There is something very simple you can do to increase your stock photography sales. If, like me, you engage in digitally composited photos, you can even enhance your entire business immeasurably! That simple thing is to photograph backgrounds. By backgrounds I mean images that can serve as a backdrop for an inset picture that might be a product or person, or that can serve as a location, a background, for a composited image.
The need for background pictures
There is a huge need for such background images. This can range from backgrounds for MySpace, Facebook or Twitter pages to screensavers, to advertising in print or on the Internet. We do not think about those background images much, they are not as sexy or glamorous as the "hero" images are, but they are vital, in demand, and ubiquitous. In addition, they are all around us, right there for the taking!
A background image can be a field of grass, it can be an office, or it can be a sea of faces at a soccer game. For us digital imagers, you just never know what kind of background you will suddenly need. Often it is that background that you could have photographed, if you had only known, when you visited your friend in where last week! If I had it to do over again, I would photograph every office or room I have ever used in a shoot, empty. Only now, after 30 years of professional photography, am I starting to create a library of background images to use in my work.
Background photos pay off
Will that pay off? Above I mentioned that a background could have been a simple shot of a field of grass. The background image for Windows is such a shot. I happened to know the photographer who shot it. Microsoft paid over $ 100,000.00 for that single stock shot. A field of grass with a blue sky!
At this very moment I have several composite projects that are waiting for me to come up with a suitable background image before I can complete them. Each of those projects represent potentially lost sales because they are "waiting" and are not yet in the marketplace. Many of them are not photographers, do not have their own libraries of images to choose from, and need to purchase such components wherever through macro agencies like Getty and Corbis or through micro stock agencies like iStockphoto and Shutterstock.
Tips for shooting background photos
When you shoot background images there are a few points to keep in mind. When possible shoot the background from several different vantage points and different heights as well. This is especially important for images to be used in compositing as one never knows which height or angle is going to be the one that works for a given composite. Sometimes just a small difference in camera height at the time of the exposure can make or break the final composite photograph.
Another variable to take into consideration when shooting backgrounds, again of particular importance for composite images, is focus. Shoot some out of focus as well as sharp. Shoot an image slightly out-of-focus and then one that is very out-of-focus too. You can throw images out-of-focus using Photoshop filters, but the look is seldom as convincing as an image actually photographed out-of-focus.
When photographing these backgrounds keep in mind the need for the end user to put type and or other photographs into the image. Usually you will not want a tight crop. Also, shoot some with more foreground and then some with more room at the top of the image. Recently I have also started to shoot a series of images that I can stitch together in Photoshop to create a panorama background. That will give me even more possibilities and flexibility when I happen to need that background for one of my composite pictures.
Examples of successful background pictures
Some examples of background images that have worked for me: I shot a redwood forest and used it for a background in a shot of an "environmentally conscious" executive; A living room shot in an upscale penthouse in which a Chihuahua and a Wolfhound sit nose-to-nose; An airplane interior (shot with no particular use in mind as I waited for my flight to finish boarding) for use in a stock shot of a Sumo wrestler about to sit down beside you; A skyline shot of New York for use in the picture of a woman at the end of her rope; A vista shot in Mongolia used as a background for a "Thinker" elephant; And finally an abstract shot of swirling lights.
One word of warning, be aware of the need for property releases. If you are shooting in a private space you will need a release. I once made the mistake of shooting and using a background image in a private home I was renting, and when the need for a release became apparent I had to pay an additional $ 3,500.00 to the homeowner for that release! Make yourself familiar with the requirements for property releases and then abide by them.
Background pictures are needed. The need for them increases constantly. They can be a great source of revenue for the stock photographer and a real lifesaver for the digital imager. They are an all too-often neglected part of a photographers shooting schedule. So next time you are sitting in an airport with time on your hands, get that camera out and start looking for those backgrounds!