Subjects In Demand

Posted on 3/22/2003 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



March 22, 2003

I am frequently asked, "What should I be shooting?" "What subjects are in demand?" "What sells?"
Part of the answer is that the basic subjects have not changed in a decade or so. The only thing
that changes is the constant need for more contemporary and creative illustrations of the classic
concepts and subjects. However, there is more demand for some subjects than others and
understanding the the subjects that are in greatest demand is useful information for
photographers who want to produce stock images. One of the best ways to determine this demand is
to look at the categories of RF discs the major producers are offering customers.

These companies have extensive research departments that seek to determine what buyers want.
They do this by analyzing past requests and sales. They produce RF discs on themes. It is highly
unlikely that they will produce many discs on themes that buyers have never requested or
purchased. They may occasionally mis-guess on a particular theme or subject, but they will not
continue to produce more discs on the same theme if the first discs don't sell well. By
identifying these themes photographers can discover the subjects both RF and RM buyers are

Determining the preponderance of a subject in a particular collection can give you an idea of the
relative importance of certain subjects to other types of imagery. RF collections need to appeal
to the broad base of picture users and thus should contain a good sample of all the subjects
picture buyers might ask for. If we look at collections that have been developing over a period
of time we will probably find some of almost every type of subject that has ever been requested.
If our sample is large enough, it is likely that the amount of images available on any particular
subject, relative to the whole, will have some relation to the frequency with which that subject
is requested in the marketplace.

As I examine the subjects offered as RF, I can find almost no subject that regularly sells for
commercial uses that isn't offered to some degree as RF. (Recognize that this statement does not
take into consideration photos of personalities, hard news and very specific places and events
that are subjects not normally available as RF.)

While understanding the subjects most frequently requested is important, Rick Becker-Leckrone,
formerly production director for Corbis Digital Stock, points out that the major subject areas
are not necessarily where more images are needed. His approach is to look for closely related
"holes" in a particular collection and produce, or offer to produce, images that fill those

Method Of Examination

To determine what the RF companies are selling I have gone to the web sites of several of the
major producers of RF imagery and examined their disc titles. When RF first started a company
might put out a disc called "Business" that would cover a wide range of topics. Recently,
however, the trend has been to develop discs with fewer images and much more targeted themes.
Consequently, by looking at disc titles and the disc cover in most cases the buyer can get a good
idea of the theme of the images that will be found on the disc.

For photographers a good way to find out what is in demand, and to develop a shooting plan,
is to go to the web sites of some of
the major RF suppliers, and look at the categories of imagery offered. Once you find a category
of interests, look at the images offered on the discs in that category to get a more specific
idea of how the title theme was executed. Then try to produce new and different images that illustrate
the same theme. (I need to make the point here that attempting to copy images is a violation of
copyright, but using general image concepts and contemporary strategies for lighting, camera
angle, color temperature, etc. to develop your own images is not a copyright violation.)

As you produce images recognize that the editors of the various brands are well aware of what
they already have in their collections and what their competition offers. They are unlikely to be
interested in images that duplicate what they already have. However, they may be
interested in adding images that cover themes their competitors are showing, but to date they
have not produced. Extensive research before you shoot may be much more important than
shooting what you feel.

Brands Examined

I looked at the web sites of the following brands:

Getty Images*   


Digital Vision   









    *Getty has recently divided the PhotoDisc brand into three separate price levels - Blue, Green
    and Red - and rolled the offering from Eyewire and Artville into these new brands.

I found a combined total of 2474 discs from these brands. Some of the early discs had several
hundred images on a disc, but most discs produced recently have 100 or less images. This group of
discs probably represents 200,000 or more individual images.

General Categories

By categorizing these discs we can get a sense of the relative importance of certain broad
subject areas. The broadest category grouping might be as follows:



Abstracts, Backgrounds, Objects (1)   




Concepts (2)   






Food & Beverage   


Health and Beauty   


Healthcare and Medical   








People (3)




Science, Technology and Computers


Sports, Fitness and Recreation


Transportation (4)




Wildlife and Animals


Other Misc. (5)


    (1) The backgrounds and objects often relate to one of the other categories as well.

    (2) At least 48 of the Concepts discs relate to Business, Lifestyles or Sports.

    (3) Recognize that some of the People images may relate to other categories such as Lifestyle,
    Business, Sports or Healthcare but for the purposes of the discs they are grouped together as
    more generic people images. Many of these images may be close-ups.

    (4) Transportation may also be considered part of Industry as it relates to the shipping of

    (5) This includes: Cities, Entertainment, Flags, Maps, Retro and Social Issues.

It should be recognized that assigning a category to a disc has its limitations because the
images on a given disc often fall into more than one category. On the other hand, when there has
been a conscious effort to focus on a single narrow theme understanding what that theme is can be
of value. There are lots of narrower themes within each of the broader categories above. To
identify "holes" in the coverage it is necessary to spend some time examining the imagery already
available in a specific narrow theme. The disc titles alone can often give you ideas for themes
that need to be illustrated.

Another way to approach this analysis rather than looking at discs is to do a keyword search on a
site using any of the category words outlined here. While that should get you to the images, I
believe the disc titles often provide useful information when trying to identify themes.

Business, Finance and Industry

Of the 2474 disc at least 671 of them relate to Business, Finance and Industrial situations. This
clearly points up the importance of photographing the work environment in stock photography. A
high percentage of these images will include people, but there is also a need for certain still
life elements that illustrate various aspects of the work environment. There are 10 discs of
objects used in the business environment and 32 discs of Business Concepts.

Some of the Business areas where there is the heaviest concentration of discs are: Technology and
Computers (62), Finance (56), Communications (33), Office (25) and Transportation (24) and Small
Office, Home Office (10). [The numbers in parenthesis throughout this story are the number of
discs in a particular category out of our total sample of 2474 discs.] There are also 15 discs
of Meetings and Groups. The number of discs in these subject areas indicates that there is a lot
of demand for images of this subject matter. It also indicates that there is a lot of good
content already available. If you shoot in these subject areas the best way to determine what is
needed is to go to the sites listed, look at what is being offered and see if you can identify
holes in the coverage.

Also recognize that once you are working with a company that produces RF discs they will usually
be very happy to tell you what they are looking for and the holes they have identified in their

There are Business discs on Asia (7), Europe (3), Global (10), Hands (3), Insurance (1), Law (2),
Occupations (8), Shopping (4), Teamwork (4), Time (4), Women (8), Agriculture (1), Architecture
(6), Connectivity (6), Construction (7), Energy (5), Environment (2), Real Estate (2) and Science
(14). The fact that there are so few discs on these subjects may indicate an opportunity,
particularly with those brands that have little of no coverage in these areas.

Another area that might be considered part of Business, but also can be viewed as part of
Lifestyle is Travel. The companies listed have 108 discs that deal with travel subjects.
Despite this large number photographers who shoot RF tell me that they have identified holes in
the coverage that still need to be filled.


Lifestyles is the other huge category of uses and I identified a total of 554 discs. Some of the
age group breakdowns within this category are: Adults (77), Babies (16), Children (74), Couples
(32), Teenagers (42), Families (61), Seniors (38), People in general where the entire disc
doesn't fall into one of the other categories (114) and Groups (10).

There are 15 discs of Body Parts (close up or eyes, hands, mouth, feet, etc.), 19 discs of Faces
and 11 discs of Concepts. Some of the smaller categories within lifestyles are Weekends and
Vacations (27), Home (18), Shopping (8), Culture (2), Diversity or Alternate Lifestyles (5), Play
(5), Weddings (2) and Latin (1).

An obvious opportunity would be discs that deal with the Latin lifestyles and illustrate the many
cultural and ethnic differences among the Latin peoples. Some of the other categories where there
are only a few discs may also offer opportunities for photographers to add material that will

Other categories that relate to lifestyles, but which I have kept separate are Food & Beverage
(88), Sports, Fitness and Recreation (131). It should be noted that "Sports" for the most part is
amateur sports. The only time professional sports would be offered as royalty free is if the
images were released and it is highly unlikely that any professional athlete would provide a
release for such a purpose.

Education is usually identified as a separate category and there are 35 discs on educational
subjects. However, in another sense it is also part of lifestyles as is Religion (22),
Entertainment (19) and Social Issues (14).

Medical and Health

Medical and Health is divided into three sub-categories. Medical (42) deals primarily with
medical professional at work in the typical medial environment and patients receiving treatment.
Healthcare (36) deals a lot with preventative healthcare but there is also a lot of interaction
between the public and health professionals. Finally there is a category that is often defined by
the portals as Health and Beauty (60) that is mostly pictures of beautiful people looking
healthy. It is important to note here that there is a lot of interest in healthy looking people
and images that relate to this subject.

Nature and Wildlife

Finally we come to the two categories that many people want to shoot. They are Nature and
Landscapes (164) and Wildlife and Animals (55). While there is demand for this subject matter
this is likely to be an area where there will be the least interest in accepting new work. To
begin with there is an abundance of this type of imagery and most agencies will already have what
they judge to be sufficient depth of coverage in subject matter. Thus, they will probably be very
selective in taking new images. Secondly, most of the subjects are timeless so they don't need to
be updated as frequently as people pictures do.

If our sample is representative these Nature and Wildlife pictures are only about 9% of the total
images offered. In addition, in the RM area of stock they tend to be licensed for smaller
average fees than people pictures. It should be clear that the greatest demand for stock
pictures is of people doing things. For those photographers who are not comfortable photographing
people there are fewer opportunities and the competition is fierce.

Other small categories are: Retro (9), Flags (8), Maps (12) and Cities (14).

I hope this gives photographers some new things to consider as they try to determine the subject
matter that is in demand and that the information provided is useful.

Filling Holes

If you look at any given brand you may find "holes" in their coverage relative to other brands.
While this may be an opportunity, there is a tendency of most portals to sell the products
produced by many other brands, in addition to their own. This may mean that instead of producing
their own products to fill "holes" they simply make arrangements to market the products of other
producers. This reduces production costs for the company selling the product and since the seller
is allowed to retain 50% to 60% of the gross license fee it may be more profitable for a seller
in the long run than actually producing the product they represent. In considering the
implications of this marketing strategy you may also want to review Henry Scanlon's comments on
"Marketing Channels" in Story 547 .

When creating images for a production company that makes a large percentage of its sales through
portals other than its own, photographers need to be aware that the percentage of the gross fee
the photographer receives may be much lower than 20%. When the 60% comes off top and goes to the
selling agent the photographers 20% is usually calculated on the remaining 40% of the gross fee
that the producing agent receives.

Copyright © 2003 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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