Can microstock agencies make you a better photographer?
The answer is simple – no, the microstock agencies won’t do your work for you :) But they can help you improve. If you really want. That’s all up to you…
A microstock agency is like a personal trainer.
It can motivate you, but you’re the one who has to do the hard work.
Ask yourself a question: “Am I okay with selling something from time to time or do I want to turn photography into a full-time job with a regular income?” I picked the second option. I did have to overcome a lot of obstacles, but the result was worth it.
The very first obstacle were the editors who approved the photos and really got on me for every minor mistake, every deviation from the strict requirements set by the iStock microstock agency. And it wasn’t only while I was starting out. That happened regularly more or less during the entire time I was submitting my photos there. I actually felt a bit disappointed when they let up on their strict rules a few years ago, and now every photo I submit goes through on the first try pretty much every time. So that’s the end of my ‘personal trainers’.
But what they taught me was to watch out for a too high ISO setting (which will make your shots grainy), overexposure and a boring, flat light. That means I had to re-shoot some photos and find the perfect lighting to oblige the editor.
There were a few times the editors made me feel so frustrated I considered quitting. But seeing my photos being sold was so motivating that I just gritted my teeth and worked on improving myself, and I got over it.
The first big challenge was to photograph flowers on a white background - so called ‘isolated’ effect. My mom had a garden full of beautiful flowers, so I decided to go for it. Of course I did it without any basic knowledge about lighting, so my first try looked rather amateur. I took a big white sheet of paper and asked my friend to hold it up for me as a background behind the flower while I took the photo. Just the way it was, in broad daylight.
The result spoke for itself. The photo was useless. In comparison to the best photos in the microstock agency, it looked awful. I would have had to Photoshop the photo for a long time to achieve that ‘isolated’ effect. If it’s one photo, it’s doable, less so when you have twenty of them.
So I was forced to think it over and try to create a small homemade studio so I could shoot this type of objects. Basically, all I needed were two studio flashes, a studio umbrella and a big piece of white fabric. After I got all this, it got much easier and the post-process of a well-lit photo took me only about 10 minutes.
You can take photos like these in a basic, homemade studio.
Everything went smoothly until I had to take a photo of a white flower on a white background. Like a white lilac or snowdrops. So that was another challenge and another experience.
White objects on a white background require more tinkering with the lighting.
After I took the photos of the flowers, I tried doing the same with various knick-knacks you can find in any home. After some time, I was so experienced I felt confident enough to accept a job to shoot chocolate pralines. That was an interesting experience as well. For example, I learned that pralines and glamour models have something in common – retouching makes them look even sweeter :-D
A praline before and after retouching. Because of the size of the photo, I had to retouch even the details you normally wouldn’t pay any attention to.
After some time, I got bored of taking photos of inanimate objects, I was looking for a change. Of course I couldn’t help but notice that the microstock photos that featured people sold more. So I was facing another challenge. Photographing people taught me to work with emotions and expressions, because that’s probably the most important thing that makes a photo saleable. You also need to consider the ‘commercial composition’ – meaning, you have to leave more free space around the main focus of the shot than you usually would. It’s called ‘copy space’. Then you have to consider choosing the right background and lighting. Take in a lot of details other people normally don’t (they don’t have a reason to), as those details can downright slap you in the face in a photo. For example a wrong hairstyle, the colour of the clothing or nail polish or an accessory like a ring or earrings… Basically – every detail matters.
Photos of people require more detailed preparation and effort than photos of flowers.
This experience really helped me when I was taking photos at weddings. Since I knew what the commercially successful photos look like (by that I mean photos that a big majority of people like), I took the wedding photos in the exact same way. The quality of my photos improved and people liked them. And I grew even more as a photographer.
I gradually went from taking simple photos of people on a white background to more complicated ones. I experimented with various types of backgrounds, I tried making photo manips. Some sold well and some not at all. But once again, I learned a lot of new things.
These photos were a result of hours of trying and making mistakes.
Of course I was forced to keep increasing the quality of my photos and making the post-process faster (switching to using Adobe Lightroom really helped). The cover sells, which is why the final photo has to look its best, since there are people from all over the world uploading their photos to the microstock agencies and the competition is tight. It’s a waste of time to work on a difficult, complicated photoshoot and then botch up the post-process. That’s like failing to kick a goal into an empty net.
So this is my story of how the microstock agency as my personal trainer made me a better photographer. I think that if I wasn’t doing microstock photography, I’d never have gotten the chance to do half the photoshoots above, since I wouldn’t have had the reason to. What’s amazing is that my only investment was my time and my reward were better photos and payment. So I guess you could say that my personal trainer actually paid me ;)
So, do you feel like flexing your photography muscles?
You can learn more about the microstock agencies and how it all works in this little e-book guide I prepared for you.