How Important is Image Uniqueness?

Posted on 2/15/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

In “Handshakes, Challenges and Success as a Stock Photographer,” John Lund argues that photographers should shoot the old tried-and-true concepts but in a new and different way. Lund is unquestionably one of the best in the business of taking a business concept and creating something totally new, different and exciting that makes one say, “Wow, I wish I had thought of that.”

Lund says: “As stock photographers, as well as artists, we must take old concepts, like the dreaded business handshake, and bring them to life in new and exciting ways.” He illustrates his article with one of the most unique, but certainly also very useful handshake shots you’ll ever see. He argues that when the photographer creates an image that is great and distinctly different, it should be placed in a rights-managed collection, because then there is the chance that it will be licensed for a high fee. However, he acknowledges that not all rights-managed images are licensed for high fees. (Some are currently being licensed by major stock agencies for less than $10.)

Photographers who want to earn a living from their work must focus on the tried-and-true concepts, because those are the subjects in demand, the ones that sell. A photograph that is different just for the sake of being different and cannot be clearly related to a universal concept usually will not sell.

Photographers should always endeavor to create images that are new and unique without losing sight of the basic business or family life concept they are trying to illustrate. On the other hand, how often will a given photographer be able to pull this off? What should they do if they cannot come up with that totally unique idea? Should they do the best they can, or not shoot until they can develop that totally unique idea?   

Ansel Adams once said, “Twelve significant photographs in one year is a good crop.” Technological improvements since his time may have made it easier for photographers to produce a greater volume of “significant” images. At the same time, the number of photographers producing competing images is much greater. Lund believes that a few hundred really good images over a period of three to five years could be enough to be successful in today’s market. I probably produced fewer than 12 “significant” photos a year, if any, at the peak of my career during the late 80s and early 90s. Nevertheless, I made a good living shooting stock during that period. But I certainly do not have enough unique ideas to successfully compete in today’s market if being able to create unique images is the only standard.

Handshakes to handshakes

It is instructive to take one concept—handshakes, to follow Lund’s example—and understand what the competition is like in the market today.

On, there are 6,952 handshake pictures, and 2,361 are licensed as rights-managed. Unfortunately, how often any of these images have sold is not public information. In the microstock arena, iStockphoto has 7,611 handshake images; Dreamstime has 9,469; and Fotolia has 10,489 (in some cases, the same images are on all three microstock sites).

What is more interesting is the number of times the top-selling images on the microstock sites have been downloaded. The iStock best seller has been downloaded more than 7,200 times. Amazingly, the top 100 images have been purchased a combined total of more than 221,000 times since iStock was founded, but most of them in the last four years. (Given the way iStock reports its sales figures, this number is an interpolation.)

Lest you think that all you have to do is shoot a handshake picture to sell something on iStock, keep in mind that almost 22% of the 7,611 images have never sold, and a large percentage of the remaining ones have sold only once or twice.

Another amazing fact is that 16 of the top 100 handshake photos were taken by Yuri Arcurs, the top-selling microstock shooter. On iStock, those 16 images have been downloaded a combined total of more than 46,300 times and represent about 6% of Arcurs’ total iStock downloads. (The same photos are available on other microstock sites as well.)

When comparing the images in iStock’s top 100 with John Lund’s, the former are much more commonplace, ordinary and straightforward. However, to say that the iStock images are ordinary is not meant in any way to denigrate their quality, which, in my judgment, is excellent. The photographers have simply decided to produce easy to read, straightforward illustrations rather than striving for something extremely unique.

Judging by the sales of these iStock images, there are many customers out there who are interested in the simple and commonplace approach. In addition, they don’t seem to care at all if someone else has used the image: the 100th most used image has been downloaded more than 900 times.

In comparison, the top 100 Fotolia images have been downloaded more than 43,000 times. Included in this group are 14 images from the Infinite Collection, for which the number of downloads are not reported. Thus, the total number of downloads is certainly higher, but there is no way of judging by how much. The most downloaded image has been sold 2,716 times, and the 100th has been downloaded 165 times.

The top 100 sellers for Dreamstime have been downloaded 11,164 times, with the leading seller downloaded 459 times, with the 100th downloaded 58 times.

These figures certainly bring into question how important it really is to create images that are recognized as “significant” or “great art” in order to satisfy the needs of the market.

Copyright © 2010 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:  


  • john lund Posted Feb 15, 2010
    Holey Moley! Jim, fascinating info...the more I learn the less I know!



  • Bill Bachmann Posted Feb 15, 2010
    Handshakes may be an exception in this concept.... but I would much prefer to have many, many of my rights managed images sell "only" 300-500 times (but at least 30 of them have sold for a total of over $100,000 in sales --- EACH) than have an image downloaded in Microstock over 2000 times for $2 per download (of which I may make 50 cents each time it "sells" --- and I use that word loosely when it gets $2-4 per "sale").

    Do the math... and also I feel a LOT more professional & artistically inspired selling them for good fees than I would giving them away!!

    Try to stress that, Jim!

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