Breaking into stock video production

Ever since I got my Sony A7Rii last June, I’ve toyed with the idea of moving more into stock video production. Why? Mainly because the people involved seem to be doing very well, there is less competition (because it is harder) and the introduction of modern SLRs capable of handling 4K video production is opening up a new market for this ultra high resolution images. If you think about it, almost all the images currently in stock agency libraries are HD or below – so at some level even the basic simple shots will need to be reworked to get to the 4K resolution level. Of course, the changeover from HD to 4K will not happen overnight, but we have a good chance to populate the agencies with our great 4K shots before too many others have uploaded their shots. The only problem is how to take great 4K videos and what to take!

The video above is an example of what you can do pretty easily. Of course, it hasn’t sold yet, but with the focus on the opioid epidemic in the USA, I hope it will. What do you need to get going in stock video? I hope to answer that in this and future posts. Perhaps one day I will know enough to write a book about it!

In this article, I’ll focus on equipment that I have and use regularly, and in future posts, move onto the techniques and processing tricks I’ve learned.

Obviously you need a camera capable of at least HD but preferably 4K recording. A word on these resolutions. High definition video that is currently broadcast on cable and over the air has a resolution of 1920 pixels by 1080 – in effect there are 1080 lines of information each with 1920 pixels. This is known as 1080p – the “p” refers to the way the information in the lines is shown on the screen and doesn’t really impact us as digital video in today’s cameras always has information in each pixel. 720p is a lower resolution HD image with 720 lines of 1280 pixels. The screen format is 16:9 which simply refers to the ratio of width to height of the video.

4K broke with the tradition of naming the resolution after the number of lines of information as most 4K videos comprise 2160 lines of 3840 pixels. It should really have been called 2K, but who wants to market that! A single frame in a 4K video is 8.3 megapixels which is well within the capabilities of many cameras. The issue with 4K video is getting that much information from the sensor to the memory card at at least 30 frames a second. The very best cameras can do higher frame rates, which is handy if you want to slow down the motion for a slow motion effect, but the Sony A7R is limited to 30 fps at 4K, although it can do more frames at lower resolutions. Most stock video is uploaded at 30fps, which is the US standard and can be downsampled to get to 25fps for countries that use the PAL standard (most of Europe and other parts of the world). But we don’t need to bother about that – if you upload at 30 fps, you will be fine.

So, you need a camera that can do 4K and memory cards that are fast enough to handle the best quality your camera can produce. Quality in video is dictated by the codec that is used to compress those individual 8M sensor scans down into something that can be written to the memory card. Most modern cameras use a codec called H264 (Sony uses a variant of it called XAVC S) and the thing to look for in your settings is the bit rate (in megabits per second). The higher the bit rate, the lower the compression and the higher the quality. So set your video settings to the highest bit rate that you can. The Sony and others have different ways of recording colors and tones in their advanced settings (a bit like Raw, but not really!). The implication if you go into these advanced settings is that the video will contain more tonal information, but will look pretty flat and will need the colors corrected and contrast improved when you process and edit the video. For me, this is something for the future and I just use the standard settings for video of 4K at 30fps using the XAVC S codec at 100mbit/s bit rate.

All your normal lenses will work – a big advantage of digital cameras (especially full frame) is that you can have the very attractive narrow focus that you often see on TV and in the cinema. Again, this might be a Sony thing, but you can choose between the video being collected from the whole of the frame (so the lenses have their normal focal length) or from the center areas (bit like APS-C) where the lenses appear to have about 1.5 times the focal length. The consensus on the Sony seems to favor the latter, but it does mean you will have to be further from your subject potentially or use wider lenses!

It doesn’t appear that many stock videos include sound, so that you don’t need to invest in extra sound equipment.

Lighting is the next challenge – you can’t use flash, you are limited to shutter speeds above the frame rate (it is normally recommended to use a shutter speed of 2 times the frame rate, so 1/60th second is the normal.) Natural light is obviously fine outdoors, and you may have to have some neutral density filters to bring down the light level if you are trying to keep with a wide aperture, but indoors you need to have some lighting. The Rotolight NEO LED lights get good reviews at about $300 each and use AA batteries. I decided to go for two Aputure Amaran LED lights in a kit – one spot, one wide with Sony camcorder batteries and some light stands for $400. To be honest, the stands are very cheap, but they do the job, and the lights are solid and bright. You can adjust the brightness, there is a filter for tungsten light color, and the camcorder batteries seem like they will last for hours on a charge.

For processing the video, I just use Photoshop. You can do a lot with that without having to spend the extra money on Premiere, which is probably one of the leaders in video editing, and I’ll talk about using Photoshop later. You get the latest version of Photoshop and Lightroom in Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan (link below).

That is all for now – more in the next post.


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