Monthly Archives August 2009

Photo by Tyler Stalman

A couple of weeks ago, we had a party here in Calgary. Which isn’t so out of the ordinary – we have quite a few parties. This one was special though. We had more iStock members together in person than at any other time before. There were more than a hundred of us: photographers, videographers & illustrators, from as far away as Argentina, South Africa, and Russia. People came to meet our staff, see our office, and have a few beers and laughs in person with the people they spend so much time with online.

For the most part though, people came to work. They came to shoot, create, and talk about stock images. We’d organized a solid weekend for them, with a full squad of art directors, stylists and models, plus lots of time for talking and teaching with each other, and our artists came to make the most of it.

Creating and selling stock online can be a bit of a lonely calling. So having all these iStockers in one place, to meet and learn and work together, to discuss and practice their profession as a group, was a real treat. It’s one thing to talk shop on a website forum. It’s another thing to stand around in a knot looking at the LCD screen after someone’s clicked the shutter on a great concept, and being able to say ‘that’s great stock’ with other people who know exactly what you mean.

Image by Rob Dabisza

Great stock. What does that mean? It’s not just about taking a better photograph of a handshake. It’s not all about smiling business teams and finding new ways to say ‘Success’ in a picture.

Stock is about distilling the world around us into ideas and concepts, and then finding new and compelling ways to illustrate those things. It’s about representing things in idealized, generic ways. It’s about utility and being useful. A good stock artist has to not only be a technically excellent photographer or illustrator. They have to be a bit of philosopher – to see through to the hearts of concepts and coming up with innovative ways to visually explain them. They have to be savvy business people, they have to stay abreast of technology and trends, and always be learning and improving. Above all, they have to be professional. I think professionalism is more than just a matter of whether or not you’re being paid for what you do. It’s about committing to a craft, about self-criticism and constant personal development.

Image by Andrew Rich

All of that takes a heck of a lot of hard work.

Maybe that’s why iStockers get so antagonized when that other word – amateur – gets applied to them. It usually gets worked into the initial of who we are and what we do, something along these lines: “Take a site like iStockphoto, where amateur and hobbyist photographers offer images for a dollar…” Let me tell you, there is nothing that gets under the skin of an iStock contributor quite so much as being called an amateur. Watching them work over the weekend, it’s no wonder. They’ve come a long way from amateur and hobbyist.

Your average iStocker 8 years ago was a self-employed web designer who’d been enticed by our Free Image of the Week. They hung around to find some more images for other projects, talked a bit of shop with the other designers in our forums, and then got to thinking about that Canon Powershot sitting over on the end of their desk. They took some shots of the bell peppers in their fridge and fired them off our way, just to see what would happen.

Image by Rob Dabisza

That bell pepper might have netted them a few dollars. But it probably sparked a question for them: how can I do this better? What other subjects are there out there that will make for good stock? How can I shoot them better? What do I need to improve? So people worked at it. They learned to make the best of the light in their home. They put away the peppers and talked their spouse into getting in front of the camera. The dollars and cents started to grow and as soon as there was enough, the Powershot got traded up for a Rebel. Now when they went to the iStock forums, they were talking less CSS and more prime lenses.

It’s that attitude, that dogged professionalism, that created the artists I got to watch at work here in Calgary. The camera is now a 5D Mk II in a lot of cases, and the spouse has graduated to full-fledged photographer’s assistant, metering light, holding reflectors, and directing models. When the CF card is full there’s probably a long night ahead of them in Lightroom and Photoshop, finding the best shots from the day and processing them. But if the gear and the skills are different, the dedication is still the same. They’re still asking themselves ‘How can I do this better?’

Image by Todd Keith

We have 85,000 contributing artists at iStock now, and we pay them out about $1.2 million every week. They create all kinds of things: illustrations and 3D artwork, and animation and video clips and even songs and sound effects. They create a lot of great stock. So what does that mean? I guess it means, they find new ways for all of us to visually communicate our ideas. Every day they come up with new ways of saying things with pictures. It sounds simple, but let me tell you, it’s a calling, and its a calling you can dedicate your whole life to and always find new things to learn about.

Our party up here in Calgary is over now and the members who came have all headed home, however near or far away home might be for them. We had a great time seeing them all and it was tough to say goodbye when 2 AM rolled around on Sunday night. But not so tough I guess, because we’ll all see each other again soon. You know, at work.

iStockphoto COO, Kelly Thompson!  Scott’s out of the office, but he asked me (Brad) to let you guys know that Kelly will be tomorrow’s guest blogger.  I’ve read his post, and he has a peek into a very special event they held recently that sheds a whole new light on micro stock photography that I’ve never even thought of!  Swing by tomorrow and see what Kelly has to share.

Today I’m going to give my personal favorites in a bunch of different categories, from images that didn’t become one of the finalists or the Grand Prize winner, but I felt were so great that they deserved some recognition as well.

Here’s what so amazing to me about all this. If the winning images you saw yesterday, and here today, were entered in a regular photo contest, none of us would blink an eye—-a great image is a great image. But most contest allow you to choose any photo from your entire lifetime of shooting, or perhaps any photo taken in the last year, or any photo in a particular category. But in this case, here’s what the photographers were up against.

  • They were not able to choose the location (it was chosen for them).
  • They were not able to choose the time of day (it was chosen for them).
  • They were only able to shoot for two hours.
  • They shot in the light that was there. They couldn’t go back later (or earlier) in better light.

Yet they came away that images that are inspiring, creative, and in many cases, breathtaking! That’s what makes this so special. Two hours. That’s it. And look what they came up with! To me, that makes these images, and the ones chosen yesterday, all the more amazing.

Before we get to seeing some images, there were some recurring themes in the types of photos that where picked by local winners, and went into judging to become finalists. For example, there were:

  • Lots of HDR shots
  • Lots of shots of other Photo Walk photographers
  • Lots of shots of reflections
  • Lots of shots of homeless people
  • Lots of shots of children
  • Lots of bees landing on flowers
  • Lots of people seen through store windows
  • Lots of Bridges
  • Lots of Churches (inside and out)
  • Lots of shots of statues and art
  • Lots of shots of stairs
  • Lots of train shots

Anyway, it gives you an broad view of what people wound up shooting a lot of.

The images that follow are my favorites that didn’t make their way into the prize category, but are nonetheless deserving of recognition:



This was incredibly hard. Even harder than I thought.

Last year it was really tough coming up with my finalists and winner, but this year’s judging was more than just four times harder—not just because four times as many people participated—but because the sheer quality of the shots this year was just over the top.

There were so many amazing, intriguing, fascinating, and just fun shots, that it made going from nearly 900 shots down to 10 finalists and one winner incredibly challenging. But, instead of keeping you waiting; let’s get to the winners, and we’ll talk more in a moment.

First, the 10 finalists (who all win the following prizes):


OK, folks, here we go (listed in no particular order):



Another photo retouching controversy popped into the news this past week over a recent Self magazine cover featuring singer Kelly Clarkson.

The article I saw showed the Self cover, and then a shot of Kelly during a recent daytime concert. (An example from People magazine’s Web site is shown above, but it’s been picked up by about every media outlet now). Here’s a link to an article that showed the same two shots I originally saw.

The concert shot of Kelly was particularly unflattering, and looking at the two side-by-side makes it pretty obvious the cover photo had been retouched. In fact, Lucy Danziger (the Editor-in-chief at Self) reportedly admitted that the cover shot had indeed been retouched, (like all cover shots of all similar major magazines—it’s not a big secret—they all do it). According to the article, here’s what Lucy was quoted as saying:

“Yes. Of course we do retouching,” she writes. “Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best.”

I applaud Lucy for admitting the retouch publicly, but my article isn’t about whether or not you should retouch. This is different.

Now, if you had asked me before Lucy’s admission if the Self cover photo had been retouched, of course I would have told you that it absolutely was (Everybody on a cover like that gets retouched. Period!). However, there’s more going on, on that cover, than just post-production retouching in Photoshop, and it’s something you don’t really hear anybody talking about.

It’s Not Just Retouching
If Self magazine decided to release the un-retouched version of the photo (which I doubt they would do), I think you’d find a surprisingly good shot of Kelly was the starting point. Not exactly the finished image we saw on the Self cover, but a shot where she looks better than you’d think. Here’s what I think you’d find:

  1. The photographer (or Art Director) purposely posed Kelly so she would look thinner. There are all sorts of tricks to hide, mask, and disguise facial and body flaws, and great portrait photographers (the kind that shoot major magazine covers), know how to do exactly that. He didn’t position Kelly at an angle that would accentuate her backside (like the concert shot did), but instead found an angle that was the most flattering for her body type.
  2. The fashion consultant/designer on the shoot dressed Kelly in an outfit that would accentuate her best parts, while cleverly hiding or minimizing any unflattering parts. We all know what a difference the right clothes make, how the fit of the clothes plays such a role, and what a big difference color alone can make in making someone look thinner (which is why you never, never, see me wearing white or light gray). It took me all of five seconds to find an article online about which clothing tricks you can employ to look thinner (here’s the link). Here’s another called “How to look 10 pounds thinner in photos”. I could list these all day, but you already know from your own experience how the right clothes, the right fit, and the right color can make a huge difference in how thin (or not-thin) we look.
  3. There was at least one or more Professional Make-Up Artists on the shoot. They are masters at making people look their best before the first shot is even taken. They know every trick in the book on how to slim a face, slim arms, and add shading and layers of highlights and shadows to sculpt and trim the face to make it look many pounds thinner. I’ve worked with professional Make Up Artists on my own shoots and I’ve seen the mini-miracles they create first-hand. I’m always amazed at what they’re able to do (which makes my job as photographer/retoucher so much easier). A great MUA is worth his/her weight in gold, and I’ll bet Shape has some fantastic ones at every cover shoot.
  4. The lighting set-up and position of the lights the was intentionally chosen by the photographer to provide the softest, most flattering, light possible to make the subject look her best. You can light a subject to hide, obscure, or flat out avoid parts of your subject that aren’t flattering, and accentuate the best parts, and you can be sure the photographer who shot Kelly used as flattering of a lighting set-up as possible (not just for Kelly, but for every cover shoot).
  5. After all that work on the set, then the photo was professionally retouched, and I’m not just talking about color correction and sharpening, I mean the standard tucking, thinning, skin softening, blemish removal, wrinkle removal, eye enhancement, etc, and everything else that goes into a finished cover shot.

However, I think we’d be surprised to learn that it wasn’t as much as we’d like to believe, and part of that is because of the four things I listed above that happened on the set, before the retouching. Using just the right pose, the right outfit, a great Make-up artist or two, and ideal lighting make the retoucher’s job that much easier because that much less is required. (Note: I seem to recall that in one of the articles I came across while researching that the Self Editor said that in fact it wasn’t Photoshop that was used for the cover retouching).

What The Reporters Didn’t Ask
Because we’re now all pre-programmed to think that “Photoshop is the culprit” nobody even considered asking the Self magazine Editor these questions:

  • Did you pose her so she looked thinner?
  • Did you use a make-up artist to sculpt and thin her face?
  • Did you dress her in an outfit that helped hide her battle with weight
  • Did the photographer light her to make her appear thinner?

A bigger question may be; does anybody care that all those other things were done first? I doubt it.

Those kinds of retouching are probably considered “fair” in most people’s minds. Retouching you do in “real-life” first is somehow perfectly acceptable, but once it gets in the computer, then it becomes unfair, which I think….is unfair. The goal of both are the same; make your subject look their best (or in many cases better than their best).

I’m not trying to pass judgment here on whether the photographer, make-up artist, retoucher, and/or magazine in general went too far (that’s a different topic, and one where I was quoted last week in an an article on photo retouching in The LA Times), but I think it’s important to realize that Photoshop is just a tool. It’s not the culprit and Photoshop is not the only way to change someone’s appearance pretty drastically in a photo.

My Offer to Lucy at Self Magazine:
I invite Lucy and the folks at Self to send me the unretouched original to confirm what I believe about the “pre-preproduction” done on the shot, which is “The shot looked better than we all think to start with,” (of course, I would sign an agreement not to distribute the unretouched photo to anyone under any circumstances).

If they’re uncomfortable with that, I’d be happy to fly up to Self’s offices myself to see the unretouched image on their computer screen, or as a print in their office, to confirm that it is indeed, a very flattering photo to begin with. This is a pretty unlikely scenario, but if they took me up on it, I think it would be eye-opening to a lot of people in Hollywood, in this industry, and to the media in general. Photoshop is a powerful tool, but it’s not the only tool in the retouching bag of tricks.

One Last Thing
If you see a headshot of me. Ever. It’s been retouched (but probably not as much as I would have liked). ;-)