Happy New August and continuing on with the popular Stock-Wizards interview series, I’m happy to welcome George Cairns, Lightroom / Photoshop Expert, Creative Tutorial Writer and Microstock Contributor. Let’s get started!
Hi George, thanks for taking part in this exclusive interview for the Brutally Honest Blog! Firstly, please tell us about yourself and how you got started with photography and in particular, stock photography/videography?
As a Freelancer since 2004 I’ve enjoyed using photography and (videography) to make a living. These days it’s more like ‘scraping’ a living, but I wouldn’t consider changing from freelance to a ‘proper’ job where I ‘d have to commute or work a set number of hours. I write photo fixing and video editing tutorials for magazines including iCreate and MacFormat. I also review photography related gear for Digital Camera World’s site.
I was always taking photos as an English Literature and Media studies student in the 80s. My first job involved making videos for kids where I learned how to shoot and edit using linear tape-to-tape suites. I then became a corporate video producer so have been making videos since the late 80s. I then taught university students video production for 10 years where I discovered the joy of non-linear editing.
I got my first digital camera in the 90s – a Canon EOS 300D – and followed my friend Chris Schmidt’s lead by joining iStock. In those pre-Getty days iStock paid well and I was addicted to constantly checking my account to see the latest daily downloads.
Please tell us about your journey as a photo fixing and creative tutorial writer?
While teaching video production to students in the 90s I discovered Photoshop (version 2). I was blown away when a later version (maybe 3?) added the ability to edit images as layers! I’ve always been creative so enjoyed using Photoshop to do enhance photos in creative ways such as adding a ‘Police Do Not Cross’ tape to a crime scene picture. This helped produce more sellable stock photos. I also dabbled with producing sci-fi art by using Photoshop to add people to computer generated 3D modelled locations.
Being an early Photoshop adopter led to me going freelance in 2004 and making a living writing Photoshop related tutorials for a range of magazines such as Computer Arts, Digital Camera and Practical Photoshop over the next two decades. I also wrote manuals (or Focus Guides) for a range of cameras which helped me get to grips with the technical side of photography.
Your writing is clear, how do you manage to take often technical information and break it down into more normal language for the average readers?
Teaching university students photography and video editing gave me the skills to communicate technical information in a clear and concise way. My English Lit degree helped me with the writing too. I tend to explain things in a way that makes sense to me, which involves keeping jargon to a minimum. When writing step by step tutorials I never assume that the reader knows everything so I’m happy to spell things out as simply as possible (without being condescending.)
How would you advise stock photography contributors to improve their post-processed images so they would perhaps achieve greater sales?
I used to enjoy compositing images to make them more sellable as stock. For example I’d take a shot of a couple of policemen in my home town and then add them to a London location to make the shot more topical. Shots and clips of police (and associated emergency services) sell quite well. British police tend to be friendly and interested in what I’m doing. I’ve only been asked to wipe a memory card once (though at the time I didn’t know that they had no authority to make me do that).
With the pitiful remittance we get from Shutterstock and iStock I don’t spend much time being creative with image processing these days. In fact, I don’t upload many stills at all, preferring to focus on video clips. $12 dollars for a 10 second clip is better than 10 cents for a photo of the same subject. So I guess my answer is use the same camera but shoot video rather than stills.
Here’s a grab of my top 10 sales on Storyblocks. As you can see most of them are editorial shots of ordinary city scenes, transport etc.
Which would be your own two favourite shots of all time and why?
One shot I have a soft spot for is a shot of my brother dressed as an American GI. (WW2 is his hobby). I snapped it in a field in Normandy using an external flash to add contrast to his face). The image was licensed for a JEEP commercial so I got paid a larger than usual amount. Strangely my brother was paid $1000 as the model, earning much more than the photographer!
Another shot I like is an early composite from 2005 of me ‘floating’ in Zero-G. I was actually lying upside down on a big inflatable ball which I removed in Photoshop and then flipped my image to make me ‘float’.
How about some of your favourite videos?
Editorial clips of police sell well as I mentioned. By adding a gimbal to the mix I can add some movement which makes the clip more marketable. This one sold twice this month.
I enjoy using Photoshop’s very basic animation tools to add movement to layered content. I’ve created a few WW2 animated clips that sell well so it’s nice to see that creativity being rewarded. Here’s a link to a basic animation.
Both of these clips are in my top 10 of best sakes in Shutterstock and Storyblocks. My best selling clip on Shutterstock surprises me. It’s just some men up ladders (which I captured building work of my church was being extended). Here it is but it’s not very exciting. The editorial clip was downloaded 19 times and has made $280 dollars.
Access to locations
From looking at your port, you have access to some interesting battle locations; how did you go about obtaining such access and also hiring models for re-enactments (including props / clothes)?
In the UK we have many World War 2 re-enactment events in the summer. This gives you free access to amazingly authentic battleground scenes and cool costumes. When shooting a mock battle there’s no chance of getting model release forms signed. However by captioning and selling the shot as editorial you can avoid that problem. If the soldiers are far away and obscured by smoke you might get away with submitting it as non-editorial. I keyword these images appropriately- WW2, re-enactment, German, army etc. but that doesn’t stop them being used inappropriately by people such as Donald Trump on their political propaganda posters – more on this later!
Which are your go-to gears and why?
Most of my stock assets have been shot (or filmed) on a Canon EOS 650D. I invested in a nice L-series lens when I had a higher income in those earlier, more lucrative days. Now my Canon gathers dust on a shelf. For the last few years I’ve been shooting clips and stills on iPhones. I write for Mac magazines so the iPhone is topical. I also like the quality of the clips and stills it captures and the ability to change lenses in a tap. When shooting stock clips I can walk through a crowd and no-one stares at the iPhone. Security guards are also less interested in bothering me when shooting in London (though they did bother me more when I used a DSLR).
On a recent pro model shoot I felt a little inadequate using my iPhone 13 Pro Max. The professional model said that it was not her first iPhone shoot. By using a ShiftCam Pro Grip I can treat the iPhone more like a classic camera (using a physical button to snap a shot rather than tapping an onscreen button). My favourite location is the Southbank of London. I’ve just started hiring models to generate assets for my magazine work which is great fun and creatively rewarding. Here’s three shots from a recent shoot (and it’s nice to know I’ll not be selling the images for 10 cents as stock).
In one of these shots you can see that I used a JOBY Beamo light on a GorillaPod to add a little modelling light to the girl’s face. The model is the amazingly talented @Layal.official (that’s an Instagram account) who found me via Modelmayem.com. She’s based in Australia but I caught her while she’s currently touring and shooting in the UK (and then on to Europe). I wasn’t that experienced in directing models but she was great – she could change poses in seconds and interacted with her location. I just snapped away in my iPhone in awe!
I also use gimbals. These enable me to add pans and tilts to my stock clips which makes them more interesting to look at.
Which are some of the best-earning agencies and if you don’t mind disclosing, how much do you earn you average per month?
My favourite agency at the moment is StoryBlocks (link to my port). I have 763 clips on there and I tend to earn around $100 per month from that site. However it’s got harder to get assets accepted unless they’re on the list of requested subjects. So I’ve given up uploading new stuff to Storyblocks. Shutterstock brings in around £30 per month. Stock used to be lucrative but now it’s coffee money. Fortunately I still enjoy shooting clips and stills for my magazine tutorial and product reviews. Happiness is still taking the camera out for a stroll knowing there’s a market for my images and clips, even if it’s no longer the ‘stock’ market.
In the past few years, most contributors have witnessed a sharp drop in earnings at microstock…would you say that the same holds true for your ports?
Yes, the decline certainly applies to me. In the 2000s stock was responsible for complementing my income. Now it’s just coffee money.
Trump Tweet Controversy
Could you please tell us about the controversy with one of your stock pics and the Donald Trump campaign back in 2018?
Back in July 2015 I receive a phone call from Tim McDonnell, a journalist for the American site ‘Mother Jones’. He informed me about a Tweet Donald Trump had put out featuring men in ‘Nazi uniforms’ superimposed over the American flag. The tweet had been deleted, but not before people had called him out for the error of using the wrong soldiers in his poster. Mother Jones had traced the source of the German soldiers to my iStock portfolio and wanted my response. Here’s a link to the Mother Jones interview.
The story went viral and the stock photo featured heavily in the print, TV and web media. Sadly people just featured a grab of the iStock page rather than buying the shot so it didn’t affect my earnings. All the news stories simply regurgitated the Mother Jones article so I learnt a lot about how the media works (copy and paste!). Here’s another featured article.
What are your plans, including travel, in terms of what you would like to shoot in let’s say in the next 12 months?
I’ve pretty much stopped shooting and uploading still or video stock for the moment. I’m enjoying shooting using the iPhone 13 Pro Max to generate content for magazine articles and tutorials on iPhoneography for MacFormat and iCreate magazines. I also write reviews of kit. And software for DigitalCameraWorld.com which gives me motivation to shoot.
As an expert in Photoshop and Lightroom, how much has the software advanced and how do you foresee what they have in store for us photographers in the coming years?
I used to write a lot of Photoshop tutorials for magazines on making selections. My most viewed YouTube channel tutorial is on How to remove unwanted people from photographs. I used a range of selection tools and masks in these tutorials. But they are now out of date. Photoshop’s new Select Subject and Replace Sky commands are amazing and can do in one step what used to take 6. The AI component of Photoshop is amazing. The Neural filters can add snow or vegetation to a landscape in few clicks. Here’s a motorway I added snow too for my Doctor Who Instagram account @scifitoyphoto.
Thank you, George for taking your time and wish you success! Hope to see you in London soon and we can grab a coffee with our hard-earned Microstock earnings. 🙂
I’m an eccentric guy, currently based in Lisbon, Portugal, on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage. I’ve devoted eight years to making it as a travel photographer / videographer and freelance writer. I hope to inspire others by showing an unique insight into a fascinating business model.
Most recently I’ve gone all in on submitting book cover images to Arcangel Images. Oh and also recently purchased a DJI Mavic 2s drone and taking full advantage.
I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it as a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography