How Well Do Old Images Sell?

Posted on 5/14/2014 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Recently a subscriber asked, “how much newly produced professional content is licensed each year compared to content that is licensed more than a year after it was first made available for purchase?”

That’s a great question! I have no idea and as far as I know no agency collects such data is an organized way. On the other hand it could be of tremendous value in helping agencies better understand what their customers need and in directing photographers as to what to shoot.

The only company that might be collecting this type of information is Shutterstock. They expend more effort than anyone else I know in collecting and analyzing data. On the other hand if they are analyzing their data in this manner, I think they would be encouraging at least some of their photographers to act in a different way and I don’t see that happening.

I’m pretty sure Getty is not looking at how new images are selling compared to old because they have so many technological problems that need immediate attention that anything like this would certainly be on the back, back burner.

What Is Needed?

In order to get a useful understanding of how well new images are selling compared to old, and how long a new image can keep working if it doesn't make immediate sales, an agency would need to record 4 separate bits of information on each image licensed.

    1 – The date when the image was added to the collection,
    2 – The date when it was licensed,
    3 – The position it was in the search return order when it was chosen (was it the 50th, 149th or 300th), and
    4 – What were the exact keywords used to find that particular image.
With that information it would be possible to search for all images licensed in six months or a year from the date they were put into the collection and determine the number of times a particular image was licensed and the percentage of total revenue those images generated compared to the revenue images that had been in the collection longer generated.

By looking at the positions they were in when they were found by a search the agency could determine how long it takes for images of a particular subject to get buried so deep in the search return that they are never seen. Certain popular and very generic subjects that everyone shoots like “senior couples on the beach” or “woman using laptop computer in office” will probably disappear in a month or two if they haven’t been licensed in that period of time. In most cases the ones that are licensed immediately are kept near the top of the search return order for a little while longer. That means that the ones that aren’t licensed immediately get pushed down even faster.

But to make any kind of useful judgment about whether new or old images are more in demand the agency has to look at the exact keywords that were used to find older images in particular, and in some cases even younger images.

How Will That Help?

Consider. You’ve got a customer who is looking for someone with a disability. But, in fact this customer wants someone with “multiple sclerosis” or “spina bifida.” In most big collections there are lots of “disability” images. So if that’s the keyword used new images may get pushed down very fast. But there are probably very few with the keyword “spina bifida.” You can’t just throw that keyword on any disability image. More than likely there are very few people shooting stock images of people who actually have “spina bifida.” Therefore, if those keywords are used that image is likely to come up near the top of the search for a long time if the customer uses that keyword and not just “disability.”

But, maybe there are very few people who want that specialized subject matter. So maybe it is not worth shooting a lot more of that subject matter. But I don’t think anyone is collecting the data needed to determine which specialized subjects are in great enough demand to make it worth while for a photographer to go to the trouble to go out and produce images of a particular subject matter. It they are, they certainly are not passing that information on to photographers.

We talk about proper keywording. But it is not enough for photographers just to add every keyword they can think of to the images they upload. They’ve got to know which keywords buyers are using when they search for certain types of imagery, and how frequently they use those words. Otherwise they put in a lot of words that just tend to make a lot of searches less useful because they bring up images that are not really what the customer wants.

I can understand why the big agencies don’t want to share this data, but by not sharing they are hurting themselves. If the agencies were willing to examine the data being used to search for images in various categories they might, on their own, be able to go through images in their collection in specific categories and identify images where certain keywords could be legitimately added. That might improve sales. Of course that probably means more manpower to actually look at images and most agencies aren’t prepared to spend any money on that.

The reason I say no one is doing this is that no one is doing anything to effectively use such information. The whole focus is on getting larger and larger collections. In most cases the photographers are re-doing the same things they have done before, or shooting the same things everyone else has shot. All that does is shorten the useful life or all images.

Images Sell Less Frequently

There is some interesting information in Shutterstock’s Q1 2014 report. I have done an analysis of the percent of images in their collection that were licensed quarter-by-quarter since Q4 2011. In Q1 2012 it was 94%. It has steadily declined to 80% this last quarter. This assumes that every image sold once. We know, of course, that many images were licensed multiple times and probably the majority of images were not licensed at all. So clearly the actual percentage is much lower despite their huge number of downloads. But it is also clear that they are growing their collection much faster than they are growing sales. In the long run, I don’t think that is a good thing.

Maybe the agencies think, “If we keep adding more images to our collection one day some photographer will stumble on that subject matter that a customer wants, but that we don’t have much of. Then we’ll be able to make another sale.” If that’s the thinking then it is not working very well.

Copyright © 2014 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:  


  • Jaak Nilson Posted May 15, 2014

    I add two links about keywording. It was a topic in Microstock Expo 2013.
    Top 2000 Image-Buyer’s Searches vs Keyword Popularity

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