Stock Footage 101: The Basics
Thinking of becoming a stock footage producer? This primer will give you a general overview of the business of stock footage. And if you’re planning on giving it try, you’ll see some examples of what to shoot, what not to shoot, and discuss basic camera techniques. Think of this page as the “cliff’s notes” version of the e-book, How To Make Money Shooting Stock Footage, available here.
At first glance, this may seem overwhelming. But in time, I’m sure in time you’ll get very proficient at shooting stock footage and using your video camera professionally. You may even begin to look at TV and movies differently once you know what stock footage is and what it can be used for.
The lessons on this page are broken up into 5 parts outlined below. I don’t expect you to fully understand everything when you are just starting out, so please bookmark this mini-tutorial and refer back to it as necessary.
Scattered throughout this primer are examples of stock footage clips from my Pond5 portfolio. Click on the images to watch the video in action.
1. What Is Stock Footage?
Simply put, stock footage clips are videos about 10 seconds in length of a particular subject or scene. They’re generally used as “filler” video in longer projects where the editors do not have the time or budget to get a shot to complete a job.
The best example of “filler” video are in those drug commercials where the narrator is explaining all the side effects of a particular drug. While the narrator is talking, you’re watching people kayaking, horseback riding, having diner, and so on. While those are very high-end shots that you shouldn’t expect to get at first, they are good examples of what stock footage could be.
2. What To Shoot
This is a tough one. I sometimes have “writer’s block” on what to shoot. But really, stock footage could be anything, even the mundane. In fact, some of my best sellers are clips I did not even plan to shoot; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time with a camera.
Example of a spontaneous clip. While walking in Manhattan, I came across this protest march.
Never think something is too plain or ordinary to shoot. The Internet is a big place, and what you may think is run-of-the-mill may be exactly just what someone needs on the other side of the world.
Why would a buyer want a simple ice scraper video? Perhaps they’re in Miami where such a clip is impossible to shoot and they are working on a project about winter living.
With video being such a big part of people’s social media lives these days, you’re probably very familiar using a video camera–at least on your cell phone. But this is probably your first attempt to shoot video professionally, meaning, someone will be paying for the video you’re shooting. So keep the following tips in mind.
If you have a tripod, try to use it. Shots that are unstable have too much of a “home movie” feeling. You can shoot without support, but you need to try to be as steady and smooth as possible. Using a monopod will help during those times you want a steady shot but don’t want to lug around a tripod. And for a bit more help keeping steady, some cameras have “steady shot” that attempts to even-out handheld shots. Use it if you must, but don’t rely on it too heavily.
Example of a steady shot using a tripod.
If you don’t have a tripod but still want a solid shot, find something sturdy to lean against. Holding your breath while shooting helps tremendously. Using your camera’s steady shot in this situation will aid as well.
Example of a handheld shot. While not shot on a tripod, the motion is smooth enough to be acceptable. In fact, the handheld motion gives this shot a friendly and casual feeling.
In The Right Light
You will probably have limited camera gear, so limit your shots to outside where the lighting is appropriate. Cameras these days do a decent job in almost any lighting condition, but for professional video, you need proper lighting. Daylight hours are best, but you could also get away with late morning or early dusk. Once the sun is gone, pack it up.
Example of a properly-lit and exposed shot.
Keep in mind that shooting in the direction of your light source is generally a bad idea, unless you’re going for an artistic look. But don’t be artistic for everything. For most of your shots, keep the sun to your back if at all possible when shooting outside during the day.
Example of a shot purposely aimed at the sun for an artistic look.
Not Just a Pretty Face
While clips of people tend to sell the best, don’t attempt to work with “actors” too early on. Having to deal with directing a person or a group of people while setting up your camera could be overwhelming to a new stock footage producer. Practice on inanimate objects at first. Get static shots of city buildings, skylines, pretty landscapes, or even traffic.
Example of a city establishing shot. Any people or logos are small enough to make this shot acceptable.
Working with Actors
Once you think you’re ready to graduate to working with actors, start thinking of friends that would be willing to star in your videos. Remember, stock footage clips are usually only about 10 seconds each, so also think of basic scenarios that would tell a short story. Like two friends walking on the beach, someone texting in a big city, or even a young child playing a game on an iPad (providing that the Apple logo on the back is obscured).
Example of a shot using an actor. The story in this clip is of a man getting the morning mail.
If you do start working with people as subjects, everyone that is visible and easily identifiable in the shot needs to sign a release form. An acceptable model release form like this one needs filled out for every unique person you record. If the person is under 18, a parent or legal guardian must also sign. If you use repeat actors, they only need to fill out a form once. And all forms must be witnessed and signed by someone who isn’t in the shot. Print a few forms out and bring them on your next shoot where you know people are going to be the main subject.
Camera Not Needed
If you are more of a graphic artist who finds photography and videography a bit intimidating, you can still get involved in stock footage. Motion backgrounds, 2D and 3D animation, and other visual effects sell quite well.
Example of an animated stock footage clip prepared completely in Adobe After Effects.
There are many stock producers who specialize in graphics and have little or no camera-generated video clips in their portfolios. So you can still be a stock footage producer earning passive income all while never touching a physical camera (or even leaving your house).
3. What Not To Shoot
While it is important to know what you are planning to shoot, it is even more important to know what not to shoot. You don’t want to waste your time on shots that may never make it to market.
A few things you need to avoid are private property, logos, unreleased people, identifiable markings like license plates. Granted, this is sort of a grey area, but it would be a good idea to try not getting these things in your shot, especially if they are very prominent. Some buyers will not consider a shot that has a McDonald’s sign in the foreground or a Nike swoosh visible on your actor’s shoes due to fear of trademark infringement.
Including easily-recognizable intellectual property in your stock shots is generally not permitted. This includes logos and designs like signage and artwork. Even some distinguishable architecture is not usable as stock footage if it’s the main focus of a shot. Most of the time while shooting outside, avoiding such items is sometimes impossible. But just try to be on the lookout for problematic material and frame your shot so these items aren’t prominent in your videos. When in doubt, crop it out.
Example of a shot with logos. Since there isn’t any one logo that is the main subject, this clip may be acceptable as stock at some footage agencies.
If shooting in a large city, having corporate logos or identifiable architecture in the shot may be acceptable provided they are not the main subject of your video. Meaning, a shot of a busy city street that has a Burger King, a Panera Bread, and a PNC Bank on the block in the distance is probably okay, but a solo shot of a Burger King building wouldn’t be.
Remember, anyone in your videos who can be easily recognized must sign a release. This will be manageable if such people are your friends and know they are being shot for stock footage. If you shoot someone on a beach, crowds are probably going to be everywhere. Just try to make sure other people are far away in the shot or are blurred enough so they aren’t easily identifiable.
Example of a model released stock clip with unidentifiable non-model released people in the background.
Clothing choice is often overlooked when planning and shooting stock footage. What about that little Ralph Lauren polo player on your shirt or those three white stripes down the side of your friend’s gym shorts? As harmless as they may seem, they are a no-no.
When shooting actors, make sure their clothing is unbranded. Don’t use people with a Steelers ball cap, sweat pants with the three white Adidas stripes down the legs, or even visible tattoos. Like stock footage itself, people and clothing need to be generic. This is to ensure the clips will be useful in a wide variety of projects. Shots of people or scenarios that are too specific have a limited possibility of selling.
Example of a two actors with generic clothing. Model diversity is also highly desirable.
Shots with logos and identifiable people or architecture are sometimes acceptable as stock, but the subject matter has to be newsworthy, like the clip at the top of this tutorial of the New York protest march. Such shots are considered editorial, meaning, they would only be usable in a non-commercial project like a news story or documentary. Since editorial shots are specific in nature, they tend not to sell as well as more general stock footage shots. So, I try to limit my time when shooting and processing editorial clips, and so should you.
Private or Protected Property
When shooting outdoors, stay on public property. Sometimes it’s hard to know when public property turns into private property, but do your best. If you stick to sidewalks or other public spaces like parks or beaches, you’ll probably be safe. But don’t get alarmed if a security guard approaches you, especially if you plant down a tripod. But don’t worry, they’ll probably just tell you to move along. This has happened to me several times. Just be nice, apologize, and quietly clean up and leave the area.
Many buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C. do not permit tripod use. But if you put the camera on a post or the ground and casually look like a tourist, you can grab a quick shot before drawing unwanted attention.
Sometimes you see something that would make for a great stock shot, but are unsure if the area is monitored or protected. If you’re covert, meaning not using a tripod or looking suspicious, you can get a quick shot of something in an area where professional photography isn’t permitted, especially if your camera doesn’t look professional. Using a small tripod on the ground may also be acceptable. You can even place such a small set-up on a table, planter, or other high flat surface to get added height and still look inconspicuous.
To sum up this section, people, logos, and copyrighted and/or trademarked material are all around us. Unless they are released, make sure they are not easily visible or recognizable in your shots.
4. Basic Camera Techniques
The most important part of shooting stock footage is proficiently using your camera. Shooting professional video that is properly exposed and in focus is of the utmost importance. The best way to become comfortable with your camera is to practice. Since all cameras operate differently, I cannot go into detail on setting up and shooting with your specific camera, but I can give you some general tips to make your videos more professional.
The screenshots used as examples of camera settings in this section come from a Panasonic RX100-IV, so the menus on your camera will probably look different. But the basic principles will still apply to any digital camera.
As mentioned before, you probably won’t be using more than a camera and perhaps a tripod or monopod when shooting, so that means stay in proper light. There may come a time when you want to use a small light kit and shoot indoors, but don’t bite off more than you can chew when beginning.
Lay Off Automatic Mode
Don’t leave your camera in automatic mode. While letting the camera decide what’s best might be acceptable for home movies or Instagram posts, it is not okay for professional work. Set your camera to manual mode and decide yourself what to focus on and what shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance to use.
Recording Format and Bit Rate
The first thing you should choose before shooting one frame of video is the camera’s recording format and the video quality. The video format is the type of file the camera will write (i.e., Quicktime, MP4, AVI, etc.), and the bit rate is the quality the final recorded video will be saved in. This is often labeled as Mbps (megabits per second), or sometimes shortened to just “M.”
The video settings on a Sony RX100-IV. The left menu screen shows the camera is set to its highest resolution: 4K XAVC-S and the right screen shows the video will be recorded at 24 frames per second at a quality of 100 Mbps.
All cameras have different options here, but it’s generally a good idea to choose the highest selections available for the best quality video.
We live in an HD world, so shoot in full HD. Set your camera to shoot at 1080p mode (1920×1080). If your camera shoots higher resolution video, like Ultra-HD 4K, then by all means, set it to that. But be aware that some functions like steady shot may not be as effective when shooting at your camera’s highest resolution.
ISO is the overall light sensitivity the camera is set to. The lower the number, the more light is needed to get properly-exposed video. You may think to just set this to the highest level to cover all your bases, but as this number goes higher, the video quality starts to get negatively affected. So, use the lowest setting possible, especially if you are shooting outside.
If you do venture indoors and can’t seem to get a good exposure, then raise the ISO. But don’t go above 800. Anything higher will result in grainy video that would be unusable.
The white balance setting tells your camera what kind of light is being used to illuminate your scene. This is sometimes labeled as “color temperature” on many cameras. Basically, there are two different kinds of light: natural light–from the sun–and artificial light–like from a light bulb. It goes without saying that if you’re shooting outside in the sun, make sure your camera is set to the outdoor white balance. This is often denoted on cameras as a “sun” icon on the dial or in the menus. If shooting indoors with artificial light, the proper setting would be the “light bulb” icon.
An example of a camera’s white balance options found in the menus.
If you incorrectly choose artificial light when shooting outside, your video will probably have an blueish tinge. If you use the sunlight mode while indoors, your video will probably lean towards the orange side of the color spectrum. So pick the correct setting for the environment before you press the record button.
While I still don’t recommend it, white balance is probably the only setting that you can leave on automatic mode. This is because while shooting, your light source probably isn’t going to change. The automatic white balance option is usually labeled as AWB. But you still should get into the habit of setting this manually once you start to improve and become comfortable with your camera’s settings.
Don’t confuse “frame rate” with “shutter speed.” These are often misinterpreted as the same thing. They’re not.
Normal TV is 30 frames per second (fps), meaning for each second you see, you’re actually looking at 30 individual still images shown very rapidly in succession. This is the baseline for video, but it is not the only option.
Movies are shot at 24 frames per second. If supported in your camera, recording with this frame rate will give your video a film “look” that is sometimes desirable.
And another option your camera might have is 60 frames per second. This is also acceptable, but not necessary. One advantage of shooting 60 frames per second (or higher) and “converting” later to 30 frames per second is the ability of shooting very smooth slow motion. But this is an advanced technique that you probably shouldn’t worry about at first. One drawback of shooting video at higher frame rates is that file sizes are typically larger, meaning you may fill up your memory card faster.
Example of a clip shot at 240 frames per second then converted to 30 for a super-slow motion effect.
Basically, any frame rate your camera shoots at, whether it be 24, 30, or 60 frame per second is acceptable so long as the resolution can be set to at least 1080p (1920×1080).
Shutter speed is the length of time the camera’s sensor is open and exposed when shooting video or taking a photograph. The higher the shutter speed, the more crisp motion is. You may think video with sharp, crisp motion is desirable, but it is not. Video with very sharp and defined edges around moving objects gives it a “cheap” feeling often associated with cameras that are set to full automatic.
High shutter speeds are really only good for shooting sports when you want to be able to see the player’s jersey number while he is running down the field or a race car’s door number when zooming around a track. Since you’re not shooting these types of events, use a slower shutter speed.
But you don’t want to go too slow either. While slower shutter speeds may help in low light environments, it also results in a higher degree of motion blur. That may make properly-focused video look out of focus, which is also undesirable. You need to find a happy medium.
Shutter speed and frame rate relationship. Note the camera is set to 30 fps (top number), so the shutter speed is properly set to twice that: 1/60 (bottom number).
So how do you know what shutter speed to use? While not a hard-and-fast rule, keep your shutter speed to twice that of your frame rate. For example, if you’re shooting at 30 frames per second, set your shutter speed to 60. If you shoot at 24 frames per second, then set your shutter speed to 48. Simple. The more difficult part about all this is finding where on your camera the shutter speed setting is found. That’s where a quick YouTube search will be helpful, especially if you’re like me and hate reading manuals.
Like your eyes, a camera also has an iris. Called the aperture or f-stop, it governs the amount of light that enters the camera and exposes the sensor. Proper light exposure is very important for professional video.
Aperture values are denoted by a number, sometimes prefaced with an “f” (hence, f-stop). The lower the number, the more open the iris is, which lets in more light. You would use a lower f-stop in low-light situations, like a dinner table lit by candlelight. The higher the number, the more closed the iris is, which lets in less light. You would use a high f-stop in bright situations, like outdoors at the beach on a sunny day.
If you set your iris is open too wide for bright scenes like outdoors, the shot will be over exposed. Conversely, if the iris is closed too much for low light situations, your shot will be underexposed. How do you know when a shot is properly exposed? You’ll just have to practice. All cameras have a meter in the viewfinder that will help you expose your shot. While you shouldn’t rely solely on this meter, it will help guide you in the right direction.
A properly-exposed image on a Sony RX100-IV. Note the f-stop (aperture) is set to f2.2. The “M.M” (manual metering) number next to it is showing 0.0, which tells the operator the shot is correctly exposed. If the shot is underexposed, this M.M number would be negative. If over exposed, this number would be positive.
You may be tempted to set the camera to auto-iris. Don’t. Since lighting conditions may change ever so slightly while recording, the camera will try to compensate. This will result in a “flickering” effect that is often associated with amateurish video. You’re not shooting amateur video, you’re shooting professional video. And professional videographers use cameras in manual mode only.
If all that wasn’t enough, there’s one more item to worry about. The last thing you need to manage when shooting video in full manual mode is focus.
Focusing is the act of making sure the subjects in your video are not blurry. And while this may sound like a simple process, it can be difficult in some situations.
Focus and aperture are directly related. If you have a wide-open aperture (a low f-stop number), focusing will be more tricky. If you shoot outside in sunlight with a more closed aperture (a high f-stop number), focusing will be much easier. This is another reason I suggest you stick to outdoor shooting when you are just starting out.
Like the aperture setting, you again may be tempted to put your camera in autofocus mode. Don’t. If you leave it up to the camera what to focus on, something else may grab the camera’s attention while shooting and your focus will be ruined. If you only have one dial on your lens, see if you can set that dial to control the focus. It’ll make it easier to adjust.
Example of focus peaking. The red dots indicate that R2-D2 is in focus whereas the lion’s head isn’t. This image also shows some of the camera’s settings. This shot is set to a shutter speed of 60 (1/60) with an f-stop of 1.8 and an ISO at 125. The M.M (manual metering) number shows 0.0, which tells the operator the shot is also properly exposed.
If your camera has something called “focus peaking,” turn it on. When enabled, focus peaking (sometimes referred to as manual focus assist) will highlight the area of the screen that is in focus by placing dots on the subject. These dots are usually red or yellow and will not be recorded in the video; they are displayed only on the monitor for your reference.
When working with a camera in full manual mode, there are a lot of elements you have to juggle to get a properly-shot video clip. If you rely on the camera’s automatic mode, you may get what looks like a good shot, but the settings the camera chooses probably won’t be what are optimal for professional video.
A proper balance of shutter speed, aperture, frame rate, and focus may be tricky to accomplish at first, but in time with practice, you’ll soon get the hang of it and be shooting more professional-looking video.
Your camera probably has many, many more options and settings, but the ones highlighted above are the important ones and will be enough to get you started. Don’t think you need to be an expert with your camera straight out of the gate. Just take your time and practice with all the settings until you’re comfortable and confident enough to start shooting stock footage.
If you made it this far, congratulations! You just took your first steps to becoming professional stock footage shooters. Once you have a small portfolio of video clips in your arsenal, it’ll be time to upload to one or more stock footage agencies. I recommend Pond5, Shutterstock, and VideoBlocks to start. As you grow and become more comfortable, feel free to add more agencies to your list.
I know this was a lot of information to process, so don’t worry if you need to come back here to refresh your memory. Along with your model releases, you may even want to print this page out and take it with you on shoots for reference.
If you would like more information about stock footage, check out this e-book I wrote a few years back. It goes into more depth and contains basic tips, tricks, and hints on what to shoot and how to prepare your footage for submission to several of the more popular microstock footage agencies on the Internet. Video examples, charts, and even sample financial data are included!
So, that’s it! Get your camera ready and go out to shoot some great stock footage shots!