are two things you must do. Praise is incredibly important and so too is gentle direction. Don’t overload your model with instructions. Left hand out, right arm down, left leg in front, head tilted to the right! Far too many commands. A nice trick during this initial part of the shoot is for you to assume the pose that you are looking for. Models are usually quite visual people so they respond well if you demonstrate the pose to them.

The middle section of the photo shoot is when you will produce your best work. Both photographer and model will have relaxed by this stage and you can now get into serious picture creation. Keep praising and directing though. Show your model some of the pictures and always praise when doing this. I often say “brilliant, that’s exactly what I was looking for”. Your model will respond with a smile and she will be keen to keep going. Often, your model will pick up things you have missed so it is always a good idea to show her some of the pictures. Don’t show every shot, simply pick a few nice ones to get her reaction. When a model sees a nice picture of herself she will be more motivated to carry on. It is amazing what your model will pick out from a photo. A dress strap in the wrong position or a hair out-of-place will usually be spotted by the model before the photographer. Women, especially, look at themselves quite differently to the way the photographer sees them.

Finally, the cool down. During the last part of the model shoot don’t try to achieve too much. Both you and the model will be getting tired so you need to keep the workload to a minimum. It is a good idea to try usual shots at this stage. Inject some fun into the last half hour and try something different. On my first shoot, we were walking back to the car when I spotted an unusual swing. I asked my model if she would try one last shot and I only fired off five frames. One of those images has gone on to sell rather well.

Silence is a recipe for disaster

Keep talking during the entire shoot. I have already mentioned the importance of praise, but the photographer should engage with the model throughout. If you engage in conversation you will build rapport and you will encourage a sense of ‘in this together’.

I constantly talk throughout the entire photo shoot. However, I don’t micro-direct. I like to provide basic commands and let the model adjust herself. For example, I might say something like ‘slight tilt of your head to the left and look over the top of my camera’. The model will interpret this command in different ways and will provide a pose that is natural to her. I call this free-shooting and it is a technique that provides some pleasing shots. I have worked with many photographers who micro-direct, trying to get every part of the model’s body in the right position exactly how they want it. The danger with this type of direction is that you can end up with photos that don’t look natural. Let the model pose in her natural way. Basic direction with lots of little prompts will produce relaxed images that tell your story. Perfect for stock agencies.

And finally, thank your model for her great work.

I hope this post has inspired you to get out and about with a model. It can be quite nerve-wracking, but it can also be great fun. You just never know where those images will end up. Remember, get that model release form signed.

Good luck with your pictures. Send me some of your results.

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Copying old stuff is a great winter project

If you are anything like me, you will have started in photography back in the day before digital cameras came onto the scene. Most photographers back then shot their pictures on 35mm transparency film. I was certainly one of those, my preferred stock being Kodachrome 64.

I guess many of the older-hands out there will have a collection of 35mm slides in boxes or albums, probably stashed away in the attic. This post is definitely for you. Why not turn your old images into cash?

I had a grand idea one rainy Sunday last winter. After searching the attic for an hour, I came across my collection of albums, and I counted over 5,000 slides! Why not digitize them, I thought? And then upload them to my usual stock agencies. What an excellent winter project.

There are several ways to digitize 35mm slides. Generally, the different approaches are: use a slide duplicator that can attached to a DSLR; use a flatbed scanner; use a macro lens and shoot the slides on a lightbox; or pay someone else to copy your slides.

I decided to go for the first option and bought a slide duplicator for £60.

Slide duplicators have been around for many years. Originally, they were used for copying 35mm slides to film. It was easier and cheaper to print images from negative film rather than directly from transparencies so duplication was a good option. However, many photographers, me included, shot on transparency because “trannies” were preferred by newspaper and magazine picture editors.

Film duplicators have been given a new lease of life because many people now want to digitize their old slides. The duplicator method offers a low-cost way to covert images to digital files.

Here is an image I took over 20 years ago. Originally shot on 35mm Kodachrome, the digitised version sells well as a stock piece.


The duplicator I use is an Ohnar Zoom Reverser. It has a zoom lens that allows for cropping at the shooting stage. However, I would strongly recommend that the zoom is not used. I prefer to shoot at the 1:1 setting and then if I need to crop the image I can do it later, during the editing stage.

The duplicator attaches directly to the DSLR body, using a T-mount. The T-mount screws onto the duplicator, which means that the unit can be used on a variety of different camera makes, providing you have the correct mount.

The slide holder at the front of the duplicator needs to be carefully positioned so that it aligns with the viewfinder frame. The holder can be rotated and then locked in position with a little screw on top of the holder.

Getting the right alignment is trial and error. It is worth taking time over this, shooting some test shots to get everything aligned just right before locking the holder in place.

Focusing and exposing the image

The slide duplicator unit has a built-in lens that is pre-focused on the area where the slide sits in the holder. The unit has a fixed aperture too, which means there is not automatic data exchange between the camera and lens. Instead, the correct exposure is achieved by altering the shutter speed on the camera. I set the camera on aperture priority and then adjusted the shutter speed to produce an exposure that was slightly under-exposed, by about 1/3 stop.

It is best to set the camera on a tripod and to use a cable release to fire the shutter. You can point the lens towards the sky or you can set up a photo lamp. I prefer the latter because it provides a more consistent approach, and you can use the set-up at night.

I use Astra lite panels for most of my studio work, and they make a great source of light for slide duplication. My lite panels are daylight balanced so I set the camera white balance to “daylight”.


Shoot RAW or JPEG?

This is an easy one for me, but I guess it comes down to time. I always shoot RAW. I could never contemplate shooting anything else. Whether it is for copying slides or shooting out in the field I have all my cameras set on RAW. But I appreciate time can play a factor. Shooting RAW does mean more time spent processing images before they can be uploaded to a stock agency. If you have 1,000 slides to copy, processing them will certainly be time-consuming.

Here are my numbers. It takes me two hours to set up, duplicate 20 slides, process them using Photoshop Elements, and upload them to a stock agency. If I shot JPEGs I would probably double or even treble the workflow. But, as I said before, I would never dream of shooting anything other than RAW, so I just live with the extra time it takes.

Alternative ways

I like the slide duplicator method. However, there are other ways to copy slides. Without doubt, a flatbed scanner would produce better image quality than a duplicator. There would likely be better definition and better colour rendition too. Scanners range in price from about £70 up to thousands of pounds. The Plustek scanner comes in at slightly  under £350 and it has good reviews.

I find it interesting how Plustek describe their scanner. They say “The Plustek 8200i is a powerful scanner that delivers the best film scanning solution for printing.” The scanner is definitely aimed at those who want to print a digital image from a negative or from a transparency. I think the scanner method is definitely better if you have a few precious slides that you want to print for display or for exhibition purposes. However, if you want to end up with a large collection of images for a stock library, then the scanner might be overkill. It is more expensive and it is more time-consuming to scan slides. The duplication method is less expensive and quicker and it provides perfectly acceptable results for stock material.

Finally, if you don’t want to copy or scan thousands of images, you could always send your slides to a company that can produce digital images for you. I had a quick search online and found several companies that would copy 1,000 slides for about £400. My collection of 5,000 slides would set me back £2,000 – ouch! Personally, I would rather do the copying myself, even if it takes longer.

Don’t forget the contrast

There is one last point I want to make. Contrast. Almost certainly, your duplicated digital images will be quite high in contrast, so don’t worry. There is a technical reason for the resulting contrast, which I will talk about in later posts. If you shoot RAW, you will be able to sort the contrast issue in post-production. It will take only a few seconds to greatly improve the image. Of course, if you have shot your duplications as JPEGs you are less able to sort the problem.

As far as agency acceptance goes, I have not found any problems. My usual stock agencies have no issues with accepting duplicated slides. It is nice to see my pictures from 20 years ago appearing in magazines around the world.

I hope I have inspired you to get up into the attic and search for those 35mm slides. Let me know how you get on.

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Tools of the trade

In this post I want to mention the tools that are needed to help build a great stock photography collection. Obviously, a camera is helpful! However, there are cameras and there are cameras so I thought it would be a good idea to go through my own camera bag.

Tools are important in any craft. A plumber comes to your house with an assortment of stuff. One screwdriver doesn’t fit every job. Cameras are much the same. Although one camera could work well as a multi-tasking tool, it is often better to have an assortment of equipment.

One thing I want to make clear though is that you do not have to amass bags and bags of different gear to make a success of stock photography. In fact, if all you can afford is a good quality smart phone, then so be it. You can make a start with basic equipment and you will find, as time goes on and the money starts to show up in your bank account, then you might want to think about better and more equipment.

Always remember, stock photography is the classic exponential curve. Success can be very slow at the start but when you get going you will find growth in sales blossoms. More about this in later posts.

You need a camera to take photographs

Okay, so the workhorse of any professional photographer has to be a good DSLR. These are versatile beasts. Interchangeable lenses, function selection that often needs an engineering degree to work out, and exposure matrices with computer chips are all present in a good quality DSLR. Having said that, you don’t really need all that functionality, but it comes with the gear anyway.

Personally, I use Canon cameras; I have two 5D MK III bodies. I have always found that Canon cameras offer good value for money and they are robust dependable. However, other cameras will do just as good a job. The key is to spend as much as you can afford, so that you get the best possible workhorse.


There is one important point that you should remember when selecting a camera for stock work. Video. Your DSLR should be capable of recording at least high definition video, even better if it can record 4K. The new Canon 5D MK IV is coming out soon and apparently it has 4K capability.

It is important that the stock photographer gets to grips with video because more and more sales are coming from short clips. And, it is so easy to shoot some video while out and about. When I am on location I always shoot stills, timelapse and video clips. More material uploaded to stock agencies means more sales, and that of course means more money to spend on new kit!

Another important thing for me is the sensor size. If possible, always go for a full-frame sensor. I will talk much more about the technicalities of full-frame versus smaller-sensor cameras in later posts, but for now all I will say is that full-frame sensors give much greater quality and are more versatile than cameras with smaller sensors.

A camera needs a lens

When I was learning the craft of photography, as a freelance editorial rookie, I remember an old-hand saying to me, “save on the box, splash on the glass”. What I think he meant was, buy the best lens (glass) that you can afford. I have always applied that principle.

I really believe Canon has the best cameras but Nikon produce the best lenses. When I am shooting stop motion or timelapse sequences I use Nikon manual prime lenses on my Canon camera body. The image quality from a Nikon prime lens is outstanding. However, when I am shooting stills, I use two Canon zoom lenses; a 24-105mm and a 75-200mm.

Although I use two camera bodies, each fitted with a zoom lens, there is nothing preventing you from having one camera body with one lens that covers a wide range. The important this is to have a wide range. Start with basic kit and expand and grow as your sales increase.

When shooting stock, you want to offer your potential buyer options. Imagine shooting an historical building. You want to go wide to capture the entire building but you also want to get in close to pick out some of the features of the architecture. Stock photography is about giving your buyer options. A wide range in your zoom lens will pay off long term.

For timelapse and stop motion I alwys use fixed prime lenses. In my kit bag there are three important Nikon manual lenses for this type of work; a 24mm, a 50mm and a 105mm micro (Nikon call it a micro rather than a macro lens). The reason I use manual lenses for this type of work will become clear when I talk in later posts about flicker avoidance.

Smart phones are okay too

I have to admit to being an “Apple junkie”. I love Apple computers and phones. I do all my editing on an Apple Mac and I have an Apple Notebook for work in the studio, when I need to link the camera to the computer for stop motion photography – more about this later. My current smart phone is the iPhone 8. It has a good quality camera with a 12MP sensor that is capable of working well in most situations. However, many of my fellow photographers would never use the iPhone8, preferring one of the following phones.

The Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is, to many people, the best possible alternative to a “proper” camera. The main sensor has the very first f1.5 aperture, which means that it performs rather well in low light. The sensor also features Dual Aperture Technology, allowing it to move from the f1.5 to the f2.4 for brighter conditions. Samsung reckon there is a 30% reduction in noise from their smart phone, which is very important when thinking about stock photography. One of the most common reasons for a stock agency to reject work is because there is too much noise in the image.

A very close second to the S9 is the Huawei P20 Pro, which came out in April 2018. The front camera has a tremendous 24MP sensor, and it has excellent battery life.

The Galaxy Pixel 2, with its 8MP front camera sensor is another top performer. The onboard software is pretty impressive too. The software stitches multiple images together to ensure the best possible final image.

And finally, the iPhone X. Released in October 2017, the phone has a nice 12MP sensor and the software seems to have been developed to ensure a lot of detail is captured with natural colours. Images are much more vivid with this phone than any other smart phone on the market.

Definitely a good quality smart phone is a must for the budding stock photographer. There will always be a time when you are caught without your DSLR at hand. A decent smart phone such as those mentioned above will ensure you don’t miss a great image. I have many photographs that were taken on my phone that have sold several times over.

One other thing


Finally, I want to mention one other type of camera that is really useful for the stock photographer, the action camera. Personally, I have a few GoPro cameras and they are amazing. My trusty GoPro Hero 4 goes everywhere with me. It often gets mounted onto my cycling helmet, my ski helmet or the handlebars of my road bike. I have a mount that allows me to fix it onto the bonnet of my car, which is great for producing POV footage of an interesting road. It has been inside a bird box, on top of a digger, and inside a bucket while water was poured over it!

So there you have it. The basic tools of a stock photographer are: a good quality DSLR, nice glass in the form of several different lenses, an action camera to get really unusual footage, and a back-up in the form of a smart phone.

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The myths about stock photography

In this first post I want to talk about a few myths. I have read a lot of photography forums that talk about stock photography and, to be quite honest, most of them are not too helpful.

I am not sure why, but often people who post blogs about stock photography are just incredibly negative. And, often what they say is simply not true.

Here is a selection of myths that I want to dispel before going any further.

Stock photography is only for professional photographers.

Absolutely not. In fact, probably more amateurs than professionals upload stock. Here is why. It can be very time-consuming, which means many professional photographers simply don’t have the time to devote to cataloguing vast collections of material. Professional photographers need to get paid for their work. If they spend 40 hours cataloguing material for upload, they won’t necessarily see a return on that time for a few months.

Amateurs on the other hand, because they are not equating every hour of work to income, can be a little more flexible. I know many amateur photographers who make much more money from stock photography than their professional counterparts.

There is no distinction made by libraries on whether a photographer is amateur or professional. It makes no difference to them. Providing the material is good quality, catalogued well and the copyright is owned by the photographer, then it makes no difference whether you earn a living as a stock photographer or you earn a few extra pounds to supplement your ‘proper’ job.

You need really expensive equipment to be able to compete.

Not true. Although I generally don’t use my smart phone for photography, there have been times when I been ‘caught out’ with no camera available when a great photographic opportunity came along.

One such time was when I was in the Orkney islands. I decided to go for a coffee in Kirkwall and, thinking I would only be away for less than an hour, decided to leave my camera in the car (locked away in the boot).

Anyway, after a nice latte and piece of chocolate cake, I went for a walk around the town centre. I was walking past St Magnus Cathedral and decided to pop in for a look at the architecture. When inside, I spotted an artist who was painting a wonderful image of one of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows. The light was falling beautifully on the artist’s easel so I whipped out my smart phone and shot a few images. I rushed back to the car to pick up my Canon 5D but when I got back to the cathedral the light had turned and the artist was packing up. So, the only images I had were those taken on my phone. As always, I tweaked the images slighting in post-production and uploaded them to my usual stock agencies. That picture of the artist in St Magnus Cathedral has sold several times over.

This photograph of St Magnus Cathedral was taken with my iPhone.


You need to be an expert with Photoshop so that images can be prepared properly.

Here is another interesting one. I read a post on a photography website that claimed, “nobody can get images accepted by stock agencies unless they have been well-worked with Photoshop”.

Absolute nonsense.

I have been a professional photographer for over 20 years and in all this time I have never used the full version of Photoshop. I always shoot RAW and process my images using Photoshop Elements, but the processing I do is minimal. It is always best to get the shot 90% correct in the camera, which saves a lot of time during post-production. I tweak colours, saturation and exposure but nothing more than that.

If every image submitted to a stock agency had to be “well-worked with Photoshop” there wouldn’t be many submitted. I average about two minutes per photograph, which includes processing from RAW and cataloguing. This means that it takes me slightly over 30 hours to process and upload 1,000 images.

You can’t make any money with stock photography because the market is saturated.

This is a very common statement, but again, it is not true. Yes, it is true that there are millions of stock images out there. And, it is perfectly true that more and more people are uploading material to stock agencies. But, it is also true that society today has an insatiable need for images and video.

Many studies have been carried out about the habits of website viewers. Most people spend less than ten seconds on a web page before their finger clicks onto something else. People don’t want to read anymore (which is why all my posts are also podcasts!). People want a quick fix nowadays. That is why photographs and video are essential in the modern era.

The BBC website is a great example of how we have evolved. Ten years ago, the printed story on a BBC webpage ran to more than 1,000 words with perhaps one or two photographs to illustrate the piece. Today, their webpages are packed with images, with much less words. Most of their stories are told via short video clips.

To meet the demands of picture editors, website developers and video producers, we need vast collections of material. So, there has never been a better time to get into stock photography.

Everything has been photographed so there is nothing new out there.


I love this one. True, but untrue.

I visited Rome recently. The Vatican Museums attracts over 4 million tourists a year. That is close to 10,000 people per day. So, on the day that I visited the museums, I shared the space with 9,999 other people. About half of those people had cameras, who were clicking away on their phones or on their DSLRs. I guess each person probably shot off about 20 images, which means that 200,000 images are taken every day. Wow, that is a lot of material. Imagine if all those people uploaded their images to Shutterstock!

But, and here is the exciting thing about photography, I can guarantee that I have one image that will be different from all those others taken on the day I visited the Vatican. I was watching a tour guide as she led her party of keen visitors around the gardens. Her facial expressions were wonderful, so rather than capturing the stuff that other people were photographing, I concentrated on her. I shot off some fantastic images that have gone on the sell rather well.

What I am saying here is, yes, there are millions of people taking pictures and some of those people are undoubtedly submitting to stock agencies. But, there will always be opportunities for something different. I know a lot of picture editors who say exactly the same thing – they are fed up with the same old, same old. They want to see something different. Learn to look as a photographer and your sales will increase tremendously.

The conclusion

Imagine a lifestyle where you could jet off to an exotic location with your bag full of photographic equipment. You spend your time travelling around and shooting architecture, beaches, street scenes and perhaps models. Then, you sit back and watch your images being used in books, newspapers, magazines and websites around the world. This is all very possible, if you know how to work the stock photography market.

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