Sunday, August 17, 2014

My Alamy experience - Part the second

Time flies when you're having fun - and drags when you're not.

Time has flown.  Mid August already; 7 months since I submitted my initial 4 images to the Alamy stock agency.  In an ideal world I'd be a millionaire by now - all photographers are rich, aren't they? - but reality has this nasty habit of trampling on one's dreams.  I've sold one image so far.

Heuchera 'Chocolate Ruffles'
For $16.38 (nett after commission - note to HMRC, I only get paid once my account balance exceeds $75).  Only one?  Here I am spending time and money taking the shots, hours processing and keywording, uploading and suffering through the interminable waiting for the notification that my hard work has passed QC.  And I've only sold one?  Is that all?


At which point the novice photographer starts to think 'Bugger this for a game of soldiers' and goes back to flipping burgers for a living.  Myself, being of more mature years (OK, I'm old), have a slightly different, longer term perspective.

It takes time to build a portfolio of images.  After 7 months I've got 832 on sale (as of 16 August 2014).  On average I'm uploading to Alamy about 100 or so shots a month so it will be a year or three before I've got a more respectable image bank up for licence. Even then it depends entirely on the needs of the buyers.  If you haven't got what they're looking for you make no sales.  And with the type of editorial shots I take - plants and gardens, insect macro, a few general shots - the pool of buyers is bound to be limited.  Even if they do buy it can take a month or more for the sale to show up.  In this game 7 months is a very short time and 832 images a small portfolio.  My images simply haven't had enough visibility to generate more than the one sale.

So, how do you know whether more sales are in prospect?  The short answer is that you don't.  But Alamy provides some very good tools for getting a feel of the market place.  When a registered buyer does an image search they're presented with pages of images (120 seems to be the default) whose keywords match the search terms.  If a thumbnail of one of your images is presented to the buyer you score a view.  If they click on it to look at a larger image you score a zoom.  The number of zooms divided by the number of views, multiplied by 100, provides a “Click Through Rate”(CTR).  Here's my figures:


Not a vast amount of views - I'm a specialist, remember - but a good CTR from the number of zooms.  Analysis of the views indicates that a high percentage are relevant to the search term.  All of which suggests two things.  Firstly, my images are being seen by buyers who are actually looking for those type of images.  Secondly, having seen them, there is sufficient interest to give them a closer look.  Non of which guarantees sales, of course.  Competition is always there, both within Alamy and through other agencies.  But it's encouraging - and that, at this point in my Alamy experience, is what keeps me uploading.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Testing the Cotton Carrier Strapshot - part 1

I had an email a couple of weeks ago asking if I was interested in reviewing the Cotton Carrier Strapshot system.  I have to confess I'd not heard of the company - hardly surprising as they're Canadian and I'm in the UK - but a quick check of their website and a read of the details of the product intrigued me enough to agree to do a review.

The product was duly dispatched and I got it in time to have a quick look over this last weekend.

The concept is simple.  Attach the velcro backed Strapshot round the main strap of a camera bag (I use a Lowepro Slingshot 200), anchor it with the detachable strap for additional security - exactly where depends on the make of bag but there is plenty of flexibility built into the system - and make sure that the fixing slot faces forward when the bag is in place.

Strapshot fixed round the camera bag strap

The camera then slots into the slot via a well engineered circular mounting that fixes via a recessed screw to the camera tripod mount.  One possible future problem is that the screw is tightened using an Allen key - a small tool that could be easy to lose and would need to be carried in the main bag at all times.  The mount then goes into the slot.  Any position other than that used to slot it in and the camera is locked in place.  A quick twist to orient the camera for removal and it's unlocked ready for removal.  A detachable tether secures the camera should it be fumbled during loading or unloading from the Strapshot.

In use the camera hangs lens downwards.  This is a very comfortable carrying position, the body and lens resting comfortably on my pensioner's paunch.  My biggest lens is a Sigma 180mm macro and the Strapshot carried this easily - albeit with the tripod ring.  Unlike a neck strap there is very little feeling of weight so bigger lenses are likely to be far more comfortable to use for a full days shooting.  I'll know more when I've had a chance to get out for longer but, typically for the UK, the weather wasn't that kind over the weekend.

An additional bonus that came include with the Strapshot is a hand grip.  I've always been in the habit of using the a neck strap as a hand strap and the one provided is very comfortable to use.

Strapshot hand grip
Time will tell how effective this is as a long term camera carrying solution.  Initial impressions are that it's well made, seems very sturdy, locks the camera in place very effectively and securely, and doesn't put weight on the neck, an important consideration for we older photographers.  The locking mount seems to take any amount of pressure without yielding but slides out easily when the camera is at the correct orientation.  Practice and muscle memory will improve the speed of mounting / dismounting the camera from the Strapshot but even the first few tries were quick and easy so it should become a slick manoeuvre within a very short time.

There are a couple of problems but these are tied in with my photographic interests and method of working rather than any deficiency with the Strapshot.  Whenever possible I prefer to work with a tripod or monopod for my garden and plant photography.  For the insect photography I usually work with a flash on a bracket.  All of these tie up the camera tripod mount the Strapshot needs for its connector mounting.  In the field I'm not going to continually switch between the Strapshot mount and a quick release plate so it will be one or the other - and I suspect the quick release plate will win.  I can see it working with the Sigma 180mm macro with both the camera body mount and the tripod ring available - but it's rare to use only that lens in a session so once again I'd have to make the choice.

Having said that there are many occasions when I don't carry a tripod, monopod or flash bracket.  Sightseeing and other touristy things, walks with Maria, walking the dogs and other activities.  That's where I suspect the Cotton Carrier Strapshot will come into its own.  And that's what I intend to report on as part of a longer term test.

In the meantime the YouTube video below shows the Strapshot in use.  That's not me!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

1.4 + 25 + 180 + 430 = long distance macro

It's not maths.  Or, even worse, algebra.

The 1.4 is the Sigma 1.4x teleconverter that I bought last October (used from MPB Photographic.  I've had a couple of items from them and their service has been excellent.  Highly recommended if you're in the UK.).

The 25 is my Canon 25mm extension tube.

The 180 is my Sigma 180mm f3.5 IF HSM macro lens, the older, non DG model.

The 430 is my Canon 430EX flash.

Add in a Kirk macro flash bracket, off camera cord*, softbox diffuser and, of course, a camera and they make up my tripod mounted macro flash kit.  It's big, it's fairly heavy, it's unwieldy - but the results are great.

A lot of my macro flash work so far has been carried out with the kit I've illustrated previously.

Freehand macro flash kit - Tamron 90mm macro, 25mm extension tube, 430EX on bracket
I still use it but it's got two problems.  Firstly, I'm getting on a bit and there are days when I can't hold the combination freehand and reliably nail focus with any degree of accuracy.  To be blunt, I shake a little and, unless I can contrive some support - sitting on a camp chair with elbows on knees works well - even flash images can blur and miss focus.  Secondly, working distance is low and I often need a bit more separation between myself and the subject.

So this is the solution:

Tripod mounted macro flash setup

It gives me a working distance of  about 12-18in / 30-45cm for macro ratios from 1:1 up to about 1.6:1.  The extra working distance allows the tripod and gear to be manoeuvred into position without upsetting nervous subjects.  When working completely with flash the lighting is close enough to the subject to freeze motion now I don't have to worry about camera shake - and far enough away to give a more natural appearance to the background as the flash intensity doesn't drop off as rapidly as it would with closer work.  And these are the type of results that ensue.  All shots are full frame.

Female long legged fly, Dolichopus ungulatus

Calliphora vicina, a male bluebottle blowfly
The combination also works well with natural light / fill light for slightly larger subjects taken at a greater working distance:

Immature female violacea form of the blue tailed damselfly, Ischnura elegan

As can be seen from the watermarking on the three images, the quality at 100% passes the QC hurdles for acceptance by Alamy.  Yes it's unwieldy.  I can manage the weight easily enough although manoeuvrability is a little lacking.  It's not as flexible as my hand held combination - but the ability to accurately set focus more than outweighs any loss in flexibility.  In short, it works for me, and I'll be using it for many more shots to come.

*To answer the obvious question of why I don't use the wireless flash facility of the Canon 600D with my 430EX it's a matter of convenience.  I don't have a separate cold shoe to mount the flash on the bracket so I use the off camera cord. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Blue and white

It was Wednesday morning.  I'd taken the dogs for their first walk of the day and noticed some small tortoiseshell caterpillars feeding on nettles.  A good subject to add to the portfolio so, dogs well exercised, fed and happy to sleep the morning away, I went out again.  The small tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars were one objective but I also wanted to photograph the southern marsh orchids that have gradually been colonising a local field that is being managed as a flowering meadow by Plymouth City Council.

Of course you get sidetracked.  I'd got my shots of the caterpillars and was walking down to the orchids when I saw a white bluebell in the hedgerow.  Alongside was the normal blue version.  An opportunity not to be missed.  Here's the landscape view.

Blue and white forms of the English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta

I'm talking about the English bluebell.  Hyacinthoides non-scriptus.  Honey scented, endemic to North West Europe, with 60% of the population in England and Wales, white sports occur occasionally in nature.  They've been collected and brought into cultivation (not a good idea unless you have a large garden - sheets of bluebells gives a good indication of their invasive tendencies) but it's still nice to see a wild white flower.  Especially when contrasted with the typical blue.  Here's the portrait view.

Blue and white forms of the English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta

I remember as a child in the 50's going to a local wood in Grimsby and picking bluebells with my parents.  They weren't as common in the drier East as they are in the wetter South West of England.  Here they're everywhere.  In woods, hedgerows, fields, clifftops - anywhere the black seed can germinate and produce the white bulbs that store energy for their late spring flowering.

Did I get the shots I wanted of the small tortoiseshell caterpillars and the orchids?  Yes.  Here's a sample.

Clustered caterpillars of the small tortoiseshell butterfly, Aglais urticae, feeding on nettle
The young caterpillars are communal, clustering together after emerging from the web at the base of the shot as a protection against predators.  For some reason the adults have been in decline in recent years - I rarely saw any - but the last couple of years have shown a local expansion.  May it continue.

As for the orchids it's been a pleasure to watch them multiply over the last 4-5 years as a patch of a field has been left unmown till late summer.  There are hundreds in there now.

Southern marsh orchid, Dactylorhizza praetermissa

Southern marsh orchid, Dactylorhizza praetermissa

Close up of the flowers of the Southern marsh orchid, Dactylorhizza praetermissa
 As always, click to embiggen the photos.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Sometimes a shot jumps out and demands to be taken.

I was enjoying a walk round a local garden (not, alas, my own) this afternoon.  They have a stream fed pond, part of which is planted up with water hawthorn, Aponogeton distachyos.  The water was glass clear, conditions were almost windless and the bright May sunlight was at a perfect angle to evenly illuminate the shallow water right down to the bottom without inducing surface glare.

Which enabled me to get the following shot:

Aponogeton distachyos showing floating flowers and foliage and the stems rooted in the bottom mud
The leaves are floating flat on the water surface.  The white flowers are just protruding above  the surface.  At first glance there is no difference between the air and the water.  The picture looks as though it is portrait of a ground dwelling plant.  Only after examination do you notice there is a barely perceptible ripple, just enough to provide the subtlest dimpling around the emergent leaves and flowers and gently distorting the underwater anchoring stems.

Normally a polarising filter is needed to cut reflections and glare and enable a limited view through the air-water interface.  I didn't need one today.  Conditions were perfect to capture an almost textbook illustration showing the whole of an aquatic plant.

Technical details are embedded in the EXIF data.  Click to embiggen the shot.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My Alamy experience - part the first

It was mid January 2014.  For reasons I can't go into in this post I needed validation that my photography was capable of reaching the quality standards required for commercial licensing.  I'd sold a fair few in the past - but only as part of a word and picture package, not on a stand alone basis.  Which got me thinking about the stock photography market.  And, specifically, the UK based macrostock agency, Alamy.

I photograph flowers.  Oh, and insects, local nature, gardens, a bit of landscape and a few other bits and pieces.  So do many other photographers.  With an abundance of images in those categories many stock agencies are very selective about accepting new work.  Alamy have an interesting business model.  They don't judge content and will accept any photographs - providing they meet their clearly defined but stringent Quality Control (QC) standards.

So, rather than just continuing to build an image bank to illustrate future blogposts, books and articles, I decided to see if my increasing collection of images could meet the technical requirements for submission to Alamy and add another outlet for my imagery.  It's been a learning experience.

Your first submission is four images.  No more, no less.  All four are judged and a QC failure for any of them damns your submission.  Which is why the advice on forums and other areas is always to submit four technically perfect but otherwise boring photos.  These were mine:

Apple Blossom

Episyrphus balteatus feeding on Ceratostigma willmottianum

Green form female of Common blue damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum

Hemerocallis 'Children's Festival'

Two insect macros and two garden plants?  Risky, very risky if one listens to forum advice.  But look at that in another way.  They're representative of the work I'm going to be submitting both now and in the future.  Better to find out they're not good enough at the outset rather than later down the line.

Submitted on January 13th, I got the email notifying me that all four had passed QC on the morning of the 14th.  I was in.

There are a lot of horror stories about Alamy QC on the net.  Failures for tiny technical errors - a missed dust spot, the odd vagrant bit of chromatic aberration, the dreaded soft or lacking definition - and, of course, acceptable and unacceptable cameras.  Their clearly stated policy to reject all images in all batches awaiting QC if any examined image fails.  Pushing to the back of the QC queue should an image fail - with a possible 28 working day wait for notification.

Perfectly reasonable requirements.

Try working to the 6 sigma QC standards commonplace in UK manufacturing industry.  3.4 failures per million to pass - and, of course, perfection is what you always work towards.  And go out of business if you can't meet those standards.  Compared to that stringency Alamy QC requirements are pretty lax.  And completely understandable.  Alamy are putting your pictures in front of a discerning audience.  It does their and your reputation no good if technically substandard work is presented to buyers.  So every image needs careful examination at 100%, pixel by pixel.  Dust bunnies need cloning out.  Chromatic aberration needs dealing with - I use LightRoom for post processing and it's a simple process.  Images should be unsharpened - and that can produce some very soft looking photos.  The point of focus should be spot on the appropriate part of the main subject - eyes for my insects, stamens for the flowers.  The list goes on - but it's all necessary.

And if in doubt, throw it out.  I've discarded many images that, on careful inspection, simply weren't good enough for critical inspection at 100%.  11 uploads and 188 images on sale later I haven't had a QC failure.  But if I do it will be my fault.  My personal QC won't have been good enough.

I'll cover the joys of image management and keywording  - and the terrors of the wait for confirmation that your latest upload batch has passed QC - in the second of what is likely to be an occasional series.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

In which I get to #1

A few years back - 2005 to be precise - I uploaded an image to an old Pbase group of tropical looking plant enthusiasts.  The image was of the flowering spike of the hardy banana, Musa basjoo.  I took it in Overbecks garden at Salcombe, South Devon with my recently purchased Canon 300D and my 50mm f2.5 compact macro.  The opportunity arose, a little fill flash brightened the shadows in the flower and allowed the blue of the sky to break through in the background.  Not too shabby a shot, though I say so myself.  Ah, the heady days of youth.

The other day I was doing some Google image searching to ID one of my insect shots.  Out of idle curiosity I typed in 'Musa basjoo flower'.  There, first image out of the box, was my shot of this hardy banana.

Click the image and you're taken to the Pbase site of the original upload.  But how did it get to be the first image presented?  There is no shortage of photos of flowers of this banana.

So I did a little digging.  Google reverse image search allows you to drag and drop an image on a website or from your hard drive into the search box of Google images.  Sophisticated pattern recognition algorithms then allow comparisons between the dragged image and the Google image database to identify webpages where that image appears.  The result is a list of websites.  Here's part of page 1.