Big Data: Is Anyone In The Stock Industry Paying Attention?

Posted on 11/18/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

The buzz word in the world today is “Big Data” and how it is going to improve everything. But in the stock photo business are the major agencies are really examining the data they have collected? If they were I think they would be more worried about their future and doing a lot of things differently. I don’t see that happening.

Recently, I’ve been talking to a lot of very experienced -- and at one time very successful – stock photographers mostly in their 50s and 60s. It is amazing how much of the revenue earned by these individuals – almost to a person – has declined in the last 10 to 15 years. Almost none of them are currently earning even 15% of what they were earning in 2007. For many the percentage is less.

For most the declines started in 2000 and got worse after 2007. Most continued to produce new images for a while, but obviously such steep declines in revenue make it impossible to sustain a business for very long. Most have moved on to some other way to earn most of their living.

One of the surprising things is that several of these photographers are still producing significant quantities of new images. They just aren’t making those images available for licensing through the stock agencies they worked with in the past. Why would they do this?
    1 – Once an image has been captured and stored on a hard drive there is a significant additional cost for the photographer to correct the digital file, keyword and go through the process of submitting the digital file to an agency to make it available for licensing. Given today’s rates and sales volumes, it is unlikely they will ever recover these additional costs let alone realize a profit from having produced the image.

    2 – Many are simply unwilling to make their images available to customers for today’s low rates. In some cases, they continue to make private sales to the few customers who are willing to pay higher rates.

    3 – Some are so upset with piracy that they just don’t want to put their images into the commercial market. A French stock photographer told me that he had a picture that was used full page in the Telegraph newspaper in London for which he got a $20 royalty. Sometime later of the web search engines uncovered more than 100 web sites that had published the whole text of the story and his picture. He received nothing extra for all those Internet uses.

    4 – Once there was the feeling that the agency was the photographer’s partner. Now, agencies show no interest in “representing” the interests of individual creators. Their total focus is in maximizing the agency’s own profits.

Who Cares? Does Anyone Need These Photographers?

Given all the new people submitting images does anyone need these dinosaurs of the stock photo business?

It is interesting to consider the wealth of experience these “dinosaurs” have in producing what customers want to buy, and in knowing how to produce such images efficiently.

For several years I have been tracking single image downloads (not including subscription) of 430 of iStock’s most productive contributors. I estimate that these contributors are responsible for about one-third of all images licensed from iStock since its founding. However, their images represent only 2,772,856 of probably close to 50 million images in the iStock collection. This would indicate that these contributors have a much better understanding of how to produce what customers want to buy than the average contributor. It is also interesting that an increasing number, on a semi-annual basis, have stopped producing and many are pulling images.

Based on these numbers, I feel confident that if I had access to less than 1,000 of the iStock contributors with the most single image downloads in their iStock careers we would find that they represent well above 50% of iStock’s total sales. iStock has more than 100,000 contributor so the images of less than 1% have generated more than 50% of iStock’s revenue. I don’t think anyone at iStock is doing this analysis. If they were they would be doing some things differently.

I suspect the ratio of major image producers to all the rest would be about the same with other major agencies.

Do Customers Only Want New Images?

One of the arguments the majors make for adding new contributors and more and more new images is that customers want current images. I’m not sure that is the case. First many of the older images of these best selling photographers still sell. Has anyone done an analysis of which older images sell frequently and why? A significant part of the revenue decline is due to lower pricing, not decreased sales.

Another big part of declining sales is that these older images are no longer seen. We know that the average customer will not review more than 500 images before changing search parameters or going somewhere else. Does it make a difference if there are 5,000 or 10,000 images returned with a search if the customers are only going to look at the first 500?

Newer images tend to be given preference in the search-return-order regardless or quality.

Is anyone using the data collected to determine which images have at least been looked at by a customer in the last year or two? My guess is that a huge percentage of the older images are never reviewed, anymore. Are some of the non-seem images exactly what a customer would want to buy, if customers had a chance to see them?

I know of a couple photographers who have pulled images produced 5 or 10 years earlier from the collections that represent their work. At one time these images were good sellers, but have had no sales in the last two or three years. The photographers re-submitted these image giving them new upload dates and immediately the images started selling again.

Of the photographers I’ve talked to recently a number of them shoot nature, wildlife and travel. I don’t think such pictures go out of date quickly and yet their sales have dropped dramatically. I think the decline is due to the images not being seen.

Has anyone analyzed the data of, at least, those who were formerly top producers to determine what is happening?

What’s The Answer?

So even it the agencies know what is happening what could they possibly do to solve the problem?

If they know which images haven’t been seen by anyone in the last two or three years. I think it would make sense to:
    1 – Put them in a separate database and offer them at a discounted price.
    2 – Take the images that had been licensed previously as single images (not via a subscription), particularly if they have sold well (10 or 20 times), and put them in a separate database, possibly at a premium price. The trick is to build select collections where customers can easily review “everything” in the collection on particular subjects.

    3 – Return images that are no longer being reviewed to the photographer. In this way the photographer would know which images are not being seen and might determine that with revised keywording the image could have new life. Or, the photographer might decide that a different distributor might have better luck with the image.
    4 – It would be particularly important for agencies that are the exclusive representative of photographers to return those images that they are no longer showing to customers. To hold that photographer’s work hostage and out of the market is totally unfair and unreasonable. Holding such work out of the market simply causes many formerly productive photographers to stop producing.

    Some say that some of these images that have not been seen may be “sisters” of images that have sold. If later, there is a request for exclusive use of the image that had been selling the agency would be unable to license the exclusive since it no longer had control of the sisters.

    However, given the infrequency of demand for exclusives, the relatively low prices for most exclusives, and recent willingness of customers to do exclusive deals for RF images that some former customers still have right to continue using, it seems highly unlikely that losing the potential for exclusive sales in much of a risk for the photographer. In any event, it should be up to the photographer to make this decision and hot the agency’s right to hold the photographer hostage.
One photographer said, “I believe that the stock agencies are digging their own graves by underbidding each other.  Photographers should get out of agencies and not work for peanuts. Stock photography does not earn money for most creators, anymore.  If you have to go out on your dime to get images, you will have a loss.”

Copyright © 2016 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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