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Ingredients of a Stock Photo

Now that you are seeing stock everywhere and thinking about how different images are used in different projects, I want to focus on some key ingredients that help set stock photos apart from ordinary snapshots. Hopefully, you are starting to keep a list of concepts and ideas that you are excited to create. As you create your list, scout locations and assemble props you'll need to focus in on what exactly it is you want a specific photo to communicate. What will its core message be? Are you trying to evoke a specific feeling, or are you making a photo that is simply representative of a particular item?

Communication Is Key

Think about being afraid for a moment. Imagine your eyes widening, your senses on full alert; perhaps the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and your pulse quickens. Tapping into emotion as a means of communication is extremely powerful because it is a message that translates very quickly and bypasses spoken language.

The wide eyes in Figure 3.12 immediately grab your attention and begin to communicate a message of fear, which is further supported by the enclosing dark vignette around the edges and completely brought home by the large male hand covering the mouth. I've seen that photo used in projects ranging from violence prevention programs to a low-budget horror film poster. It completely succeeds as a communication device.

Figure 3.12

Figure 3.12 Abuse. ©

Contrast that against the sense of fun and adventure in Figure 3.13. The clever use of starfish in an anthropomorphic pose, their arms held whimsically in the air while the surf crashes in the background, screams fun vacation getaway. Just because you are intending to communicate an emotion doesn't mean you have to actually use a real person in the shot.

Figure 3.13

Figure 3.13 In the Mood for Love—Couple of Starfish. © Angel Herrero de Frutos (

Simplicity of Message

Like a good joke, a good stock image needs to communicate its punch line very simply and clearly. If you have to explain the joke, it probably wasn't very funny or it was too complex. You won't have the opportunity to explain your stock image to anyone, so it has to do that job all on its own.

If you are going to photograph an apple for stock, then strive to shoot the quintessential apple, the personification of applehood, the crispest, healthiest dang apple the world has ever seen. Anyone can drop an apple on a white background and shoot it, so your job is to rise above the rest and create an image that takes appleness to a new level. Figure 3.14 is a great example. The angle it was shot at makes the fruit look like it is standing tall and ready for duty. The bright green leaf jutting off the stem speaks of freshness, as if it were just plucked off the tree. The skin is free of blemish and the reflection of light on the top just makes it shine.

Figure 3.14

Figure 3.14 Red Apple. ©

You don't have to shoot against a white background to be simple, though. Take that same apple (OK, not that same exact apple) and put it in the hand of a lovely young woman lying in the dappled sunlight of a late summer's day, and you can still communicate a message of health or happiness just as simply and clearly (Figure 3.15).

Figure 3.15

Figure 3.15 Happy Woman. © Lise Gagne (

Give Equal Weight to the Background

It is easy to become so focused on the subject of a photo that you forget about the background. This is a critical (and all too common) error when shooting for stock. The background is a key contributor to the usefulness factor of a stock photo. Think back to how you are seeing photos used in advertisements, on magazine covers, alongside articles, on packages, and so on. In many cases, the designer of the project has placed text, logos, or other images on top of the original photo.

Looking back at some of the examples I've shown here, you can see the background lends just as much to the photo as the subject does. In the case of a subject on a white background, like the apple or my frying pan, the background can very easily be removed completely or expanded in any direction, as the final project requires.

However, the background doesn't have to be pure white to be useful. An expanse of solid color or the use of a shallow depth of field that throws the background out of focus is equally successful at supporting the simple message of the subject, while still providing what is called "copy space" within the photo. Copy space is the area of a photo that doesn't contain the subject and provides a natural location for a designer to place text or some other design element (Figure 3.16).

Figure 3.16

Figure 3.16 Example of how copy space is used.

You have to think about the background when you are composing the shot. We'll talk more about the shooting aspect later, but for now embrace the notion that the background is a key element in your photo's ability to communicate its message. The background needs to support the subject, fit the context, and become an asset to the people who want to use your work in their projects. Remember, when a person licenses your photo for use, he is paying for every pixel, so make them all count.

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