Paul Cowan - traveler, cook and microstocker

Paul Cowan joined our community in 2004 and although his interest in photography emerged during his college days, it blossomed when he discovered microstock. He has an eye for successful stock concepts and his view is definitely unique, backed by an innate talent for stock photography. He appreciates old photographic equipment and the countryside. He's into studying nature and composition and confesses to "shooting whatever he feels like shooting without necessarily following trends". His is the portfolio of a traveler with many stories to tell, of a cooking passionate with interesting recipes to share, of a photographer who's quintessentially a microstocker.

A few words about Paul Cowan. What do you like doing when you're not photographing?

I used to be the editor of a daily newspaper. That put me under considerable stress for many years and encouraged a somewhat cynical view of life, so now I want to develop a more harmonious and tranquil appreciation of the world.

I like to travel, I enjoy studying nature and studying art and composition. I love the countryside. I also spend a lot of time playing with old photographic equipment – professional quality film gear is so cheap today that it's ridiculous. Consequently I have a Leica, a couple of medium format Mamiya TLRs and a large format Crown Graphic among a lot of other stuff. Getting the best from film is an education. I also firmly believe there is a film “look”, which has its own appeal. I don't have many film photos in my portfolio but I've noticed that those I do have tend to sell better than average.

What is your background in photography? Were you formally educated or are you self taught?

I'm the quintessential microstock photographer. I got interested in photography at university in the 1970s but didn't pursue it beyond making family snaps until digital SLRs arrived. Then someone suggested I might be able to make some money in microstock from my new camera so I uploaded some pictures and it just took off. After a few years it became my job.

You've been in this industry for quite some time. If you are to look back on your past and actual sales, are there any major changes in the buyers' tastes or image selection you can spot? You have a few "timeless"images in your portfolio so what's their secret?

Food and landscapes do not change in the way that fashions do, so they have the potential to endure. I'm not really very commercial, I shoot what I feel like shooting without trying to follow the latest fashion. I make enough to fund my lifestyle so I approach stock in a very relaxed way – I'm no longer hungry for fame and fortune the way some people are. I'm lazy, or maybe I should say I'm semi-retired.

Aladdin's lamp was one of my first stock shots and still gets occasional sales. If the flame looks real, that's because it was. I envisaged the blank area created by the flame as providing space for copy in a pantomime advert. It pays to have an idea of how an image can work for a designer.

Fruit is a timeless subject but as it is easy to obtain the competition is stiff. Even so, a good shot can still sell.

Do you have a favorite photographer of all times and why do you like him/her so much?

I've got tremendous admiration for Sebastiao Salgado. Not only are his compositions and use of light fabulous, the humanitarian aspect of his work makes it of great social importance. It's a paradox to see suffering and death presented so beautifully but by being art as well as reportage the message becomes more enduring.

You have very many yummy food images in your portfolio. What is your ideal setup for foods shots? Do you rely on natural or artificial light? Which one do you prefer?

It's a myth that there is a difference between natural and artificial lighting. Any differences are a result of the way you handle it. Get artificial lighting right and nobody will know it isn't natural – but that comment tells you that a natural light effect is the ideal you have to work towards.

I spend most of the year in Arabia, where the light is very harsh and windows are tinted to try to cut out glare, so natural light isn't really an option. I generally use flash with a reflector. I may use backlighting through a polythene table to create isolations or a second flash for “bulb lighting” to fill shadows.

For my first few years in stock I used small desk lamps with a white paper background and exposures were often several seconds long. I've got shots from those days that still sell quite well. As long as the white balance, lighting ratios etc. are correct it really doesn't matter what the source of light is.

Of all the various cuisines you've experienced, name a few favorite dishes and spices. Also, of all those delicious dishes you've photographed, did you actually taste them all?

I cook and eat pretty much everything I shoot. It's been a long-running culinary adventure and I've lear#ned as much about cooking as I have about photography. Often, the simplest recipes are the best. I recently discovered lemon chicken, which is superb. Traditional English steak and kidney pudding take me back to my granny's kitchen. Cajun seasoning is fabulous; so are garlic salt and balsamic vinegar – all in their right place, of course.

We see that you travel quite a lot. Have you reduced your gear load throughout the years? What's your usual setup (camera/lens/accessories) when traveling?

My standard set-up is a Canon 5D MkII with a 24-70 f2.8L and the 70-200 f2.8L, a polarising filter, a flash and a set of macro tubes. I'm quite likely to be carrying a film camera, too: a Pentacon Six, a Mamiya TLR or maybe a little folding rangefinder from the 1940s. I started off shooting stock with a Digital Rebel and the kit lens, so things have got a lot heavier.

Which country you liked best and why? Which country you had most fun taking pictures in? And which country you would recommend for photographers in terms of landscapes, topics, light etc?

Every country has wonderful opportunities to offer to a photographer. Of course, Greece and Italy have fabulous landscapes and architecture and sometimes the most amazing light, but there are photographic opportunities all around us. It's just a question of seeing.

You've seen many places, different types of people and cultures so we were wondering: have you ever had an unusual incident due to cultural differences? Is it difficult for a photographer to adjust to such differences?

The most difficult trip was a Press tour to South Korea. Apart from nearly giving the manager of one of their companies apoplexy by our group being late and holding up lunch (“What would my wife say, what would my wife say?” the poor man kept repeating), their obsession with feeding us kimchi – cabbage rotted down with fish and hot peppers – at every meal was awful. Foreigners often become addicted to kimchi if they live in Korea but the initial reaction to it is revulsion.

A piece of advice for beginners.

For beginners in microstock, think about how your image might be useful to an advertiser. For beginners in photography, study lighting.

We'd like to thank Paul Cowan for taking the time to answer our questions.

Photo credits: Paul Cowan.

Your article must be written in English

April 12, 2012


Hi Paul - A name from the past and I see a fellow photographer, your talents are boundless! Would be good to chat and catch up on the years, not sure we've actually corresponded since you were at the Nottingham Post (or somewhere similar). By the way, really like your work. You can check out what I'm up to (professionally)and get contact details at


February 20, 2012


Thanks, I used some of your work on my blog named relatieproblemen. It's a dutch site but I'm sure images speak for itself. :)

February 05, 2012


I have been admiring your images since I joined Dreamstime, Paul. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, and providing us your insights.

February 03, 2012


Amazing, great man!

February 02, 2012


So much talent, so little time! I love how you gave this pictures life. It feels as if I'm in the image. Thank you for the post! We need to get healthy to live longer. Here are foods that gives us the nutrients needed for healthy living:

February 02, 2012


Beautiful words !

February 02, 2012


Cool! I moved to Qatar a year ago! Maybe we could meet for a coffee or something! It would be my pleasure! ;)

February 02, 2012


Yes, Mani, I'm still here.

February 01, 2012


Great to read such an interview with a successful photographer!
To Paul... Are you still in Qatar?

January 31, 2012


Hi, Jamie. I guess we've been hanging out in different forums (fora? I think not!) since the one we used to haunt got too irritating. Besides, you've been busy producing fabulous images to outsell me three-times over and I've been busy larking around :)
- Paul

January 31, 2012


We definitely fell out of touch... didn't we? Very nice to catch up on how you are doing through reading your interview. :) -Jaimie

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