5 Stock Photography Tips & Shooting the Mediterranean with a pocket Leica!

Bright lights of Monte Carlo. ISO 400, 2.5 sec. @ f4

by Lawrence Sawyer. First, let me thank Gavin Seim for the invitation to write a piece on my recent experience shooting stock photography in the Mediterranean. This was a dual-purpose trip: anniversary cruise, and a test of my theory that with the right choice, one could actually shoot salable stock with a point-and-shoot pocket camera. Now, a little background…

I’ve been shooting stock photography since my college days in the early 1980’s, and make a living doing it. I have several thousand images on file at four U.S. agencies and dozens of sub-agents worldwide. I have a new book out, entitled  See It, Shoot It, Sell It! -How to Earn a Great Second Income Taking and Shooting Photographs of Virtually Anything. That title embodies the way I work: I shoot “found images” more than anything else. I have learned over the years that there are countless opportunities to shoot highly marketable images all around us, every day… if we just learn to see them.

So when I’m shooting stock, here are the five main criteria I use in evaluating a scene:

1. Is there a message here? There needs to be either a solid piece of information in this shot, or a pure-magic artistic element to something mundane, like beautiful light on a cityscape.

2. Can I pull it off technically? An elk in a shaft of sunlight is killer if it’s 50 yards away and I have 300 f2.8 with me, but pointless if it’s 500 yards out.

3. Does it have enough appeal that it will sell to a broad audience? I worry about this one less and less, because all images are available now to the whole internet-connected world, and somewhere, there is a buyer for darn near anything.

4. Can I shoot it better than it’s likely already been done? If it’s a scenic shot, I’m careful not to be enamored by the place just because it’s my first visit. But if the light is phenomenal, I’ll roll the dice and shoot first, then ask questions later. The more famous the place, the more skeptical I am of my ability to make great stock on my first visit. I try to research how much a place has been shot before I go in with guns a-blazing.

5. Can this shot be a “quick read”? If I see the shot, and I instantly know why, then I’m confident that others will “get” the shot too. But if there are multiple elements in the shot that have to be digested in order for the message to come across, I back off.

So, with my standard criteria in mind, and this dual-purpose trip in front of me, I decided to ditch the huge gear bag and use only a pocket camera. I love to photograph, and I love to explore, but I would need to keep the camera secondary and unobtrusive if we were going to enjoy the cruise ports, the culture, the scenery and each others’ company.

After months of research, I settled on the Leica X1. It’s small, but not tiny; full-featured but not totally loaded with bells and whistles. The basics: 12.2 Megapixels, 24mm lens (36mm equivalent) APS-C sensor, and Adobe .DNG raw file mode, in addition to simultaneous jpegs. Really quite basic; it’s strength is in the sharpness, lack of noise, and excellent image integrity. Corner to corner, edge to edge, it has few peers in terms of quality of imagery. Files from this camera exhibit almost no chromatic aberration; it shows little noise even at higher ISO settings, has superb corner sharpness, and is small enough to carry easily all day.

At this point, you may be asking yourself how these images  you see here, are any better than what I might have achieved with a Canon G11, or Olympus EP-1, etc. Well, on the web it’s hard to show that comparison, unless I had shot identical scenes with all pertinent cameras, and you could download all of the full-size files. I did not go to that effort in my research; instead, I tested a couple of models, and then found a blog post by Tom Grill, founder of the original Comstock agency and a Leica enthusiast. Tom had done the legwork, and understands the requirements of stock shooters. Agencies will rarely accept images with technical flaws today. They require noise-free images with near-perfect sharpness and color when viewed in Photoshop at 100%. Tom’s stamp of approval tipped the scales for me.

So without looking back, I unloaded my Nikon D300 and 12-24 Nikkor to create some cash, and ordered the X1. Retail is about $2000, and I didn’t just have that lying around, so something had to go. Once it arrived I had about three weeks to play with it before we flew to Monte Carlo to begin the cruise.

The tricky part, and I knew this going in, is that this camera has a fixed focal length lens. Straight, 36mm equivalent. That’s it. For any real photographer used to having six lenses in the bag from which to choose, that’s a brain-bender! The mission then is to compose on the fly, choosing shots that “work” well with that coverage. Landscapes are a no-brainer, but people shots work too, if you can get in close. 36mm is an intimate length for shooting people, and it really asks you to move in close. (Though I must say, I knew on this trip there would be few people-shots for stock. That would require model releases in various languages, and then on top of that I’d be sticking a camera right in my subjects’ faces! That’s not a good way to set your subject at ease. Can you imagine this exchange?  “Hey stranger, quickly now, sign this form. Thanks. Smile!”)

Also on the X1, “macro” focus is available but weak in terms of the look it delivers. And, the autofocus is not very fast, relative to the SLR’s we’re all used to. In fast situations I’d need to switch it to manual focus. There is some shutter lag too, so that had to be factored in.

But even with those limitations, I still felt that solid, money-earning stock images could be captured with this minimalist camera. My strategy was to look for any scene that was ready-made and communicated something– anything– and communicated it well, by itself. That’s what great stock does–it’s a quick read and holds an instant message for the viewer. Visually strong shots are a must, because they must appeal to many buyers in order to earn you any income. I would look for unique angles, too, because the focal length wouldn’t do me any favors. I had to make my own impact.

So off we went! We flew into Nice, France and stayed one night in Cannes, then boarded the ship in Monte Carlo. From there, it was port-intensive, with 11 stops in 12 days. This is a poor way to really dig into a culture, but a great way to get a variety of settings in a short time frame. Every morning, we left the ship either to walk the port town, or hire a local driver to take us into the countryside. I was, as I pretty much always am, looking for images. High, low, looking for unique angles; scenes, great light, and any potential photo opportunity, however fleeting. In stock photography, I think almost every image can be categorized into one of two camps: literal information, or art/concept/theme. Whether or not a shot sells, ultimately, is a function of how compelling I’ve made the image, and how well it is keyworded so that the buyer can find it. So when I’m shooting, I stay open to both aspects– pure information, and visual impact.

Shown here are just a few of my favorite images from this trip; photographs that I think are strong all by themselves, and really don’t look at all like point-and-shoot grab shots… even though they are, and even though all were carefully crafted on the spot.

As for the camera, it’s a winner if you are looking for superb image quality and are willing to give up some speed to get that quality. I am in love with the captures from this thing, even at high ISO settings. Shooting it requires some adjustments to your methods, but you can be confident that if you do your part, the camera will deliver. Remember that first shot of Monte Carlo? Here’s a 100% crop from it. I did absolutely nothing to this file. It is taken straight from an un-manipulated DNG file, cropped and saved as a TIFF. Don’t forget, this is at ISO 400.

And here’s a shot of the Basilica di San Giacomo, in Bellagio, shot at ISO 3200 and hand-held at 1/30 sec. Note the crop of the bottom right hand corner. There is noise, as you’d expect at ISO 3200, but the noise is not terrible all things considered, and the sharpness and detail are still excellent.

Basilica di San Giacomo, Bellagio, Italy. Hand-held exposure, ISO 3200, 1/30 @ f6.3. © Lawrence Sawyer

(I don’t think I’ll ever use/submit this shot for stock, because as a static subject, it could have been shot at a low ISO, so I don’t think any agency would accept it with this much noise. But, this was a good spur-of-the-moment test, and now I know what to expect when I push the settings to the max. With a little filtration, though, I might get it to the point where it would look great as a print.)

So, to re-cap:

I see the shot. Can it be done with this gear, right now? Will it appeal to a buyer somewhere? Can I shoot it and make it sing? Will it be understood quickly by the viewer?

Five questions in five seconds. If it’s a go on all counts, I hit the shutter!

In a follow-up article, we may look at a few more images from this excursion, and then later we can talk about post-processing techniques. Gavin’s Lightroom pre-sets would have a very different effect on these shots and I’m excited to see how he would approach the “finishing” stage. He and I have a variety of approaches that could be used.

-Lawrence Sawyer is a Stock Photographer and Author of  See It, Shoot It, Sell It!

En route to Toronto, over Lake Michigan.

Over Lake Michigan. ISO 200, 1/640 @ f11.

The real deal, shot at a fish market in Corfu, Greece.

Fish market in Corfu, Greece. ISO 100, 1/50 @ f5.0

a.k.a., the Cat.

Cool cat of Vernazza. ISO 100, 1/8 sec. @ f14

Soft light and sailboats on the Ligurian Sea. Manarolo, Italy. ISO 100, 1/500 @ f8