How a Stock Photographer Converted to Footage

By Sean Nel , Shutterstock Footage Submitter It all began a few years ago, with my investment in a small, semi-high quality video camera with full manual controls. My intention was to occasionally shoot the behind-the-scenes clips from our photo shoots, as well as perhaps a training video. As fate would have it, this was right around the time Shutterstock introduced Shutterstock Footage, its new stock video offering.

My original plan was to submit a few files, just to get my foot in the door of this particular industry. Like many, I like to keep my options open and footage did not seem too far removed from photography.

What to shoot?

Then the conundrum hit me: what to shoot?

I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what people need in stock photography, but what about video? Where would buyers use it? What were the usage mediums?

No doubt about it, I would need to jump in and get my feet wet, and learn the craft as I went. So off I went to a track day at the local racing circuit. It was a good thing too, because at that point I had no idea about sound recording, tripod skills, rolling shutters on panning … you get the idea.

The bikes and cars were so loud I had to turn down the volume control nearly all the way down. This unintentionally resulted in perfect sound. The movement of the cars and bikes were so rapid that I could also get away with a makeshift stabilizer by attaching a monopod to the camera, but using it as a counterweight instead of a support. I didn’t dare switch on the camera’s Image Stabilization -it just bounced around and was utterly useless. Although the clip is available as Editorial Use Only, it was my first accepted clip: Clip

As trial runs go, I felt I was learning about stock footage. The next step was to figure out what would people be looking to buy. After some thought, I came up with a pretty big theme: pollution.

So I drove around shooting gas flare burn-off (with copy space, of course): Clip

…As well as some local landmarks showing air pollution (over Table Mountain in South Africa): Clip

Of course, there was also the tried and trusted SUV Exhaust Pipe: Clip

Technology & Equipment

However, in the end, I kept getting stuck on a major problem – bandwidth.

Every image I uploaded was between 3-7MB, with a typical video clip being 30-60MB. My bandwidth was very restricted (128K DSL line), and loading five clips would run through the night, only to be rejected because of a Codec problem, or incorrectly saved clip.

To make matters worse, I was paying close to $13 per gigabyte, so 10 clips would easily set me back $20 plus two days of uploading. The sales numbers were few and financial returns were small because we could only supply Standard Definition. So I decided to shelve the idea for a while, until I could get cheaper, faster internet access.

Faster ADSL lines came to my part of the world – South Africa – and the prices dropped to about $8 a gigabyte. Around the same time, Canon had launched the EOS 5D Mark II.

A hybrid of sorts, it shoots 1080p High Definition (HD) video along with 21MP Full Frame stills. When I acquired the camera, I was very skeptical I would ever use the video function, but then I was asked to record some behind-the-scenes footage for a few friends that do photographic wildlife safaris. I was going to do the shoot with “Old Faithful,” the Panasonic SD cam, and I mounted the EOS 5D Mark II for some wildlife stills to add to the video (shooting mainly with a Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS):


On a whim, I decided to shoot some footage with the longer lens just to see what came out.

That evening, while reviewing the day’s [footage] shooting, I came to the stunning realization that I would never go back to SD video again. The footage from the Canon DSLR was exceptional! Low noise, excellent color, brilliant DOF!

The rest of the five day trip was shot on the 5D Mark II, with the SD cam used for a few filler clips and recording sound.

The EOS 5D Mark II was light enough to mount on a ball head and monopod and just stick it out as far as I could to the side or top of a vehicle. For a few shots, I mounted the camera on a GorillaPod wrapped around the rollers of the Landrover. I would do it a lot differently now, but had to make do with what I had, and the DSLR delivered past expectation!

I finally had the opportunity to shoot and submit stock footage, and needing more knowledge to hone my craft, I turned to my trusted research source, the Shutterstock Forum. Here I soon learned about the ins and outs of working with a hybrid DSLR as a video camera.

(to see “that” clip, go to the behind the scenes videos we have online or click here to see the clip in your browser )

Workflow & Editing

I quickly learned the onboard sound is useless to a large extent, since the microphone picks up any noise on the camera body. I also learned that file sizes were going to be a problem, so I now travel with two Macbook Pro Notebooks, 6x 500GB Lacie FireWire HD and two 320GB Hyperdrives (for dumping cards in the field).

I shoot mainly on SanDisk Extreme III 32GB CF cards (and carry some 8GB cards as backups), so you can see how space gets eaten up very quickly. (At home, I have a Drobo, but it is too heavy to travel with.)

The nice thing about working on the Macbook Pro is that the Graphics chips built into them can natively decode the h.264 codec that the Canon Cameras use in their compression algorithm. This means I can edit and playback video more or less seamlessly.

For editing, I use Final Cut ExpressHD if I need to do some grading and tweaking to the file (contrast and color, etc). But if it’s a straight shot, without any editing more than a cut, I’ll convert the files with MPEG Streamclip to Apple Photo – JPEG (non-interlaced). If you use a Mac, this is the preferred compression Codec for Canon DSLR’s that shoot 720p and 1080p (as opposed to 720i/1080i).

Where Final Cut will take 10 minutes per clip to process, the free MPEG Streamclip will convert the files in under a minute, and I am hard pressed to see a difference in the quality of the files.

Practical Shooting Tips

•A tripod is your friend! Lock down the camera. Don’t move it unless you really have to.

•A Fluid Motion video head is also your friend – if you absolutely have to move the camera. Keep in mind though, there is an inherent flaw in the 5DmkII where under certain circumstances, a panning shot will pick up a little hiccup every second or so.

•Good light is a must. Good lighting results in crisp images with good contrast and color. These cameras are awesome in lowlight situations, but better light is better light. Also invest in some reflectors if you don’t have any, as they are cheap and work beautifully. Good light also allows you to decide on your shutter speed (getting rid of flickering from other light sources) and Depth of Field. The large sensors make DOF critical.

•Don’t touch the camera while recording.

•Leave cutting space. When editing your clips, leave a bit of intro and exit in your clips for editors to work from.

The most important thing is to keep trying new things and thinking outside the box. Focus on what clients may need in the future. Newspapers are closing down and some reports claim more than 20 new “tablet” type devices or computers were launched at CES alone. Some might not like the iPad, but I do, and more so I would love to see my stock video playing within its content!