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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