Free stock photography advice

Free advice, given freely to me by someone with an agency’s bulk credit supply, for people trying to do microstock in the 2020s: you are not making art.

The designers you’re shooting for, who the buyers are buying for, are making art.

Tag all levels: what it is, what it looks like, what feelings/goals a designer might target with it. So a light on an office building isn’t just a light. It’s context and purpose.

It’s prosperity, industry, sodium, brick, sky, blue, vertical, black, housing, frosted.

Think of it like you’re making a brush pack for a painter, or a sound pack for a musician. You’re making tools and giving them some hints on how to use it.

You might not think much of the retreating base payouts–formerly 25 cents per image, now headed to 10–but you have to think of this like an agency buyer buying stock for designers.

They never know how an image will be used. 10 variations on the same subject is not excessive. That’s a chance a designer will find the perfect fit for their design. And $2.50 or $1 is really not that much for that confidence. It’s a bargain.

And they come back to photographers who consistently provide for them.

What the heck is ISO anyway? A sensitive question.

Setting ISO is often described as setting the sensitivity of the sensor. This…works. Kind of. It’s not technically true, but the value of the practically useful explanation holds up for a long time. For most practical purposes, it just doesn’t matter.

This is one of those recurring topics on forums where people snipe at each other endlessly without convincing anyone of anything. In fact, one such thread prompted this, and it started as a “photography myths” thread which is now entirely a few people going back and forth. It is tiresome, and they’re mostly talking past each other based on some misreading a page or ten back.

Guess why I stay away from forums these days.

So here’s the facts. No meanness. No smugness. Just a basic explanation.

Sensors are electronic things, and electronic things have electronic noise. Camera sensors are covered in little techo-bits called photosites. Each one measures a tiny little amount of whatever photons land on the sensor, usually after it’s passed through various filters that cut out certain kinds of light like infrared and ultraviolet. As the camera samples more of that signal coming off the sensor, more of the noise is tangible. If you’ve ever played with the gain on your laptop microphone and heard noise as it goes up, it’s a similar thing.

As the noise increases, our subjective ability to tolerate its impact on the aesthetic quality of the signal declines. Higher quality sensors and signal processing pathways between the sensor and the media it’s recorded on reduce the noise, and so reduce the aesthetic impact of increasing the gain.

A photosite on a digital camera sensor always measures the same amount of noise along with the signal of the photons hitting it. Setting the ISO sets the gain, though it’s not like a gain knob on audio equipment. The ISO we talk about with cameras is a standard produced by the International Organization for Standardization that defines the relation between gain and the ISO number as it relates to the shutter speed and aperture. So while it’s technically true that ISO controls sensitivity, it refers to the sensitivity of the camera’s signal processing pathway, not the sensor itself.

The sensor always has a certain amount of noise, fixed on the day it was produced, based on choices made regarding target market and available chip-making technology. Better sensors have a lower noise floor and thus reveal less noise as the camera samples at ever-higher ISO levels. Cheaper, smaller sensors have more, so turning the camera’s sensitivity up via ISO will reveal more of the ever-present noise while also showing more of the recorded photons. This tends to hit a subjective point where the electronic noise overwhelms the aesthetic quality of the recorded light. We’re likely a few sensor generations from noise being a non-issue at all practical ISO settings. Expect a renaissance in night and astrophotography.

Generally speaking, the better you expose a photo via shutter and aperture, the more it drowns out the noise. This is why dark portions of photos often seem noisier. Less photons, higher percentage of the ambient noise at the same sampling rate. Most cameras have an option to sample a shutter-closed frame equal to the length of the exposure to subtract the noise pattern from the image since this usually involves scenes with very little light.

Nikon D5600 review (updated for 2022)

Short answer: yes. You should get it.

Slightly less short answer: it’s good enough in enough situations that the main thing holding it back is the glass you plant on the front and, to a lesser extent, the technique and experience of the person on the other end.

I could not find a use for the included 18-55 kit lens. It’s a fine lens. It takes good pictures, focuses fast enough, and would probably cover most of the needs of most photographers. But next to the refurbished vibration-reduced non-kit 70-300 lens I bought with it, the kit 18-55 is completely useless. Absolutely pointless. I could have saved $50 and put it toward another lens.

The D5600 with a normal-person lens in the sub-pro category performs best with plenty of light. That’s true of any camera, but especially true of a camera with a crop sensor where most people will use it with lenses with apertures that, at best, open to f3.5. Lenses in the same price range that open wider are also generally 100mm and wider primes, so you lose versatility in exchange for more light. But the camera shoots in 14 bit raw. That’s trillions of colors, and gives you a lot of wiggle room on an underexposed photo.

What I’ve had to accept is it’s not going to shoot birds on a cloudy day with lenses I can afford to buy on a system that will probably be obsolete in 10 years. I won’t try to tell you it’s fine and good enough for all purposes like some reviewers, but what you can do with it is good enough that most people are better off spending the premium cost of a better body on a D5600 and better glass instead. You can rent that better camera and an above-average lens for much less than the premium you would spend on a D5600 and a better lens to know for sure, but I can guess how that would turn out.

There are some nice-to-haves it lacks that I’ll look for in the future when I move on to mirrorless. After I get all I can out of the D5600.

  • Presets: Most higher level bodies have two or more presets on the mode dial. You select it, set it, and everything returns there when you select it. I use manual mode a lot, and would like to have a preset for taking pictures of birds in the sky and for taking pictures of birds and bugs on plants. The ideal shutter speeds are at opposite extremes, and the automatic modes make some questionable decisions. A more advanced focusing and metering system would probably help with that.
  • More wheels: I can access all the settings like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed from any semi-automatic mode or manual mode by pressing a button and turning the dial. This is slow enough that I often miss shots.
  • More cross-type autofocus points: The D5600 has 11 out of the 39 total. The difference in precision stands out when I move to one of the old-fashioned contrast focus points at the outer edges. I avoid them when I can because they struggle on too many things.

That time I got two defective refurbished Nikon D3400s from Adorama

I had long wanted to get serious about photography. I used a Canon PowerShot SX100 IS until it died on me, and quit photography. I just didn’t have the money for another camera, and phone cameras were inadequate.

One day, I finally saved enough to get a proper DSLR in the form of a Nikon D3400 with the kit 18-55 lens, plus the vibration reduced DX 70-300 lens.

Adorama had a great deal on a refurbished camera and refurbished lens. Everyone said refurbs were as good as or better than new because they had special attention from a tech at Nikon. That turned out to be false. I don’t doubt that every blog post and comment stating this was from someone who had a good experience and believed it to be true, but either I got a bad run or something changed.

The first camera had a big line up and down every image. Bad pixels. Hot pixels. Dead pixels. I don’t know. Adorama sent me a return label, and I shipped it off for a replacement. I had to spring for about $5 in packaging since I was only sending the camera back and the box was sized for it and the big zoom lens.

A replacement arrived around midday. I took a lot of great shots, and then I saw it. The faster the shutter got, the more obvious it was I got another defective camera. The picture was unusable by 1/1000 and almost completely black by the maximum shutter speed. Obviously, it’s not Adorama’s fault the camera was defective, but their support person said someone would check it before sending. They obviously didn’t do a thorough enough check. I was out about $10 for packaging this time since I already sent the big box back with the first camera.

I sent it and the lens back, and decided not to try again until I could buy new. By then, I was already pushing the return window on the 70-300 lens, and I couldn’t risk getting another bad camera to go with a lens I couldn’t send back anymore. To Adorama’s credit, they processed the returns and refund without fuss. The only problem was with the first camera where they processed it as a refund instead of a replacement, added a new order for the same camera, and I had to ask them to suspend it for a few days so the money could get back in my bank. They did, though, and that matters. Companies mess up. It's a fact of life. What matters is how they deal with it.

Who failed here? I don’t know. I do know Adorama no longer has Nikon D3400s, refurbished or otherwise, in stock as of this writing. The lesson not to put too much weight on what people say online cost me $15 and some time at the UPS store, and I consider it worthwhile.

When it wasn’t obviously broken, I got enough use out of it to realize I would probably be happier with a mirrorless camera. Those are still much more expensive and fall short in some areas. In the interim, I went with a new Nikon D5600.