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A Guide to Photographing Marijuana and CBD for Stock

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These eight experts are reimagining cannabis imagery through stock photography. Here are their top tips for capturing authentic work with marijuana.

In 2019, there was a 76% increase in cannabis-related jobs in the US. According to a recent poll, 84% of Americans support the legalization of cannabis use. A new report suggests that legal sales could reach nearly $30 billion by 2025. The cannabis industry is growing and evolving, ushering in an era of social change, legal reform, and big business.

As a result of these changes, media portrayals of cannabis have also shifted, and the demand for high-quality photos has increased. Shutterstock named “Cannabiz” one of its rising trends of 2020, as customer searches for the plant and associated branding are rising.

“I’ve been photographing cannabis professionally for ten years now, and when I started, I could basically count the cannabis photographers in the media world on my hands,” Allie Cassidy, the co-founder of the cannabis farm TKO Reserve Oregon and photographer behind Canna Obscura, tells us. “But, over the years, there have been more and more publications, media outlets, and brands, emerging and hungry for relatable, genuine content.’

“And it’s not even cannabis-specific publications that are searching for cannabis content. Thanks to Shutterstock, I’ve had my work featured globally — everywhere from fashion magazines to news outlets. Cannabis is a hot, trending topic right now.”

Here, eight experts discuss their top tips for taking pictures that sell.

Defy Stereotypes

That 84% of Americans who support legalization come from all backgrounds, varying in age, race, gender, and political stance. But for decades media portrayals of cannabis use have been rooted in harmful stereotypes. That’s finally changing, as science continues to debunk the “stoner” mythology of years past.

“It is so important that emerging cannabis photographers create content that de-stigmatizes the past images of cannabis culture,” Cassidy says. “It’s a huge key to creating marketable cannabis photos because a modern portrayal of cannabis lifestyles is what many brands/media outlets/buyers are eyeing. When it comes to conceptualizing a shoot that doesn’t play into past stereotypes, finding models that are diverse in terms of age, race, and personal style helps your work stand apart from the crowd.’

Cannabis photography is the key to destigmatizing its culture. Image by Canna Obscura.

“I’d also say a common cliche I try to avoid is the over-sexualization of women using cannabis. The most authentic cannabis images are relatable to today’s cannabis users — the soccer moms, the business professionals, the farmers.’

“It’s our role as photographers to depict this cultural movement as it’s emerging into mainstream life, so doing what we can to destroy those historic stereotypes helps normalize cannabis use. We have to remember that it was propaganda and media influence that drove cannabis underground to begin with, so we hold that same power to bring it back — loud and proud!”

Get to Know the Culture

The best way to avoid these stereotypes is to get to know the real people working behind-the-scenes in today’s cannabis industry. “I would say my biggest piece of advice would be to dive head-first into the modern culture of cannabis,” Cassidy adds. “Making friends with your local farmer, budtender, or cannabis enthusiast will help you create the most authentic (and thus marketable) cannabis stock photos.’

“The cannabis community is a relatively tight-knit group of passionate people who enjoy expressing their love for the plant, so finding subjects to photograph isn’t too difficult of a task. This can easily be done over social media, as well!’

Making friends with local cannabis enthusiasts authenticates your stock photos. Image by Canna Obscura.

“The most-purchased cannabis images these days portray a modern aesthetic of cannabis culture, so this is important to consider when conceptualizing a shoot. Take inspiration from mainstream industries, such as beauty, fashion, and interior design, and put your personal cannabis twist on them.’

“Staying on top of industry trends will really help you sell more images quickly. There are many social media accounts and modern cannabis publications that can help you stay on top of trends and inspire you to get creative with new trending cannabis subjects.”

Go to the Source

Getting to know your local cannabis culture won’t just give you authentic lifestyle images, it’ll also give you access to the right products. “When photographing dried cannabis flowers, I always start by trying to find the best-looking buds,” Canadian photographer Roxana Gonzalez says.

“It’s much better to get samples straight from a grower, but if that isn’t available, selecting the best possible quality nugs will give you an optimal result. Usually, the densest, most evenly shaped and properly manicured buds translate into a higher quality cannabis product and will appeal to a wider audience.’

Photograph cannabis samples straight from the grower, if possible. Image by Roxana Gonzalez.

“Also, remember to handle the buds carefully, especially if you’re planning to take macro shots of the trichomes (microscopic resin glands where the cannabinoids are stored). Trichomes are delicate and can burst when cannabis flowers come in contact with our fingers. Using a clip to hold the buds at the base of the stem is a great way to keep them in place for closeup photographs or macro shots.”

Carefully handle the buds when shooting to protect the integrity of the plant. Image by MexChriss. Gear: DJI Mavic pro drone, Hasselblad L1D-20c camera. Settings: Exposure 1/20 sec; f2.8; ISO 400.

Find Your Niche

Cannabis is a vast subject, so hone in on a particular field and think about your ideal image buyer. Researching trends not only in the cannabis industry as a whole, but also in your chosen sector will help you to create marketable photos.

Choose a particular cannabis genre when marketing your photos. Image by MexChriss.

“You have to know where to aim your images,” the team at MEX Production tells us. “For example, if you’re targeting the market for medicinal cannabis, you want to appeal to big corporations, and the photos have to be clean, with a sterile aesthetic. Since I have branched into the pharmaceutical industry, I’ve noticed that the buyers are mostly interested in laboratory photos of CBD oils as well as outdoor photos of fieldworkers on hemp fields. These are all trends I take into account.”

Do Your Research

If you’re unsure of what niche you want to pursue, absorb as much information as you can. The more you know, the more you can refine your vision. “For me, this niche is completely new. So, before shooting, I looked at dozens of websites, researched manufacturers, and read blogs and publications,” IRA_EVVA says. “I made sure to understand all the different cannabis and CBD forms, applications, packaging, and properties I could.’

“Just by reading so many articles, I immediately started dreaming up concepts for pictures and keywords. Look at manufacturers’ websites, subscribe to their newsletters, and study how they use photos in their website designs.’

“I always have a brainstorming session before any photo shoot. First, I write down the key objects I want to include — hemp leaf, bottle, test tube. In another column, I jot down some compositional approaches. In the third column, I write down colors I want to use, materials I’ll implement, or trendy visual solutions. This is how I come up with a lot of my ideas.”

Experiment

In 2020, there’s no one way to photograph cannabis, so get creative with your product shots. “I believe that in cannabis photography, in particular, it is important to experiment,” Ukrainian photographer Yarygin explains. “I would recommend shooting from different angles, experimenting with contrasting backgrounds, and using filters.’

Experiment with various angles, backgrounds, and filters when capturing your shot. Image by Yarygin.

“Find and photograph different strains and varieties, and take some macro shots, too. Highlight all the different parts of the plant: the leaves, stems, seeds, etc. Come up with different designs and use additional elements to set your work apart.”

Play with Light

“I always experiment with light sources and setups,” Gonzalez tells us. “I find the best results using softboxes with my cannabis shoots, since the trichomes are highly reflective and tend to give a dull appearance when using on-camera flash.’

“Also, photographing live plants under the grow lights can be challenging, if you are not familiar with white balance or light color temperature settings. I prefer to take my plants from under the grow lights and use my photography lights to have better control over the final result.’

“Finally, have fun with props and be creative in your approach! Cannabis, especially CBD, is becoming mainstream and can be found in an array of products, such as creams, balms, energy drinks, bath bombs, edibles, and many more.”

Add a Pop of Color

“I’ve been photographing cannabis professionally for several years, and my 2019 New Year’s resolution was to test out the market for cannabis stock,” the team at 420MediaCo tells us. “The response has been overwhelming, with over 1100 downloads in the first twelve months.” The secret? Authentic storytelling, diverse representation, and unusual compositions — including the occasional pop of color.

“I really enjoy creating color-based themes for products and flat lays,” 420MediaCo continues. “There are a limited number of ways you can shoot the plant — dried flower, joint, or smoking shot — so the challenge becomes repeatedly being able to produce fresh looks or new emotions with a visually similar product.’

“There has to be more to it. The goal is to create work that can help to visually de-stigmatize cannabis/hemp and its medical and recreational consumers, and you can do that by giving your photos your own style.’

The growing need for cannabis-related extracts creates a need for commercial content. Image by 420MediaCo. Gear: Canon 6D MKII camera, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens. Settings: Exposure 1/320 sec; f2.8; ISO 2500.

“Over the last year, we’ve also seen an increased interest in extracts and cultivation shots. Cannabis and Hemp CBD are real emerging markets, with growing needs for commercial content. Cannabis vape and macro flower images are very popular right now.”

Stay Unique

“Setting yourself apart, even if it’s just a little bit, can be a recipe for success,” nevodka tells us. “Try not to get so inspired by the work of others that you end up copying what they’ve already done. I always try to take a look at any subject from a different point of view. To do this, I’ll often read Wikipedia pages and do other research on the subject while preparing for a shoot. I try to think past the obvious and get conceptual, and that often results in meaningful shots.”

Aim for Variety

“There are still a lot of themes and niche topics within the cannabis industry that haven’t yet been covered by photographers,” IRA_EVVA adds. “It’s always worth taking a look at what has already been uploaded and trying to find subjects that don’t exist yet.’

Variety in your photography lends to satisfying various needs for different clients. Image by IRA_EVVA.

“For example, when studying manufacturers’ websites, you might notice that a certain method, application, or product hasn’t been covered. Take that idea and run with it! Also, try to use different styles and genres, from flat lay and still life to lifestyle images and portraits. It’s important to have variety in your portfolio, so you can satisfy different needs for different buyers.”

Keep it Natural

While variety and experimentation are crucial, it’s also important to stay authentic and true-to-life. “It seems to me like everyone’s getting tired of those aesthetically ‘flawless,’ artificial-looking photos that were popular years ago,” Olha Khomenko tells us. “Now, I’ve noticed that naturalness and vitality are more relevant. Buyers want photos of real people in natural and realistic settings.’

Play with light and angles when capturing your image. Image by Olha Khomenko.

“It doesn’t have to be complicated, either. Even a simple leaf can look extraordinary if it’s shot using an attractive play of light and shadow. Create an atmosphere, and don’t be afraid of a little asymmetry. Sometimes you can get an interesting shot by breaking the ‘rules,’ so feel free to use unusual combinations of props — and your imagination.”

Want to learn more about cutting-edge creative trends? Check these out.

These eight experts are reimagining cannabis imagery through stock photography. Here are their top tips for capturing authentic work with marijuana.

How I Became a Professional Cannabis Photographer

Kristen Angelo explains her journey to photographing cannabis for top publications and legal businesses.

My father was a pot farmer and he served time in Oregon in the 90s. I was 18 years old when my dad went away and I had three younger siblings between 8 and 12—it was traumatizing for my family. My dad was a mechanical engineer at Boeing and we owned property on Vashon Island, a reclusive hippie lifestyle island out here in the Pacific Northwest. We lived a great life. There are so many negative stereotypes about cannabis users and growers and my family didn’t fit any of them.

When my boyfriend got a job as a buyer for a legal marijuana company in Washington state, we travelled to farms together and he encouraged me to bring my camera along. At first I didn’t think I was very interested in cannabis, but then it became therapeutic. It made me really proud of my family and my dad. I was watching this entire social and political moment evolve in my lifetime. I remember visiting my dad in prison and asking him if he ever thought pot would be legal, and he said, “I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime.” Now it’s actually happening, and that’s exciting to me.

There’s some allure in thinking that I’m photographing a seedy underworld of drugs, but actually I feel very safe. The environments are warm. The cannabis community is tight-knit and I love getting to know the people that I’m photographing on a personal basis—their history, where they’re from, and why they’re passionate about working in the cannabis industry. They all have interesting stories and we relate. I think that’s what really clicked for me. It was an emotional investment.

I credit a lot of what I’ve been able to achieve in such a short time to social media. I started an Instagram account and started showing my work. Through that, I was able to network and build relationships with people in the industry who wanted me to come and shoot their farms. They gave me access and trusted me. I built a really strong portfolio.

A lot of the publications that I work for found me through Instagram. It was a simple as them sending me a message and being able to respond to them immediately. You also have to have a website. It’s a requirement for photographers today. You’re able to reach such a broad market if you’re online and visible.

Stock photography has been pretty successful. Right now I’m working with a company called Stock Pot Images, it’s the first stock-photo agency to specialize exclusively in cannabis-related imagery. It’s a great company, they’re really great about promoting photographers.

However, most of the stock imagery that I license happens when people contact me personally and say, “I saw your photo in a publication or on a website and I’d love to check out your portfolio because we’re a start-up looking for some images, etc.” For those occasions, I maintain a cloud-based library of over 40,000 images strictly related to cannabis and the clients can select from there.

I also shoot on location for Weedmaps so I manage the photography needs for 20-30 recreational stores around Washington state. I’ll go on site and shoot product there. My gear actually reeks like weed, to be honest with you. My camera strap has resin on the grips. It’s funny.

I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and it still works great for me. I’d love to upgrade—this guy probably has another 50,000 shutter clicks left on it to go. My primary lens is a 35mm. It’s a great storytelling lens. I “zoom with my feet” which allows me to get a lot of different perspectives. If I’m shooting something for commercial use, I’ll swap to a 50mm or 100mm macro and a lightbox. But when I’m doing storytelling work, it’s just my camera body, my 35mm and manual mode, so I can manipulate the lighting situation the way I like to shoot.

I do not recreationally use cannabis when I’m in work mode. I know a lot of people who can and who do and do it very successfully but for me personally, I feel like when I’m on the clock, I need to be on the clock 100%. Otherwise, I love edibles—I think edibles are a great way to consume. I love to microdose, I’ll eat a piece of chocolate before I sit down at my computer to edit for five hours, but if i’m going to be making phone calls or taking meetings or out in the field shooting, I prefer not to be under the influence of anything.

I would definitely say that there are types of cannabis photography that I’m not interested in taking, but if someone else loves taking those images, I don’t want to insult their creative outlet. For me, personally, I think that trying to sexualize cannabis with women is absurd. It’s kind of annoying and I’ll never shoot it. However, I’m sure it serves a purpose in some markets and if people can do it successfully, good for them.

The philosophy I follow is: if you really love it, just shoot it. Shoot it every day. Never turn down an opportunity to shoot what you love. Don’t be afraid to ask for access and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and promote yourself. That was a barrier that took me a long time to get over, before I ever entered the world of cannabis photography. Then I thought, “I’m just going to send that email. I’m going to send it to everyone. I’m going to send an email to Huffington Post and Time magazine and maybe no one will ever get it. Maybe my work won’t be good enough and no one will respond. The worst they can say is no.” But, I would say that 98% of the time, the response that I get is really flattering and really beneficial to my career.

Visit Kristen Angelo’s portfolio and follow her on Instagram @apotfarmersdaughter.

Kristen Angelo explains her journey to photographing cannabis for top publications and legal businesses.