Sales Statistics: Helping Photographers Make Wise Business Decisions

Posted on 9/5/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

After a recent article suggested that return per shoot—rather than return per image—should be used to determine which licensing structure produces the best return on investment, New York photographer Shannon Fagan pointed out that “the photographer must weigh the time [spent on] tracking such data against just going out and shooting more pictures for eventual sale.”

There is, however, no question that the more complete the data available before deciding what to shoot, the more likely the photographer is to not waste time on unproductive shoots. There is certainly no point in continuing to shoot subject matter that isn’t selling.

Most traditional agencies provide their image-identification numbers on sales reports. To track usage over time, the photographer must devise a way to track this data (for example, create and maintain a database). The photographer also needs to look up images on a given agency’s Web site, in order to visually determine why one image had greater appeal to buyers than others.

Microstock Web sites make this process considerably easier. These sites are searchable by category, and the results can be sorted by frequency of image sales. Portfolios can be viewed by ascending or descending number of downloads, highlighting best and worst sellers. The total number of sales for each image is also publicly available, making it easy for a photographer to see which subjects are in greatest demand among all work in his or her portfolio.

Such information is based on all images in the collection, so photographers can compare results with their competitors. In addition, photographers who have portfolios on several sites can easily compare results. Certain subjects may sell better on one site than on another.

This information demonstrates which shoots and which images within a particular shoot have been most productive. It also helps photographers determine which models and situations have held the greatest appeal for buyers and where to concentrate future efforts.

The photographer is not required to build complicated databases to reap this benefit. The information is completely up to date and available instantly.

In contrast, traditional sellers do very little to help their photographers figure out what to shoot or which of their images are of most interest to customers. At best, agencies supply photographers with general categories of in-demand subject matter. But the real issue is to identify the specific frequent-selling images in each category and the image qualities that appeal to customers.

Agencies have all this data at their fingertips. One would think it would be easy to make such information available to photographers, particularly since microstock portals do it. With better data, photographers would likely become more productive. Perhaps the agencies are embarrassed to show how few images actually sell, but these statistics will not improve if kept secret.

If agencies do not want to release this information to customers, why not supply it to contributors on password-protected pages? Password protection could also solve the problem of allowing one photographer to see the results of others. On the other hand, most photographers recognize that having some idea of best sellers in all categories would far outweigh the benefits of keeping individual statistics secret.

Reviewing a traditional agency’s inventory without knowing what actually sells is more likely to lead a photographer astray than be helpful. Often, agencies encourage photographers to shoot images art directors like to look at, rather than the images they actually buy. This may be good for the agency, as it gets art directors to the Web site, but it does little for the photographer who shot the image, if no one buys it.

Why aren’t traditional agencies doing as much as microstock portals to help contributors make better business decisions? Do agencies want their photographers to fail? Do they want those trying to make rational business decisions to decide that, given the risks of shooting images that do not sell, it is time to move on to some other line of work?

More and more frequently, successful photographers say that, given the oversupply in all categories, tighter editing and declining usage fees, it no longer makes economic sense to continue producing new stills. Add the need to guess what customers will want, without the benefit of any data, and more experienced shooters will move on to something else.

Copyright © 2008 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 301-251-0720, 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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