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A Designer's Guide to Making Your Own Stock Photography (for non-photographers)

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By Bruce Livingstone

Published on March 6, 2002

As a designer, making your own stock photography means that you'll be approaching photography from an idea of a finished concept. This isn't the way most photographers think. Most commercial photographers shooting for a design firm, need instructions from an art director. Photographers need to know what your client wants. They want to know what you know and share in your vision. This can be an interesting process with you as art director and photographer. Basically there is one goal to creating your own stock photography. Try to conceptualize a finished design and then shoot the image you'll need for a mockup.

I used to have a spectacular job at Image Club Graphics, now Gettyworks' Eyewire. I don't really call myself a photographer. I don't think professional photographers would consider me one. But, you may have seen my photos on iStockphoto.com and maybe seen them used a few times on your favorite web sites and magazines. I've been a designer for about 12 years and started iStockphoto in 1999 to share the photographs from my failed stock photography company.

My friend and mentor at Image Club Graphics (ICG), Grant Hutchinson taught me most of what I know about stock photography, what makes a good collection and what to keep away from. Every designer needs a good stock photo collection or your designs may start to look dated or retro, awkward or tired. Sometimes it's just not right to use a stock image that you can buy from a stock agency. After reading this guide, you'll be making your own stock photography to use in your designs.

Don't be Afraid of Cameras

You'll be surprised with the results you'll get from a $20 camera like the Holga, Lomo or Diana. Of course, SLR (What is SLR?) is fantastic if you understand how to use a camera. I personally do not. I understand what my camera will do if I twist the dials, knobs and winders under certain conditions. If you ask me what an F-stop is, I couldn't tell you. If you don't know how to use an SLR (and don't want to know), try a Lomo. Lomos are simple to use and really versatile. They also shoot 35mm film. If you're slightly more daring, try the Holga. The Holga is a medium format camera that shoots 120 mm film (medium format). The Holga is unique because of its ability to take multiple exposures, just by clicking a button without winding the film. The most obvious pitfall with medium format film is that you'll most likely need to get a drum scan to use the images for print. If you're using the images for the web, a flatbed scanner with transparency adapter will do nicely. The Holga has an uncanny ability to make every photograph look interesting, no matter how boring the subject matter is. The interesting qualities of the Holga are inherent in the format of the film and the rich qualities of double exposures.

Toy Cameras?

The truth is, these cameras are cheap, plastic toys, but you can take fantastic photographs with them. It's not just the image that ends up being interesting but the format is attractive because of the unique lens qualities. Some of these toy camera manufacturers have years of precision experience with other optics products, such as industrial microscopes. Most of these cameras are small and easily concealed. Nobody takes a small camera seriously when seen in public, because it appears as a harmless toy. Small cameras lend themselves to natural subjects and organic situations. Big, bulky professional SLR cameras give some people the creeps and will turn and run away at the sight of them. You can't take pictures of people in the streets with a big, two handed camera. It will just make people uncomfortable and uneasy. If possible, use a small camera, something that doesn't intrude on anyone's personal space. Security guards are also less likely to throw you out of a building if they think you're shooting images for personal use. If you look pro, you're going to need permission before shooting in most buildings. This is a photograph of 12 or more security guards escorting me from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Security guards escorting me from the Met in NYC
Security guards escorting me from the Met in NYC

You need to know what you'll get when you have a really long exposure. You'll always get really long exposures if you're shooting in the dark, especially with a Lomo (and no Flash). Don't be afraid to move around, spin, or mount it on a tripod and take a picture of traffic in the middle of the night. Experiment with it and shoot anything that comes to mind. Carry it with you wherever you go. Train stations are always a great source of images and subways are even better because you can get really close to the trains. If you had a fish-eye lens for your SLR and used it like a Macro lens, what would happen to the image? It's a fairly basic concept, but the image is distorted like a reflection in a sphere. The point is, if you know your camera and your gear, you'll be able to produce a wider variety of images and get more interesting results.

Experiment!

What would happen if you shot into a mirror? Or, you might want to shoot around corners, over aisles in the grocery store if you check out the security mirrors mounted in most retail outlets. Try experimenting with shooting through magnifying glasses, water, colored plastics, bottles, reflections or anything you can get your hands on. You'll be surprised with the results.

Whatever you're shooting, be sure to use lots of film.

The image you want isn't really a golden moment. It takes a lot of film to get the perfect image for your design. Pro photographers set up shots and take multiple exposures of the same subject at with different light settings, exposures and variables. Remember, this isn't your mother's birthday. We don't need to see any shots of family on your stock photo camera. This camera is strictly for you.

Speaking of film, don't buy the $2.99 special in the sale bin. Use professional quality film. I have a tendency toward low speed Kodak Ektachrome 35mm Slide Film and Fuji 35mm Neopan 100 ASA black and white. Fuji also make some great color reversal film, we like PROVIA. This type of film is can produce some really interesting results if you develop it using cross-processing methods. The lower the speed of the film, the less grain you'll have in your scans. Faster film will give you really grainy scans, unless that's the effect you're after. For really grainy images, use 800 ASA or add some grain later in Photoshop.

Developing and Scanning

The quality of the digital image has to look as good as your slide, negative or print. If you have a scanner (slide scanner preferred), go ahead and scan your images and mock something up. If you don't have a scanner, a good alternative is to get your film developed onto CD-Rom. You can do this at drugstores and most film labs. Ask for high resolution scans. I was lucky to find a drugstore where I live that developed my film onto CD-Rom with decent resolution for about $25. The results aren't as good as scanning the film yourself, but it's good enough if you don't have a scanner.

We've been using a Nikon LS-2000 SuperCool Scan for most of the images we've posted on iStockphoto.com. The scanner gives great results with 35 mm slides and negatives. The color depth and sharpness of scans is surprisingly accurate. The largest output you'll get is approximately 9 x 12 inches at 300 dpi, producing a file almost 30 MB in size. We've also had good results from our Linotype-Hell flatbed scanner with transparency adaptor. There have been many other great scanners made over the years from AGFA, Polaroid and Kodak, maybe you've already got one. Get what you can afford, but as a rule of thumb, you get what you pay for with scanners.

Color Correction and Printing

If you've never color corrected your own scans for print before, it might be a good idea to have your scans made and color corrected by the pros. It may cost a little more, but your client will appreciate the extra effort and so will you. There's nothing worse than going to a press check and finding out you forgot to convert your image to CMYK or that the reds were clipping because they were too saturated. Anything could go wrong in this stage. If your monitor and scanner aren't calibrated (or you're not sure), don't trust what you're seeing on screen. Save some money and get a proof before going to film (or direct-to-plate). By the time the color keys arrive (or match proof), it's too late. You'll already have spent the money for film or plates.

Archive your film and digital images

You'll be surprised how much film you can shoot in year. If you can archive your images digitally, you can have them all at your fingertips for when you need them. If you're planning on using an image of a person, make sure you get a model release. Don't think, "It'll be okay to use this, my friend won't mind". He will. Here (24 KB Word DOC file) is a very basic model release you can use and modify to suit your needs. If you're going to eventually sell your images to a stock photo agency, you'll need a professionally drafted model release. Try not to be tempted to use an image you took that happens to have a trademark, copyright or logo in the frame. There's no quicker way to get in trouble than to associate one brand with another. This includes logos on clothing, computers, shoes, cars, cell phones, signage and franchised restaurants.

Gallery of Mockups and Designs

We've collected a few examples of where our stock photos have been used in print and on the web. Here is a collection of images and the juxtaposition of the original stock photograph.

Laurentz web site
Image from the web site http://www.laurentz-design.com/ featuring yours truly as the model du jour.

wheatdesign.com web site
Image from the web site http://www.wheatdesign.com/computing.php featuring a photo of a Macintosh from iStockphoto.com.

Pelago web site
Screenshots of the Pelago web site at http://www.pelagodesign.com/ featuring shots of our old warehouse space and neon signage.

staticred.net web site
Screenshot of the http://www.staticred.net/ web site using a photo from iStockphoto.com.

GiveMePower Inc. presentation folder
Print Example
Client: GiveMePower Inc.
Project: Presentation Folder

Craig Broadcast Systems promotional brochure
Print Example
Client: Craig Broadcast Systems
Project: Promotional Brochure

Craig New Media promotional brochure
Print Example
Client: Craig New Media
Project: Promotional Brochure

Online Stock and Sundry

iStockphoto.com

If you're feeling like you're ready to share your images with the rest of the world, there are a few venues where you can offer your digital files. Of course, there's iStockphoto.com, where you can upload all your images and get 5 cents when somebody downloads them. iStock doesn't sell stock photography, the photos are free, but there is a charge for the download to cover the cost of bandwidth.

RebelArtist.com

We've heard some people have had great success selling their digital files on this site. You signup and upload your images, then name the price. This is a pretty cool service because you can sell your files for whatever you think you can get for them. Rebelartist.com take approx. 50 - 65 % of the proceeds, which is a better deal than you'd get from a big stock photo agency.

UpShots Stock

A newcomer to the market is UpShotStock.com, which will soon offer a plug-in for searching. The system is a peer-to-peer distributed network, so you're not dealing directly with a stock company and the files are distributed much like Napster does with MP3's.

Lomo

The high quality lomo camera will run you about $150, but you can also find plastic versions for a fraction of the price at Freestylecamera.com for around $20.

Medium format toy cameras available at Freestyle Cameras for about $17 and use medium format film (12 or 16 exposures). In Canada, get a Holga here for about $30 CDN.

Diana

A lot of people say the Diana and the Holga are the same cameras, but I haven't actually seen a Diana. Here are some links to Diana pages.

Lubitel 166U
This was a camera made by Ilford (or sold through Ilford). Try and contact Ilford directly and see if you can get your hands on one of these.

Ilford Photo Equipment Service
60 Eisenhower DriveParamus
New Jersey 076521-800-922-0192 (ask for Dennis)

Here is some history on the Lubitel.

This site has Lubitel's for sale with free shipping from Russia.

Have a look here for some more history on Russian Cameras.

If you actually want to buy any of these old school Russian Beauties, check out this site.

See Joe Clark's article on Bad Stock Photography.

Machine Gun Camera.

Serious thanks to Brad Ralph, co-founder of iStockphoto.com for helping with the portfolio graphics in this article.

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Bruce Livingstone is the President of Evolvs.com, Webcore Labs Inc., and founder of iStockphoto.com. He also helps out on A List Apart.

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