Lawrence M Sawyer | A Photographer's Life

The Countdown Begins.

This past week I made my 49,000th stock photo sale with iStockPhoto/Getty Images. Here’s the shot: a nondescript image of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. 

University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

The thing about photos like this is, they sneak up on you. Kind of a boring shot, but it shows the U of M in a simple way, and someone was willing to pay to use it. And so, the countdown to 50,000 begins. Not that it matters how many times my stock photos have sold. It’s just a number. Still, 50,000 is a really nice number. It does look impressive on paper! iStockPhoto, Getty Images, Index Stock Imagery, Dreamstime, Windigo Images…these are just some of the agencies that have carried and sold my work over the years. In the case of iStockphoto, which is now owned by Getty Images, it took me nine years to hit that mark, so it’s been a bit of a journey.

Prague Square by Lawrence Sawyer

Prague Square by Lawrence Sawyer

But that number means nothing, really. It hasn’t made me rich, although I’m doing fine financially. I’ve not set any records with my image sales. I’ve not been selling stock images longer than everyone else, and it’s not a contest anyway. The only thing it tells me is that I’m pretty good at knowing what will sell; not perfect, but pretty good. I’ve learned to trust my instincts after more than thirty years of shooting for the “stock market”. I’m convinced that “seeing” a great photo, or seeing a scene for it’s possibilities as a great photograph, can be learned. And I also think that the more you photograph, the better you get. Just like any other pursuit, it takes practice…photographing is very much like learning a sport-specific skill. The more you do it, the more natural and automatic it becomes.  If we assume that people take photographs to preserve a moment in time, we also have to assume that you intend to show someone those photos, and we expect the viewer to get something out of seeing them. Put another way, we expect our photos to say something. A stock photo is a turbo-charged version of a photograph that says something; good stock is great photography: highly communicative imagery that registers with the viewer in an instant. I have a great seminar on shooting and selling stock photographs that I can present to any group, of any size.

If you have a group or event and you’d like me to give a presentation on how the image marketplace works and how one sells their images via stock agencies, please send me an email at contact@lawrencesawyer.com. You can buy my book, “See It, Shoot It, Sell It!” here. Although it was published a few years ago, the principles behind making imagery that sells are really the same principles behind making imagery that communicates. And that is the whole point behind photography!

Space: The Final Frontier for Art

When I’m photographing in Europe, I’m always struck by how “compact” the apartments and hotels are. “Compact” as you might guess, is a euphemism for “tiny”. These things are small. Really small. It’s amazing how clever these people can be with small spaces, but even more impressive is how even the tiniest space is beautifully designed. There’s often very little space for art, so the space itself becomes the art. I’ve seen a lot of intricate tile work, elegant fixtures in bath and kitchen areas, and some really funky light fixtures and switches as well.

Americans on the other hand have a really luxurious amount of space in their living quarters, and lots of space on the walls.

I don’t worry about scale when I’m photographing, but I think hard about it when I’m printing an image. The gear and lenses that I use provide the greatest possible detail, but that doesn’t mean every image should be printed five feet long. This is where considering scale becomes important.

I’ve found that smaller, intimate subjects can look really great if we print them at a size that is best viewed three or four feet away. Flowers, small architectural details, faces and things like that are all subjects that we can make sense of from just a few feet. As such, the print need not be huge; 11×14 or 16×20 can be enough, maybe 20×24 at the largest. In a hallway, where you’re only viewing from two feet away, and 8×10 can look great on a wall, but that size will get lost in an average room.

Rose in the Petřín Garden in Prague.

Rose in the Petřín Garden in Prague.

 

On the other hand, large scenic views really beg to be printed to a bigger scale, and hung in a room with a bit more area in which to “take it all in”. Scenic vistas, cityscapes, wide angle or panoramic format scenes, those are the shots that ask you to imagine yourself “being there”. So, they make more sense visually if they dominate an area. This is where American homeowners have a big advantage with all that wall space.

How large of a print are we talking about? If you can comfortably stand in a room and look at a print 8-10 feet away, the print should probably be no smaller than thirty inches on the long side, so that translates to 20″ x 30″ format.  Bigger is often better, examples being 24×36, 20×60 inch panoramas, 32 x48 inch canvases, etc.

The Tuileries Gardens. Printed smaller than 16x20, this photo would be hard to process. AT 24" 36" it would look great.

The Tuileries Gardens. Printed smaller than 16×20, this photo would be hard to process. AT 24″ 36″ it would look great.

Another option is a triptych, which is simply one image printed in three sections and hung side by side as one piece of art, even though there are three parts to it.

I encourage you to think big when you decide to hang new artwork on your walls. Large pieces have more emotional impact and a greater sense of presence. This, however, is probably over-doing it!

A massive painting in the Louvre. The frame moulding  alone is about one foot wide!

A massive painting in the Louvre. The frame moulding alone is about one foot wide!

New Work from Paris

This is a quick post from Paris, France, meant to share some new images created this week. The weather has not been very cooperative at all, but by being out and about and walking central Paris 6-8 hours a day, I’ve captured some nice scenes. As I laid out in this post, I’ve been using the camera system I’ve put together for travel photography. Tomorrow I’ll fly to Prague and spend the better part of a week shooting stock there. Here are some of my favorites from this week. Many of these, and many others will be available as soon as prints at www.lawrencesawyer.com.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

An elegantly dressed man and woman shopping in Paris.

An elegantly dressed man and woman shopping in Paris.

Eiffel-at-dusk

Tuileries Gardens in Paris, near the Louvre.

Tuileries Gardens in Paris, near the Louvre.

Tour boats at dusk on the Seine River.

Tour boats at dusk on the Seine River.

The Seine River near the Eiffel Tower, at dusk.

The Seine River near the Eiffel Tower, at dusk.

 

The Ultimate Camera System for Traveling

In thirty years of shooting stock photography I’ve learned that your subject matter should have some influence on your choice of cameras and lenses. Sports will require fast lenses (those with large maximum apertures). Cityscapes will require wide angle lenses, preferably ones that are well-corrected for distortion. Wildlife will call for long telephotos. In most cases, shooting with larger sensors, if not full-frame sensors, is better because of the gain in image quality needed for stock. Even if all you want to do is make very large prints of your photos, a larger camera sensor makes the most sense.

Travel photography presents it’s own challenges. How you will move around with your camera bag is an important consideration in and of itself. Numerous trips to Europe with photo gear has taught me that heavy equipment or a large bag will just weigh you down, slow your pace, kill your energy level, make you worry about your stuff instead of enjoying the experience of being in a foreign land, and a host of other effects. If you’re going to travel and you want to come home with great images, you’ll need to pare it down to the smallest, lightest system possible, while still giving yourself adequate ways to shoot your subject matter successfully and bring home high quality images.

Taormina Sicily Panorama. This panoramic shot was made with the Leica X1 and stitched together from three frames. It's been printed to 6 feet wide and looks fantastic.

Taormina Sicily Panorama. This panoramic shot was made with the Leica X1 and stitched together from three frames. It’s been printed to 6 feet wide and looks fantastic.

Toward that end, I’ve put together a system designed specifically for traveling. This system allows me to carry multiple cameras easily because they’re small. I rarely have to change lenses, which means the sensors in my cameras will rarely be exposed to dust. Carrying more than one camera gives me back-up in case one is lost, stolen or breaks. There’s great wisdom in traveling with 2-3 small cameras instead of one huge full-featured SLR.

Think of it this way: Just as an experienced carpenter has many hammers, a successful photographer will have more than one camera; perhaps several cameras with him or her. Each one can be mounted with a dedicated lens that rarely needs to come off. That way, you are always ready to grab a shot, and you won’t find yourself in a rush to change lenses, juggling gear in the process and risking missing the shot and damaging your gear at the same time. So without further adieu, here’s my current travel system, laid out next to my other 35mm system for comparison.

Standard Nikon system on the left; Leica and Sony combo system on the right.

Standard Nikon system on the left; Leica and Sony combo system on the right.

On the left, a Nikon D800E; SB900 flash; 70-200VR f2.8; 14-24 f2.8; 85mm f1.8; 55mm Micro-Nikkor; and the Tenba shoulder bag that it all lives in. The D800E is a full-frame sensored body, meaning the imaging sensor in the camera is nearly identical in size to a 35mm film frame. (24x36mm). All of those lenses are designed for that size sensor. On the right, my travel system: First body is a Leica M Typ 240. (That’s not a typographic error. The correct name is Typ 240. It too has a full-frame sensor.) That body carries a 50mm f1.4 lens. Camera #2, in the upper right corner of the arrangement, is a Leica X1 pocket camera, with a fixed, permanent 24mm lens. The X1 also has an APS-C sensor, which is 1/3 smaller than a full-frame sensor. Though the lens has a focal length of 24mm, the smaller sensor gives that lens an angle of coverage more like a 36mm lens would have on a full-frame 35mm camera. Leica lenses are world-reknowned and it’s been argued that no pocket camera beats the image quality that this pocket Leica delivers.

Camera #3 is a 16-megapixel Sony NEX-5N, which has the smaller APS-C sensor. On that camera sits a Voigtländer 15mm f4.5 ultra-wide lens. Since the Sony is a crop-sensor body, that lens becomes the equivalent of a 21mm lens, roughly. It’s a fantastic combination and weighs maybe 8-10 oz. Image quality from this particular model from Sony is superb. (The later Sony NEX models crammed too many pixels into the same sensor, and image quality suffered.) And sitting just to the left of the Sony…that little gray square thing…that is a flash for the Sony!

The last item in this system is a Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f4 lens, sitting in between the Leica bodies. Originally made for the Minolta CLe (a Leica clone, 35mm film camera), this tiny telephoto is fantastic for travel shooting, since it too weighs next to nothing but produces wonderful images. There are excellent alternatives to these bodies and lenses. Be careful in choosing, though. Small and lightweight often means junk. The Sony “kit lens” that shipped with the NEX-5N is great for snapshots, but that’s about it. From a professional standpoint, it almost isn’t usable. I rarely use it, although files from it, when printed on canvas, actually can look very, very good. Canvas hides flaws, so if printing is the final destination of your photos, such lenses can be used.

Here’s an example. I gave this file a considerable boost in post-processing to accentuate the burnished metal roofs and morning light glow. Salzburg-spiresOne excellent alternative to the Sony is the Canon EOS-M, a very tiny camera with interchangeable lenses. It too delivers wonderful image quality, although the low-light capability does not quite match that of the Leica X1, or it’s successor, the X2. Others, like the Fuji X100S, Ricoh GR, etc., are also known to be very high performers.

There are others beyond these as well, but if you want to have at least one body that will allow for interchangeable lenses, start with optics. Put great optics on a decent sensor and you’ll give that sensor something great to record. But…put lousy optics on a great sensor, and that great sensor will give you a very detailed recording of a lousy image created by those optics.

I fully understand that there’s never enough money to buy all the gear one wants. But some of the items I’ve identified here are actually quite affordable, with bodies selling for less than $500. Lenses as well can be had for that amount, if you’re willing to shop a bit. Think small, light and high quality and you’ll be surprised what you can shoot with in your travels. Camera gear for shooting stock is discussed at length in my book, “See It, Shoot It, Sell It!“, and many, many other images that were shot with traditional gear are included in the book as well. The book can be purchased here.