SeanNel_ShootsImaging007Truth be told, we do come from a photographic heritage. My grandmother was a professional photographer with a studio in Johannesburg. She retired before we grew up, so I never knew until my sister started studying photography.

I originally studied Theology, and worked as a missionary in the former Soviet Union for a few years, before coming back to South Africa. We had a business doing graphic design, web development, and small business development, and this required some photography, so we opened a studio as well, and I worked with my eldest sister as a wedding photographer (doing over 100 weddings per year)

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I specifically got into Stock Photography when I signed up with an agency to prove to a very good friend of mine that it can’t possibly work and sustain itself… however, years later, here I am… full time stock photographer (we sold all our other “rat-race” business, and now both my wife and I do only one thing: Stock!)

2. What is your Profession (Speciality)?
I am a full time, Professional Stock Photographer, specializing in nothing! I shoot anything and everything that moves (and doesn’t) because somebody, somewhere is going to need a picture of it.

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3. Please describe your Photographic field:

Stock Photography is basically un-commissioned commercial images of extremely high quality. The licences to use these images are sold directly to designers and developers or through Stock-photo Agencies (for a commission) and is used in virtually every industry. Almost every magazine and website in the world uses some stock images, because there is no need to hire a photographer to shoot basic “filler” images, or backgrounds, or editorial content images, etc.

4. When you started out, what was the biggest “eye opener”? What were your expectations? What didn’t you expect?
Well… the biggest “eye-opener” was that you can actually make money with this… I didn’t expect more than a few Dollars a month from it, but currently it’s my full salary being paid from the residual income from images shot over the last 5 years or so.

SeanNel_ShootsImaging010I also didn’t expect the quality requirements to be so high! Many pro photographers get into the field, thinking that their 5 or 10 years experience will carry them through, but in that time, they have learnt how to work fast, and where to cut corners to get the products out on time. In stock, you need extreme quality, no noise, no dust, no OOFS (Out of Focus Shots – OOF is also the sound you make when you view that killer money-shot at 100% and realize its soft!)

Off Course, the quality reason is simple… a designer is going to go to work on that image for their final product. If you have already damaged it in some way, then it will show up so fast. The designer will return the image as unusable, and both you and the agency lose face, and possibly a future client.

5. Tell us about your typical workday or workweek (whichever will be a better description of your profession)
Nothing typical in it. When I am working, I might organize a shoot over the span of a few days for a coming week. We tend to hire locations (or studios, depending on the type of looks we are going for) Make-up, buy some wardrobe, if we don’t have, and source models for the shoot.

I would typically spend about a day researching current trends for et kind of shoot that I am going to do – sometimes following the trend to ensure sales, sometimes going outside the mould to see if I can hit a winner that is not available from 50,000 other photographers.

SeanNel_ShootsImaging015Typically (ok… there is something typical in it…) we will always run with backups, so if it requires 2 models, I will book 3 or 4. It has been a long time since we have done a shoot where all the models showed up for work! There is always one or two missing!

We will typically shoot in about 2-3 hour sessions, for 1 to 2 days, and then spend the next few weeks working through the RAW files, choosing the images we will further push through Post-processing.

Because we don’t really have a deadline or client waiting, I tend to do a few images of a shoot, then move on to another shoot, shot earlier. I get bored of the same lighting and locations very quickly, and that tends to push me to discard potential earners (images with financial/sales value) At the point of writing, I had about 1,5tB of RAW images shot over the last few years that still needs to be processed and uploaded. The images goes through non-destructive editing and cleanup in Adobe Photoshop, and then gets keyworded for search engines.

Every night The computers stay online, uploading images to the various libraries and agencies, but thanx to South African bandwidth costs and restrictions, I am usually running about 2,000 images behind

6. What equipment do you shoot with? (Equipment list with comments)
I shoot Canon!SeanNel_ShootsImaging017

Canon EOS 5DmkII
Canon 17-40mm f/4L
Canon 50mm f/2.5 Macro (Plus Kenko Extension tubes)
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L

I also carry two 580EX (ver.1) flashes and 4 PocketWizards, 1 Hyperdrive (250gb) and two 500gb Firewire Lacie drives. I almost never shoot without the trusty old 17″ Macbook Pro in the bag as well (unless it’s travel or sport, in which case it’s back at the hotel, ready for review as soon as we walk in!)

Why Canon and not Nikon? simply because Nikon doesn’t have what I need in my photography today. There is no competing camera for the 5DmkII in megapixels (not at the price or Dynamic range) and no Nikon camera can currently do full 1080p HD video. Something we are starting to use more and more. Nikon bodies can shoot video, but not production quality… not yet, anyway!

7. What Computer hardware do you see as “must have” and required?
A notebook computer with a decent screen!

In General stock is a numbers game, and identifying issues before the shoot starts, or during the shoot will save hours and days, if not weeks and months in post processing time!

Whatever you work on, it must be colour calibrated (I use the SpyderII from colorvision to keep out the casts) and do yourself a favor, ramp up the RAM. More RAM = faster working, less waiting

SeanNel_ShootsImaging020I also have a DROBO connected on firewire800 because we just eat disk space! typical day of shooting would give us about 60-100gb of RAW files, and we edit in 16bit, which turns that 30-40mb file into a 160mb flat file.

8. What Software is needed to function in this field successfully?
Any text editor with a spell checker!

You would think that I am kidding, but I am not. No matter how awesome your shot of a roaring lion may be… if you can’t spell “L-I-O-N” then the search engines can’t find the image, and nobody will buy it!

Then of course there is your RAW converter, we use PhaseONE’s CaptureONE (just works better for us, especially in the blue channels, less noise) and then your workhorse Photo Editor: Adobe Photoshop

The full version of Photoshop is a good thing to have, especially when you start seriously playing around in your channels and colour modes, but you can get away with Adobe Photoshop Elements to start with.

SeanNel_ShootsImaging0389. In this line of photography, do you need extra tuition, further studies or an internship?
No, not really… what you do need is patience, perseverance and a thick hide. Nobody with suicidal tendencies should attempt sending images to reviewers for inclusion in an agency’s library. Every image gets reviewed at 100% and gets rejected for the smallest error.

Internships are few and far between in this industry, because there are generally no solid working times and no client deadlines.

10. Can I make a decent living with this specialist field, or do I need to market my services more generally?SeanNel_ShootsImaging050
If you are willing to treat this as a 9-5 job, then yes, you can make more than a decent living with this. Every image has a lifespan and across that lifespan, you build up a residual income.

The nice thing is that after a few years, you don’t have to work every day to pay the bills at the end of the month, so you can selectively shoot projects for clients that is more to your own taste and not always 100% commercial. It tends to keep photography nice, instead of “work”!

11. How do you get work? Do you have an agent? Do you do your own marketing and advertising?
Well… we create our own job’s and shooting schedules. Virtually nothing happens on commission so you end up being your own slave driver. It’s addictive, and you find yourself checking your sales stats in the middle of the night when you stand up for a glass of water. I do believe Psychologists are close to classifying this as an official disorder…

Working through an agency does make your life a bit easier, as they typically take on a large part of the marketing campaigns for your work as well as the cost of it. Obviously you do not earn as much “per sale” but you have a lot more in the bank account at the end of the month.

SeanNel_ShootsImaging06012. How much time do you spend actually shooting in any given week?
I’d say maybe a day a week, if that much. When we travel, for instance, we will shoot every day, for weeks or months at time. after that we can go three to four weeks without picking up the camera, and just going through work on the computers.

Speaking with others in the profession, I have come to the conclusion that if you average about an hour a day as shooting, then you are shooting a lot! Very few people realize that earning money through photography actually cause you to shoot less than a hobbyist, not more.

13. How much time do you spend editing or do you have a dedicated editor to do the work?
I have a part time editor, as well as edit myself. Again, we have the freedom to work slower because there is no definitive deadline, however, keeping the images coming is a key to success in the long run.

14. Can you do this on your own, or do you need other specialists (like creative directors or food stylists, etc) to make the images happen?
Nope… this you can do on your own. As you grow in the profession and your allocated shooting budget grows, you can bring in the professionals… They are worth the money in the time you save in post processing (a good make-up artist can cut a beauty model’s edit down from 8 hours to 1)

SeanNel_ShootsImaging07915. Can you effectively shoot other styles if need be, or is your field very specialised?
You can shoot any style, but because of the extreme quality required when shooting for stock, it’s often difficult to switch over to something like editorial, where you can blow out to ISO3200 and not bother about noise and exact colour matches. The inner Quality Freak just won’t let you get away with it!

16. What threatens your profession?
HAHAHAhahahaha… the thing that makes my profession possible also threatens it: Technology!

Cheaper cameras with better quality and more megapixels and better dynamic range keeps on lowering the barrier to entry and results in millions of people submitting a few images in an effort to make some money on the side. This is a numbers game, and if a million people submit 100 images in a year just to try it out, and 50 gets accepted, that means I have to compete against 50,000,000 new images in the market!

A few years ago you could only get into an agency if you had 5,000 to 10,000 images of high quality ready to go, and it would literally cost you half a million to get into the game, both in equipment and time/money spent on the projects and shoots. Now you can do it for less than R10,000 and earn that initial investment back in a few months.

Do I fear this “threat”? Absolutely not! It drives me and inspires me and keeps on opening up new markets that needs and wants to buy my images! No Photographer should every fear competition, it makes us all stronger!

SeanNel_ShootsImaging10617. What future developments do you see in your line of work?
I love what is happening with VSLR’s and the convergence of video with HD quality (and Higher) video. As a stock shooter, I am also dabbling in stock video, and this development allows me to now shoot HD-quality video clips for stock without having to carry any extra gear along.

E-ink, high-end mobile phones and video posters all open new avenues where I can sell my work!

18. Who was the photographer(s) that inspired you most and why?
Sheesh, that is difficult! I never really like any single photographer for their work, but there are a lot of photographers that I currently admire, both for the product they put out, as well as their work ethic.

I am always amazed at somebody like Chase Jarvis… constantly sharing information, always being creative always trying to push the limits of his equipment and support staff.

SeanNel_ShootsImaging14419. Would you do this (What you are doing today) again if you just started out today? Is it worth it?
ABSOLUTELY!!! I wish I could do this all over so that I can start out earlier!

20. Any suggestions or “Pearls of Wisdom” for a Student wanting to get into this field?
Buy as little as possible, but whatever you buy, get the best. Don’t buy a lens you will use once a year, rather rent it when you need it.

In Stock, MegaPixels is King!

Yes, you can shoot with a 6mp camera. Yes, the designers can blow it up and use it as a two page spread… but there is no way that you will be able to shoot a ISO1600 shot handheld in a dark cathedral with a 6mp camera. A 20mp camera can do that, size it down to 12mp and be spotlessly clean of noise.

Go big! Big sensor, big MP, and Big Big Hard drives… shoot it all! and remember, if it’s not online, it can’t sell!

For more information on getting into Stock Photography, Please visit:

by Sean Nel

Sean Nel

Images Copyright: Sean Nel

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