Wednesday, September 30, 2009

September Update

Explanatory notes:

Since I stopped uploading to Dreamstime and BigStock (because of the 3- and 6-month lock-in "hostage" policies) I removed their earnings from the totals. (I'm not sure I'll reach the minimum payout at either, since I'm not submitting anything, so the meager earnings there are probably lost...)

I also removed StockXpert, since the sales there ground to a complete halt last month. I also stopped uploading when their inspections slowed WAY down. Something about Getty buying them, then switching their traffic or search results over to iStock. I've also stopped uploading there, but might try them again if sales ever perk back up. For a little while in July they were actually doing really well for me.

So, as seen in the bar graph, sales were up, but not huge. I hope to continue watching them increase as I work to build my portfolios at the three places where images are selling.

In short, I have a LONG way to go, as shown by the image below...

A painful lesson.

For months now I've had the occasional image, such as the one below, rejected at iStock with the message:

The execution of isolation contains stray areas that are either too feathered or rough.

(Quick aside: This is pretty high on the unhelpfulness scale- Which areas? Were they too feathered, or were they too rough? But I digress...)

Generally, these were shots of my girls on a lighted white background, with most of the isolation happening in-camera. Usually, though, I'd have to use the adjustment brush in Lightroom to clean up a few spots that didn't go completely white. I'd always figured the problems were with the hair not perfectly separating from the background, something I still struggle with. But today I saw some advice from from sjlocke on the iStock forums. He said (referring to a way of checking your isolation in Photoshop):

Just add a layers adjustment level and pull the black slider to the right.

I gave it a shot on the above rejected image. After cleaning up in Lightroom, here is what the image looks like. Note, I use the 'j' feature in the Develop module to show me what is completely white, and by this measure the image looks good. Subject is on a totally white background.

Now let's look at it via sjlocke's suggestion:

See the glaringly horrific problem? Here it is. closer up:

Lightroom has been lying to me! I feel so deceived... I have had dozens of rejections due to this!

From now on every image will take a trip to Photoshop for cleanup before uploading.

But more importantly, I've grumbled at least a dozen times at the reviewers who handed me these rejections. Boy do I feel dumb, having finally found the problem. But also, imagine if one of them had taken two seconds, months ago, to clue me in on where the problem was. All this time I've been thinking it was the hair! *headsmack*

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

For the fun of it.

Although I do hope to eventually profit through the selling of microstock, it certainly felt in no way like "work" today! Here's a sample image:

Sure, it's a lot of work planning, shooting, editing, keywording, uploading, managing the portfolio, etc., but the work I put in today sure was a lot of fun.

As a bonus, we sure are accumulating a lot of cute shots of our kids. Soon, we'll need a Drobo just to store them all safely...

Monday, September 28, 2009

If only I had ______

On a nearly daily basis, several variations of the following thoughts will run through my head:
  • "If only I had one more light for the studio, I could get this shot right."
  • "I really should buy another lens. It'll take better pictures than the ones I ended up with today."
  • "That new camera body looks awesome, I should get it!"
Sometimes, I go straight to the computer, or to the camera store, and make the purchase. Other times, I can resist. I realize that whether I buy this shiny new toy or not, I'll still want something else tomorrow, or the next day. It's a never-ending uphill struggle, in which there's always something newer, faster, and/or better available. And if there isn't, there will soon be.

Don't get me wrong, I love new toys. It's a ton of fun setting them up, figuring them out, and putting them to use. And this is a kind of learning. But, I have yet to see a new purchase catapult my photography into the next level of awesomeness. I'm getting better, yes, but not because of the things I buy.

I'm truly envious of those that can happily make do with what they have, upgrading or expanding upon their tools only when there is a clear need to do so. I'd love to hear about the internal dialogue of those who could easily afford the latest and greatest gizmo, but choose to stick with what they have until they need better. What do these folks say to themselves?

Fortunately, the overall experiment here (to pay for my gear with microstock sales) is helping, as I'm pretty sure there's nothing on my want list that would result in an earlier break-even point. In other words, there's no new lens or light that's going to magically result in thousands of additional image sales. What I need now can't necessarily be bought: good ideas, better execution, practice, knowledge, and patience.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I'm working on a new series of images, of my kids at the piano. For some of the shots I wanted sheet music in front of them, but most music on my shelf would have copyright issues. Even old pieces are relatively newly published. As I understand things, my picture of their publication of the older work would infringe on the publisher's copyright...

The solution? MuseScore! Using this free music scoring software, I composed and printed my own piece for the shots:

One cool feature of the software is it will play your composition for you. Surprisingly, Der Musica didin't sound completely horrible. Here's an image of Model #2 "performing" the piece:

I'm still working on the photographic composition here, but I already have a few images I like.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shot with no plan.

For the most part, I'm trying to have a good idea of what I want to shoot before I set up the studio. In this case, I was shooting some "bathtime" type shots: Girl in comfy bathrobe brushing her hair, brushing her teeth, or just showing various expressions.

But, there's one important factor in working with the average 5-year-old. If they're not having any fun, you've got maybe two minutes (if that) before they stop giving you anything worth shooting.

So, with Model #1, we take turns. I get to take a few of the shots I have in mind, then it's her turn. She liked the shots I took of myself a couple of weeks ago with binoculars, and she loves looking at stuff through said binoculars, so it wasn't a huge surprise that she had the above idea on her shot list for the night. I should note that I gave her no direction, other than, "Here is where you stand." She's looking at nothing, straight into a blank wall, but doing a pretty convincing acting job!

Anyway, as I continue to build my portfolio at various agencies, I'm noticing that some of my best selling images were planned and executed by one pretty amazing 5-year-old!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


We had lots of family visiting for Model #2's 2nd birthday. I took tons of pictures, but not a lot intended for stock. While I had a ton of people in the house over the past few weeks, I didn't ask even one if they'd be willing to model for some stock images. Now that they are gone, I think about the missed opportunity.

I still feel like I'm working out the technical details, and learning to choose good concepts. This results in a major lack of confidence, and a some uneasiness at the idea of approaching new models, even family. I have to work on this. Perhaps as acceptances and sales improve, this is a problem that will fix itself. Time will tell. In the meantime, some sort of goal might help. How about this:

Goal: Before the end of the month, ask one new potential model to do a shoot with me.

I didn't do any planned shoots while our visitors were here, but as we did the tourist thing, I did get a lot of shots I love. Some were even suitable for stock, here are a couple more:

Saturday, September 12, 2009


On the advice of a helpful reviewer, I re-shot some of my "guy with binoculars" images. This time, I lit the background for better isolation. Of course, I also took a careful look at the first batch. I still wasn't getting the lighting perfect- wisps of hair on the top of my head were getting blown out along with the background. This means too much light was bouncing off the background, and overexposing my hair. As a fix, I moved my mark a bit farther from the background, and this did help a bit, but I can still see slight traces of the problem. I think I need to increase the background-to-model distance a bit more. Here's what I ended up with for the re-shoot, though. (I also dug out my jacket!)

Notes on the lighting: I went from 2 background lights to one, placed directly behind me, and aimed straight back at my background. I used my other two lights as key and fill. Key was a socked beauty dish overhead and a bit camera right. Fill was a shoot-through umbrella about waist level, camera left. (With one light I was getting shadows and uneven lighting on my face.)

If I do a re-re-shoot:

1) Bigger key. (I have on order an Alien Bees PLM mid-size parabolic silver bounce umbrella with a diffuser attachment. It's much bigger than the beauty dish, and my give me enough wrap to replace the fill light with a reflector and put the second light back on the background.) If all else fails, maybe a 4th AB400 will do the trick.

2) I'm using the little metal reflectors on my background lights, but they don't spread the light very much. I will try to even out the background by using two umbrella reflectors instead. This may also mean I won't need gobos to block their spill.

I do get the feeling I'm closing in on finding one lighting setup I like, but I'm not quite there yet. Of course, once I do find one I'll start looking for another...

While I was at it, I dug out another prop. My Glock model 30, a very compact .45.

Monday, September 7, 2009


I still catch myself thinking unproductively in the face of a fresh rejection. The word on my "binoculars shoot" is coming in from Fotolia. Of the first batch of 6 shots, four were selected, and two were declined.

Of the two refusals, one was, "Your photograph did not reach our desired level of aesthetic quality," and the other was, "The object will not be easily isolated from the background. The object must be captured on a bright seamless background."

There is nothing I can learn from the first message. The reviewer didn't like it. Maybe they didn't like the lighting, the pose, the wardrobe, the focus, the color, the idea- who knows. Whatever they didn't like about it, they couldn't be bothered or didn't have time to give me anything specific. Since I don't have a clue what the issue is, I'll probably send that same reviewer more shots with the exact same problem.

The second one got me. My first response was, "Oh? But the other four on the exact same background were fine? I must have got a bad reviewer. *grumble* *pout*" What's more, the rejected two images were accepted at Shutterstock anyway, and generated three sales there today alone. So, I almost just let it go at that.

But then I thought about it some more. Maybe I got a great reviewer. Maybe he had other uses of my images in mind, like compositing me into something more interesting than a grey background. And maybe he thought about how much easier that would be if I'd lit the background to pure white for him. And last, he could have just given me the lazy rejection response of "Your photograph did not reach our desired level of aesthetic quality," and been done with it. But he didn't, he took the time to let me know what he didn't like, and for a moment, I was acting like a spoiled child.

So, I say, "thank you!" to the reviewer, for taking the time to help me take a better picture next time. Tonight, I'll get myself back in the garage, don my "business guy" shirt and tie, and put some light on that background for you. While I'm at it, I'll shoot a few in portrait orientation as well.

Lessons learned:

1) Rejections can be an opportunity. They can help me expand my thinking, add a twist to a concept, or give me something technical to work on.

2) I should try to think more about how my images will be used, and not just worry about getting a technically good image. For example, there's not necessarily anything wrong with a grey background, but for many uses a blown-out white one will be a lot easier to work with. I'll try for a mix of both in the future.

3) Not every rejection is an opportunity. If the reviewer gives me nothing specific, then there's nothing I can fix. Perhaps the microstock agencies have some things they could improve upon as well...

Changing the subject, I'd been collecting a list of other blogs I follow for a post "one of these days", but today I noticed that one of them had mentioned me! When I first found ShootingStock (Thanks to Bob at picNiche), I immediately went to the oldest post and read the whole thing through in order. Like me, David is just getting started in microstock photography. I loved getting his perspectives on a lot of the same challenges I face. There's something uplifting about knowing there's other people out there on the same journey as I am. Thanks for sharing, David!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

On1 DSLR Remote - Now I can shoot myself!

I've got a few shots in my portfolio in which I am the model. These shots were a pain, as I shot them without a good tethering solution. I did have my camera's video out running to a portable 7" DVD player, so I could watch the LiveView. I also used the Nikon remote trigger to fire the shutter. Adding the D90's few-second delay gave me time to hide the trigger before the shot fired, but since overall the setup was cumbersome, I didn't end up being my own model very often.

Last night, I'm shot myself again, but in a new way. I bought the On1 software for my iPhone, and downloaded the server software to my laptop. I put my camera on a tripod and tethered it to a laptop via the camera's standard USB cable. My iPhone then became a remote trigger, plus a lot much more. I had full access to the camera settings, could toggle live view on and off, could review my shots on the iphone screen as I took them, and could even set the phone to fire the camera every 3-5 seconds while I was in supermodel mode.

I had a lot of fun, stayed up way to late, and ended up with a bunch of images to upload to my microstock sites today.

Friday, September 4, 2009


A new twist for tonight's shoot is that I actually spent some time planning it in advance! Starting with a 1-word concept, I thought about various ways I could communicate that concept. For each idea, how should I frame the shot? What should I be wearing? How should I be lit? What close variations should I add? As each new idea formed, I could think of other, related, images to either add to the shoot, or try for later.

I'm sorry to say this, but until now I haven't really given my shoots very much thought. Sometimes I had an idea of what I wanted, but other times I just grabbed a camera and a kid and started shooting. I usually got some images I could use, but I always threw out a LOT of rejects.

I'd love to hear more about how other stock shooters plan for their shoots.

I'll follow up tomorrow with some finished images.

The following image is unrelated, but is my favorite shot of the day so far. It's just a snapshot, but I really like it. It makes me happy I decided to keep my camera handy at all times!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Blue Battle Fairy

It was hot as heck, but we shot a quick series in the garage yesterday anyway. Since I had to mess around with the lighting a bit, I thought I'd describe where I ended up.

The background is a wide (104"?) roll of white paper, hung high on the garage wall on L-brackets. It is lit by 2 AB-400's each aimed across the paper, for overlapping "field of fire". I have a light meter, but just winged it this time to play around. I adjusted strobe power and placement,the model's distance from the paper, and my camera settings until I liked what I was seeing.

She is standing on the flip-side of some speckled fiberglass bathroom paneling I got at Home Depot. It's not perfectly smooth, but it still blows out really well when I blast it with this much light, and it's not too hard to clean. I've been walking on it for 2 weeks, every time I go in and out of the garage, and all I had to do was hit it with a wet sponge for 2 minutes.

The Blue Battle Fairy has her own light, too. A 22" beauty dish with a third AB-400 in it, and a diffusion sock on it. It' is close to straight on, a little above her head, and aimed down to light her from head to toe. It also adds some light to the floor, whitening it up. I tried some shots with the dish to her side, with a white posterboard to fill her other side, but it was tough to get all that close enough while still leaving her some room to play. So I backed up, centered, raised the dish, and then angled it down some.

I really had to push my main light a lot harder to do these full body shots. (Mostly I've been in a lot closer until now.) In close, it is easy to get the beauty dish really close on one side, and a reflector in really close on the other side. For these wider shots I think it'd be really nice to have 2 lights on the model...

I edited four of the images last night. In Lightroom I cleaned up the background, darkened the wings a bit, and did some basic global adjustments. Then, I made a path selection with the pen tool in Photoshop to remove the shadows under her feet, as I just didn't like the way they looked.

The first four are up at Shutterstock and 3DS already, and as usual I'll wait a while to hear from iStock, Fotolia, and Stockxpert.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Sometimes it seems like the more you learn, the more you can appreciate how much you don't know or understand. I got this feeling in a bog way when I first entered graduate school. After college graduation, I felt and acted like an expert on Math, Engineering, Science, and therefore the world in general. In the first week of graduate school, I quickly learned a few painful truths: Nobody knows very much at all about everything, and nobody knows everything about anything at all, everybody knows more than I do about something, and the killer: I didn't really know very much at all about anything.

I'm getting that feeling again in my photography. This means I'm transitioning from the blissful ignorance of "not knowing what I don't know" to "becoming painfully aware of what I don't know". This discomfort and uncertainty means the opportunity to grow is at hand. How will I learn?

Reading: Books, Forums, Blogs, Manuals - I read a lot every day.

Multimedia: Podcasts, Videos, Websites, Flickr, Microstock Sites,, Kelby Online Training - I follow a bunch of great podcasts and blogs, I'll make a list one day. I also have subscriptions at both Kelby Online and Lynda, and always have at least one course in progress. I can't recommend these two sites strongly enough, they offer a HUGE value for a small monthly cost.

Other People: This is a gap. I'd love to take a class, and join a photography club, but I don't feel like it will fit my schedule at present. Someday, definitely.

I do have a tendency to let the above get in the way of actually taking pictures, which is invaluable. So, I've started taking my camera with me wherever I go. I probably look like a bit of a dork, dropping my daughter off at Kindergarten with my D90+17-55 2.8 on my across-the-chest Black Rapid BR-4 strap. Probably more so this morning when I was lying chest-down on the sidewalk taking pictures of snails and flowers. But I can live with being a dork, especially if I learn a little in the process.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Shifting Monetary Perspective

I've noticed a slow shift in the way I'm spending my money. Watching my daily microstock sales tick by, I get excited at $0.25 here, $1.88 there. The plan is, a lot of these small sales will add up into a meaningful revenue stream at some point. But here in the beginning, they add up to very small daily and monthly totals. So, where's the shift? When I hear, "That will be $14.42 at the window." at the drive-through fast food joint, I think to myself, "That's more than my stock earnings last week." At a finer level of detail, I get to decide whether I want to erase the day's sales by ordering dessert.

The point is not that I want to become some sort of miserly old fart. But, as I moved from an hourly to a salaried worker, I changed. Moving from cashing a paycheck to watching for a direct deposit to not even worrying about it anymore, I'd lost my perspective. Once I decided it'd be fine to budget $500 a month, and later $1000 a month, on whatever whim I felt at the time, I started to literally spend without thought. Any book on personal finance will tell you that the first step to better finances is to track every cent you spend. I've just never felt the need, until now, and now I can't help but pay attention.

An unexpected benefit of the microstock experience may be a new awareness of money. I have earned a little over $100 to date. I have spent $10,000. *gulp* If earning the occasional $0.25 or $0.30 can add up to a significant pile of cash, then so can saving the occasional $0.25 or $0.30, right? What's the old Ben Franklin quote? "Take care of the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves." Was he talking about budgeting, or microstock?