444 GETTING IMAGES SEEN
December 12, 2001
I'm getting more frequent call from very experienced stock photographers who can't get enough
of their imagery where it can be seen by customers. They are trying to figure out what to do.
When they send new submissions to their agencies almost nothing is accepted. Several
photographers have told me that a few years ago when they would make a tightly edited
submission of 400 images they might get 30% to 90% of the images accepted. Now, out of a 400
image submissions of similar quality they might get 3 to 5 images accepted.
In addition, huge quantities of previously selected and filed images are now being returned to
these photographers. A significant number of the returned images had been good sellers in the
past. Now the number of images these photographers have available for licensing has been
drastically reduced. It has long been a "rule" in the stock industry that the more images a
photographer has available for review by customers, the greater that photographer's income is
likely to be.
Stock incomes for these photographers have dropped significantly.
Some of the leading shooters with major agencies tell me their incomes are down 30% to 40%
from what they were three to four years ago. Other photographers tells us that their current
incomes from their major agencies are only 10% to 20% of what they were at their peaks in the
Does this mean customers no longer want the kind of imagery these photographers produced so
successfully in the past? NO! Does this mean that today's customers will only use RF
imagery? NO! It simply means that editing strategies of some agencies have undergone
fundamental changes in the past few years, and much of the imagery customers want to buy is no
longer being shown.
First, let me debunk the standard argument that this fall-off in sales is because everyone is
using RF. Currently the total RF revenue worldwide is about 15% to 20% of all stock photo
revenue. That means that 80% to 85% of the dollars generated from the sale of stock photos is
for Rights Protected images. And, the overall worldwide stock revenue is only down very
slightly from what it was a few years ago. There is still a huge demand for Rights Protected
To deal with the issue of whether the kind of imagery produced in the past will still sell,
let me outline my personal experience.
My imagery is mostly concentrated in the business and lifestyle areas, and much of it might be
thought to be easily replaceable by Royalty Free. My stock income in 2001 is down 7% from what
it was in 2000. Overall, my stock sales in 2001 are about 1/3rd of what they were in 1996.
But, it is important to note that I have not produced a new stock image in over four years.
All the images in my files are at least four years old, or older. These older images are still
selling. Not as well as they did in 1996, but selling.
More significant is what has happened to various segments of my stock photo marketing. (I have
always pursued a diversified strategy and put my images with many agencies.)
In 1996 my income from FPG, Stone and WestLight (now Corbis) were my 1st, 2nd and 4th best
selling agencies. They represented 39% of my total stock income. In 2001 the income from these
three agencies was 10% of what it was in 1996. Certainly there are many factors that affected
this. I'd stopped producing new work, never had many images in the catalogs, and RF was
certainly having some impact on my sales volume.
However, it is worth looking at what was happening at my other agencies, all of which are much
smaller than the big internationally known companies. On average, sales for the five year
period are off only 60%, not 90% as is the case with the big guys. Also, sales from some of
these smaller agencies are better than others. Sales through Stock Connection (which has been
heavily focused on digital marketing throughout the period) are only down 30% for the five
My conclusion is that while sales are down from what they were in 1996, and are unlikely to
return to those levels no matter how much I would ramp up production, there is still
significant demand for the images I have produced in the past. The key is to get those images
where they can be seen by potential customers. That means working with some different editors.
Why Have So Many Editors Changed Their Strategy?
The primary reason for the change is that the major companies have made decisions to make
most, if not all, of the images they are prepared to sell, available online. There are huge
upfront costs in doing this. Scanning to a certain extent, but mostly keywording. Given the
cost involved this strategy has necessitated limiting the number of images they show to what
they perceive to be the "high demand" subject matter.
What Should Photographers Do?
Recognize that there probably no longer remains a single agency that is prepared to
effectively market EVERYTHING you produce. In that past, that was the theory behind the big
multi-national agencies. And, it worked for a many photographers for a long time.
Now, those big agencies have decided that they only want to represent a very select few of the
images any photographer produces. No one is out there saying, "We will effectively repesent
everything you produce, worldwide."
Find Other Outlets - Given the above, in order for any photographer to be
successful, he or she must adopt a NEW strategy for marketing. If a given agency will only
take some of the work then the photographer must find some other way to market the rest of the
Stop beating your head against a wall. Give up trying to convince the big guys to return to
their old marketing strategies. It's not going to happen. Accept these big agencies for what
Diversify - Get the images the big guys won't accept, or have discarded, into other
venues where customers can find them. Concentrate on venues that offer online search. There is
dramatic growth in the use by picture buyers of online search engines to find images.
Keywording - Pay attention to keywording. Effective keywording is critical if
images are to be found online. Keywording is time consuming, and thus costly. No one has come
up with an effective shortcut. Everyone who has a shortcut is basically doing poor keywording
and their images are not being found as frequently when the buyers do searches. (See Story 455
for more information about keywording.)
Keywording is a learned skill. Someone who has an aptitude for keywording and who does it on a
regular basis can usually do a better job than someone who only does it occasionally. If
someone else does the keywording for you, review the images when they are online. Provide
suggestions for other words that are important. Work with people who will accept your input.
Existing File Focus on marketing your existing file. In the short term, focus
your time, energy and dollars, not on shooting new work, but in getting the work you have
already produced where it can be seen. The images you already have will generate income if
buyers can find them.
Trust Your Instincts - If you have been selling stock images for a while, and know
that certain types of imagery have sold in the past, don't let some novice tell you those
images won't sell in the future. Trust your instincts. Continue to produce and update the
kinds of things you know have sold in the past.
Don't assume that just because there are RF images of the same subject type, that higher cost
Rights Protected images that fulfill the same requirements will no long sell. This is not the
case in today's market. Rights Protected images may not sell as frequently as they did in the
past, but when they do sell it may be for a lot more money.
Editors - Every editor has a different sense as to what will sell. Editors have
different life experiences and different cultural biases. Most editors have a customer base
for whom they are editing that buys the kind of imagery the editor chooses. The more editors
making selections from your body of work the better.
More Control - In the new online environment photographers will be able to exercise
more control over which images are made available. While they may still want to work through
various agents who have special relationships with small groups of customers and provide
custom services to those image buyers, the photographer will have a lot more say about the
images that are initially made available for viewing. It will be easier for the photographer
to track when sales have been made. If an agent does not pay promply it will be easy for the
photographer to restrict that agent's right to make future sales of the photographer's images
and to easily transfer those rights to someone else.
In many cases the photographer will be able to have more input on the pricing of the use.
Site Marketing - Be concerned about how any site will be marketed. It is not enough
simply to create a searchable database. There must be strategy for letting potential buyers
know that the site exists. Buyers must be reminded frequently of a site's existance, and of
Trends If you must continue to shoot, shoot what you know from experience will
sell. Don't chase trends. The classic subjects, updated to a certain degree are still in
demand, and will sell.
Customer Service - Customer service is not just 24/7 availability and full
automation. It also includes easy access to helpful humans when the automation is not working,
or not an adequate solution. It is not a phone system that takes 15 minutes of clicking
through menus before you get to a human who knows something. It includes easy access to
someone who has knowledge about the subject. It is helping the customer find what they need,
even if it is not online. It is solving the customers problems in a friendly and timely
Often smaller agencies are much more effective at providing this personal service than the big
call centers. This is where specialists, dealing with a small specialized group of customers.
Photographers need to have a lot of specialists looking at, and showing, their work. This will
be much easier than it has been in the past. It no longer requires having dupes everywhere.
All that is needed is a centralized digital database and lots of specialists accessing it.
What Are The Alternatives?
Look for independent stock agencies to expand their relationships with other agencies that can
help them sell into specialized markets. In addition to independent stock agency web sites the
following are some of the options to consider.
For a list of stock agency web sites go to: