Quantity Vs. Quality: Never-Ending Debate Rages

Posted on 11/1/2007 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Quantity vs. quality is a never-ending debate topic in the stock photo industry. Based on discussions I had at the recent PACA International Conference in Las Vegas, I think we are about to see another of the periodic shifts in emphasis, with quality coming to the forefront.

Most portal operators are editing tighter and want to add fewer images to their collections. Images accepted must be of higher "quality," more contemporary and with greater production values. Some portal operators are reducing the size of their collections by throwing out images they consider to be of "bad quality". All this is aimed at making it easier for the customer to find the right image.

This is a change from the last two or three years where the focus has been on growing collections. Many creators and customers cheer this new direction, but it is important to consider the trade-offs.

When it comes to photography there is a problem in defining quality. In the abstract, art directors may say, "I'm having to wade through too much bad imagery," as several on the picture buyer panel at the conference indicated. But what is considered bad by one art director often is exactly what the next one needs.

In some cases the right image depends on expression. In others it's the color palette. In still others it's how the image fits the layout or whether it is an extreme close-up or a wider shot. Sometimes an image is considered of good quality because it is contemporary, edgy, or innovative. Such images inspire art directors and cause them to look deeper into collections, but the images they usually purchase are the "bread and butter" images (one photographer calls such images "photography 101") that clearly illustrate the point the client is trying to make. Too often, because they've seen so many of these "bread and butter" images and already have so many in their collections, portal editors reject them.

On the other hand, a group of art directors looking for the same general category of subject matter, but working in different parts of the world and with different project needs, will almost always choose different images.

Many photographers have had images rejected by one agency and accepted by another --and those accepted by agency two go on to generate significant revenue. Sometimes it is argued that the images were rejected by the first agency because it already had something similar in its files. However, too often those similar images don't end up meeting customer needs and don't sell.

This is not to say there aren't some images of such poor quality that they shouldn't be included in a collection, but editors looking to maximize sales need to be very cautious about what they reject, if it costs very little to store and make the image available for review.

Here are few things to consider when adopting a tighter editing strategy. Getty has an editing strategy, although not a tight one. Its combined RM and RF revenue for the first half of 2007 is down a little over 1% compared to the same period in 2006. Alamy does not edit, and has almost five times as many images as Getty in its collection, thus forcing buyers to go through many more images to find the right one. Yet Alamy's revenue is expected to be up 16% in 2007 compared to 2006.

iStockphoto limits the number of images any photographer can upload in a month. Meanwhile, a lot of the images from its most productive photographers go to its competitors.

Then there's the issue of specific searches. On Getty I searched for "air conditioner repairman" and found one image of a man working on a commercial unit -- nothing residential. On Corbis I found three images -- two commercial units and one home unit. Jupiterimages had the three Corbis images and nothing else. iStockphoto had 18 images from two photographers. Getty, Corbis and Jupiter probably never saw these images, but if they had several of them would probably not have met the "quality standards" of the big three. Nevertheless, these 18 images combined have been downloaded 1,865 times. Every one has sold many times. Somebody obviously wants to buy pictures of air conditioner repairmen.

On the whole, the general quality of images on Flickr is much lower than the images available in the traditional market. And yet, some customers, including big ones like Microsoft, are going to Flickr to find the images they need.

Usually when most people in the industry are focused on quality, a few will focus on quantity -- and quantity wins. When most focus on quantity, a few will focus on quality, and quality wins. And we can be sure that whichever way the trends take us, the pendulum will shift.

Copyright © 2007 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Ted Spiegel Posted Nov 2, 2007
    As usual, we are all informed by the yield of Jim's inquiring mind. Here's a what if -
    What if picture agency management set up distance-learning on-line workshops for their client's photo researchers. The focus would be on how to find and use productive key words, metadata tools, image-search shortcuts. Combine this with a cost analysis of new storage servers that could support dense collections and you would keep arcane imagery alive awaiting its day in print. Researchers would wade through more picutres in less time if they understood each collections productive search techniques.Corbis recently sold one of my environmental remediation pictures for $5000 and I think it was the first sale for that particular shot in the ten years its been in the collection.

  • Ted Spiegel Posted Nov 2, 2007
    In re my last comment - Perhaps Bruce Bauman and the Kalish photo editing workshop world could be called in to aid stock photo agency's clients in web-search techniques?

  • Tom Morgan Posted Nov 2, 2007
    I think this story demonstrates the enormous value of skilled picture researchers, whose business it is to mediate between the client and the supplier, to find out what each client REALLY wants and to know how each supplier REALLY works. With regards the search for quality, it seems reasonable to suspect that clients who go to Flickr often do so on the assumption that the investment they are making, trawling through 'chaff' is less than the investment in acquiring 'wheat' from an edited and well-managed collection. The researching and editing process costs money and, ultimately, the clients are now empowered to decide where to make that spend, in other words, how to manage that overhead - either in-house/contracted-in by employing researchers and editors or outsorced via professional picture researchers and the better-run agencies and image sources. But inevitably, they will still have to make the investment, and the way in which they make this investment will depend upon their ability or willingness to take a longer-term view of their own businesses as image-buyers. The key question for picture buyers seems to me to be this: should they invest in building in-house expertise or in building a satisfying relationship with someone who already has it? There are similar contracting/overhead issues with risk-management and model-releases, and the question of quality goes to ancilliary services as well as image libraries' own products.

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