Are Your Stock Photographs Up To Scratch?

Save Yourself Time, Rejection and Heartache By Getting It Right First Time…

Stock Photographs

There is no point in submitting any stock photographs to an agency if the quality is poor and the resolution low. If you look at magazine adverts, editorials, packaging or even the huge billboards that you see everywhere. All the photographs have one thing in common.


You never see any stock photographs with a smudge of dust on them. Or telephone wires in the background (unless they are meant to be there). They are bright, colourful, sharp, tell a story and fit the theme for which they are being used. Unless in black and white like the image above ; )

There are no distractions in the background. Nothing in the picture that will detract your eye from what the photographer wants you to see. There should be no visible "grain" or "noise" in the picture. Especially the shadows or areas with large, single colours.

How can I improve the quality of my stock photographs?

Firstly, if you haven’t done so already, read the stock photography equipment section. If you don’t have the right kit, you can’t submit. Then, read on…

As you saw in the previous section, the submission guidelines are fairly tight. So, you need to ensure your stock photographs are up to the required standard before sending them off. There is nothing worse than making all the effort of taking the photos, cleaning, posting and waiting 2 or 3 weeks for acceptance, only to find a few were rejected because you hadn’t followed the guidelines to a "T".

Use this checklist for each photograph you want to submit:

  • Crop and Straighten

If the main subject isn’t exactly where you want it in the picture, do a little "creative" cropping to get it looking right. Also crop out any unwanted features in the frame so that the main subject really stands out. It is important to know or remember that the more you crop a digital photograph, the less resolution it will have. This means you will have more to do to get it to the correct resolution of 48MB. If you crop too much, the photograph will not be acceptable.

Use the grid on your editing tool to get the walls and perspective right unless you have gone for a more artistic approach. The picture needs to look right depending on which style you are going for.

  • Levels and Curves

The levels tool is great for making minor adjustments to any over/underexposing. Whenever you are not sure, it is better to have an underexposed photo than an overexposed one. You can always pull out detail from shadows. However, when the highlights are blown out in a picture, you will never get them back. Don’t overdo this part, just do what needs to be done to get the picture looking natural.

I like the curves tool, but it is easy to go over the top. Make only slight adjustments using this, to enhance the contrast and give your pictures a bit of a punch! You will notice that the curves tool can also add to the saturation of the colours. Again, don’t overdo it.

  • Shadows/Highlights 

Are you using Photoshop? You probably know they have added a fantastic feature that automatically adjusts any shadows and highlights in the photograph. I would recommend that you only very fine tune the highlights. Don’t use that part too often. Only use the shadows tool up to around 50% depending on how much is needed, any more and it starts to look "fake".

  • Colour Saturation

Your pictures may have a slight colour cast to them (i.e. a reddish or bluish tint). If so, you need to correct this using the colour balance tool in the adjustments palette. It is fairly straight forward but, once again, don’t overdo it.

  • Dust, Blemishes and Scratches etc

At some point, especially when using apertures of f.16 or smaller, you will notice small blemishes on bright areas (e.g. skies) of your stock photographs. This is caused by even a small amount of dust on your sensor. The CCD is what is says, a charged coupled device. The "charged" bit means it produces a small static charge that can attract fine particles of dust.

Quick Tip: When changing lenses, if you have the time, turn your camera off. This will turn the charge off and help to prevent dust being attracted to the sensorPlease, unless you have the correct tools and know what you are doing, do not attempt to clean the sensor yourself. It is extremely sensitive and you could make matters a lot worse rather than better. Take it to a professional cleaner if you are unsure.

The dust or blemishes are easily removed using your editing tool and the "clone" or "healing" brushes. Learn how to use these effectively because if you don’t do it right, you can spot it a mile off.

You can also remove effectively, people, trees, wires, rubbish in fact anything you want with the right training. I will be covering this in the near future in my Photoshop tips and tricks.

If you don’t have Photoshop CS6 or CC, you can either download the trial here or upgrade your own version of Photoshop.

If this is not possible, fear not, I will be showing you how to do this using Photoshop or Elements without the shadows/highlights feature.

Now we get smart and cheat a little!

  • Reducing Noise and/or Grain

Some of your stock photographs, especially those taken at higher ISO’s, will have some noise or grain in them. To illustrate what I mean by this, look at the following 100% crop of a photograph. It was taken at ISO 12,800 and the grain shows up even more now that I have cropped it.

Stock Photographs - Neat Image Pre-Adjustment

As you can see, there is quite a bit of "noise" on the photograph. Similar to that if you had used a fast film.

However, by using a small program called Neat Image, you can lose most of this grain. I have overdone it a bit here to emphasise the point, but you can adjust the amount of alterations manually to suit your tastes or needs. Also, remember this is a tight crop so when "zoomed out" it will look more normal. More on Neat Image here.

Stock Photographs - Neat Image Post-Adjustment

Note: The above example was shot at ISO 12,800 which is too noisy for stock. I used this level to emphasise the improvements to noise levels Neat Image can make. Usually, I would shoot at a lower ISO and use Neat Image more sparingly.

It can be used as a standalone program or as a plug-in for Photoshop. Even if your stock photographs aren’t that grainy, it is an extremely handy tool to have. Read up on this and download a free trial of Neat Image for your stock photographs here.

  • Increasing Resolution

Are you are using a 6 or 8 Mega Pixel camera? If so, the resolution produced by even the RAW files is not enough for your stock photographs to be accepted. There is a way around it. The nice people at a company called On One Software have produced a plug-in called Genuine Fractals for Photoshop that can increase the resolution of photographs up to 700% without losing the print quality.

It is an amazing, easy to use program, and used correctly it is virtually impossible to see that you have made any alterations. I usually find that the photographs from an older camera like the Canon EOS 20D need around 150-200% increase to get them to the 48MB requirements. As long as they are saved as high resolution JPEG files (needed anyway), and the EOS 5D even less.

Stock photographs aside for a moment. Even if you just use this program on your everyday photographs, the difference made when producing large prints is incredible. It is worth the cost just for that!

Phew! Is that it?

Yes, that will do for now. If you practice using these techniques enough, you will start to learn more and more, and before you know it, it will become second nature to follow this routine for all your pictures, not just your stock photographs.

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