Volume Production

Posted on 5/7/1997 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)


Volume Production

May 7, 1997


There is a theory in the stock business that VOLUME production is the key to success.

Once you have produced a volume of images, and donoet want to handle sales yourself, you
have two choices. You can give the material to one stock agency on an exclusive basis
and let them distribute it, or distribute it to many agencies around the world giving
each the non-exclusive right to market the images.

Many photographers shoot heavily on every project producing multiple originals which
they broadly distribute to many different agencies around the world. A decade ago a
number of successful photographers, myself included, had sales statistics that seemed
to prove this was the best way to maximize your earnings from stock.
Every time we would put similars with a new agency sales would increase without
affecting sales from the first agency. This worked for regional agencies within the
U.S. as well as foreign agencies. Therefore, it seemed that the more agencies a
photographer had the more money he or she could make.

The difference between our approach and that of the major agencies (who also wanted
photographers to provide them with multiple originals) was that we were able to keep
50% of the gross sale price from each of our agencies rather than having to split that
with our primary agency.

For example a photographer with The Image Bank might be represented by 65 different
offices around the world, but he only receives 50% of sales from New York which is the
headquarters office. All other selling offices keep 40% of the gross sale price and
return 60% to the headquarters office which then splits that amount 50/50 with the
photographer. This means that on-average TIB photographers are getting 31% or 32% of
the gross sales of their work. Other large agencies that distribute work through
sub-agencies overseas have similar percentage breakdowns.

One other advantage to dealing direct is that you have more assurance of exactly which
images are being sent to the foreign office if you send them directly. Editors at your
parent agency tend to pick what they think the foreign offices will be interested in
rather than showing them everything. I have found that when I show a foreign agency a
broader selection they tend to keep different images and more than my U.S. stock
agencies tend to send them.

However, the major driving factor in this arrangement is that 50% is better than 30%.

Times Change

Due to a number of developments in the industry in the past few years this theory is no
longer valid.

Supply vs. Demand. One reason it worked in earlier years was that there was much
greater demand than supply of good images. Thus, whatever you shot had a good chance
of making it into someoneoes files. Now the reverse is true. It is much harder to get
material accepted.

You can produce top quality images and they still may not be accepted by a good agency
because the agency already has too much material like it. Yours may be a little better
than other similar shots already in the agency files, but not outstanding enough to
justify the agency taking on another photographer.

While agencies are always looking for new material it must be recognized that due to an
oversupply of images in virtually every subject area, the major agencies have gotten
very picky in what they accept. What they are really looking for is something markedly
better than anything they already have in the file.

An agency may also take on a new photographer to get access to a few of his or her
outstanding images, but the next work submitted may not be outstanding enough to be

Unfortunately, no matter how many good pictures you make you canoet control the number
of other photographers who will produce images that will fill a similar need, and this
effects the potential earning power of your images.

Useful Life of Images. A decade ago it was fair to say that once an image was placed
in file it had a long potential useful life and might sell for years and years. Of
course, there are exceptions for images with historical significance, but in general
the useful life of images today is getting shorter and shorter because there are so
many competing images. Some of these competing images are in your agencyoes file, some
in the files of other agencies and others are being added daily by new photographers.
Clip photographs are also competing with many images in stock agency files resulting in
fewer sales over a shorter period of time for any given image.

Because of other business interests I have recently conducted a useful experiment in
this area. After a couple decades of building a stock file, I stopped producing images
about three years ago. For about a year and a half my income remained relatively
stable. Then it started falling rather dramatically. I started producing new stock
again about eight months ago, but there will be some time lag before I start seeing
earnings from this new material. It will be interesting to see if the income from the
new production brings me back to where I was before.

Fewer Strong Agencies. In the past the larger agencies were less dominant than they
are today. Buyers used to check out more sources than they do today. Now the tendency
is to go to the catalogs of agencies with recognized names. The bigger agencies seem to
have such a broad cross-section of material that advertising users seldom have to go to
other agencies. Small local clients sometimes use regional agencies and book
publishers often use niche agencies with special interest material. But these agencies
often miss out on the big ticket sales and frequently have to supply more research and
customer service in order to sustain their business.

In the past, it was possible for certain photographers to be the only ones in an
agency's file that had certain unique subjects. Because there are so many
photographers shooting virtually every subject for which there is an identified demand
it is the rare photographer today that does not have to compete with someone else in
his own agency that produces work that fulfills the same client needs as his own
images. That means that statistically the photographer is likely to make fewer sales
than would be possible if he were the only one to have that type of imagery in the

Some photographers decide to take the small agency route to avoid this competition.
But, the small agency is not spending as much on advertising and promotion and is
likely to have many fewer clients calling them than the larger agencies. Thus, the
odds that the potential users will be aware that the photographers images exist is much
less with a smaller agency.

Digital Search and Delivery. Digital search and delivery is still in its infancy, but
it will certainly effect the need for volume production. Digital catalogs will be
larger than their print cousins because now it becomes more cost effective to show more
images. However, that does not necessarily mean that there will be a need for more
images. There are already plenty in file to meet the needs of these digital catalogs.
There will be a need to refresh and update certain images, but on the whole that need
is minimal.

There will be less need for similars in many locations due to the easier transmission
of digital files across the globe. As clients make greater use of digital files there
will be much less need for film dupes or multiple originals. At this point only a
small percentage of the users prefer digital files to film, but, the number is growing.
The industry currently has the capability of supplying users with digital files, but
it may be quite some time before the majority of users are ready to accept them.

Nevertheless, in the future, major agencies will distribute digital catalogs to their
sub-agents around the world. They will also supply their agents with larger digital
files of each image. When a client negotiates rights to use an image he or she is sent
the appropriate digital file. On those rare instances when film is needed master dupes
will be shipped from central locations in various parts of the world.

Growth in Demand. The potential growth in demand by traditional users in the U.S. is
very minimal. We have a mature market where everyone knows of the advantages of using
stock whenever possible. The growth in usage is probably about proportional to the
annual growth in advertising. There may be a little more potential for growth in other
parts of the world than in the U.S., but I think the worldwide market is approaching
maturity also.

However, you must consider clip photos that are grabbing a share of the total market
for photography so maybe the market for licensing rights is actually getting somewhat
smaller. Some major agencies are experiencing growth because they are capturing a
larger share of the market, not because the market itself is experiencing significant

What about all the new electronic uses? So far they are only a blip on the radar
screen and arenoet giving much evidence that they will really take off. If they do that
might change things. I had much more hope for this aspect of the market three years
ago than I have today.

About the best thing you can say for current demand is that it is flat.

Catalogs. In reviewing which images sell, there is a steadily increasing percentage of
catalog images relative to those in the general file. It has become critical to get
images into catalogs in order to have much hope at all of making sales. In order to
accomplish this it is often necessary to give the agency producing the catalog
exclusive rights. If you can get a significant number of images in a major catalog it
can be well worth giving up the right to distribute to other agencies.

For example, in 1995 Tony Stone Images photographers earned an average per year of
$511.88 from the images in TSIoes 40,000 image master dupe collection which includes all
the images in their catalogs plus others selected for extensive duping. Photographers
indicate that the vast majority of sales (one photographer said 95%) came from that
smaller number of images that were actually in the catalogs. Thus, the average sale
for catalog images is probably much higher.

By comparison TSI photographers earned a per year average of $1.12 per image from the
2.5 million images in the general file.

This general file figure is a typical average for many stock agencies. Thus, just
suppose you get ten or twenty agencies to accept your images into their general files.
How much better off would you probably be if you could get a major agency to accept
one image from every shoot into their catalog?

Maybe you can get 500 times more images into the general file than you can get in
catalogs, and maybe all catalogs wonoet do as well as that of Tony Stone Images, but
consider the huge variations in return before you think the only option for you is
volume, volume, volume.

However, one difficulty is that many agencies have set up systems where the only way
they will consider an image for the catalog is if the photographer sends all his work
to the agency on an exclusive basis, and is a high volume producer.


When you view the totality of these changes, it is time for photographers to focus on
selected production for marketing through catalogs, not on high volume. This is
particularly true if the subjects they shoot are most likely to be used in advertising
and brochures.

There are some areas of the market where the volume approach may be the only
alternative. This is probably true of the book field.

Also, if the type of work you do fits into a unique niche where there are few
competitors worldwide you may be able to handle much of your marketing directly, or
negotiate a different type of deal with a stock agency. However if you have become the
expert at photographing a particular subject because no one else wants to shoot it,
there is a good chance that very few people are interested in using pictures of this

Examine your niche carefully, and the potential demand for such images, before you jump
in and spend a lot of time and money shooting with the hope of big future earnings.

If you have a choice of getting a few images into a catalog, but have to give up an
exclusive on those images only, it is probably well worth doing. But be careful about
tying up your entire file just to get a handful of images in a catalog.

Agencies Hurting Themselves

One photographer who is exclusive with a major stock agency argues that agencies may be
hurting themselves by pushing every photographer to shoot more volume.

If the agency cannot effectively market all the work supplied by their photographers,
those images that have some market potential may come back to haunt the agency.

If a photographer spends several months shooting new subjects, as per the agency's
instructions, and then only gets 10% or 20% of the subjects shot intoi the catalog
(this is happening) the photographer has to do something to try to earn something from
that other work. He knows he is not going to make enough from the few he got in the
catalog to continue to support new production. At the very least he will scale down
future production.

Photographers with exclusive contracts can do nothing else with that work. But because
it is becoming increasingly evident that images in a general file sell infrequently, if
at all, the photographer may decide that the only option open to him or her is to leave
the agency and try to find another way to get the images seen, and give them a chance
to sell.

If the photographer has the right to take rejected work and go elsewhere then that work
may eventually compete with images the agency is selling, and result in a lower volume
of sales for the agency, or lower prices. Seldom is any stock image so unique that
clients will pick it 100% of the time when they have other choices.

If the agency can get away with hording pictures and holding them out of the market,
then maybe they can continue to control the flow of new pictures into the market by
controlling the frequency of release of new catalogs. Then they only have to worry
about the images put out in catalogs produced by other competing agencies. It will be
easier for them to enforce this restraint if and when the market is controlled by a few
big agencies.

But what seems more likely is that one way or another, if a photographer has produced
it he is going to try to sell it and not be satisfied to let it sit in a file and die.

The continued pressure to produce, produce, produce may be leading to such abundance of
product that eventually the market will deflate. If and when that is recognized it
will be very difficult to turn off the production spigot because it is in the hands of
so many.

Counting The Costs

What does it take to get into the catalog? Most agencies are looking for a relatively
small number of outstanding images for their catalog. Unfortunately, many agencies
tend to push photographers toward producing volume without focusing on the crucial
issue of the number and type of images they can effectively market.

Sometimes the only way to get an outstanding image is to shoot volume. But, in many
cases the outstanding images will come from more detailed and careful planning prior to
the shoot. Once the shooting starts a few frames may be enough.

If an agency's catalog can only absorb 10 new situations from a photographer in a year,
does it make sense for the photographer to shoot 50 or 60 situations?

The important thing to recognize is that volume production wonoet necessarily result in
a corresponding increase in income. The photographer must measure the costs of
production and advertising against the likely return.

One photographer pointed out to me that it will cost him $30,000 to make a trip to
Antarctica to shoot Emperor Penguins. On one trip he may come back with 10,000 frames.
The first guy who does this may be able to make money, but when 5, 10 or 30 people do
it over a period of years it has to begin to cut the odds of anyone making sales. It
costs $15,000 to $20,000 to go to Africa and get good pictures of lions or cheetahs.

Of those 10,000 Antarctica frames maybe the photographer will get 2 or 3 of the very
best in a major international catalog. He then tries to get the rest in as many agency
files as possible. Letoes say he gets 30 agencies to keep a total of 2,000 of the
10,000 frames. The average return is $1.00 per image per year, or $2,000. On the
other hand from those 2 or 3 images in the major print catalog he might average more
than $1,000 per image per year.

No matter how many good pictures you get you canoet control the number of other
photographers who produce images that will fill a similar need.

I know several photographers who regularly spend $5,000 or more on a single shoot, plus
production time. To constantly do this the photographer must have a relationship with
his agency that guarantees a certain number of frames in the next catalog, and some
idea of the past sales history of this type of subject matter by the agency. Not many
photographers are given this kind of guidance.

There is no chance of paying off such investments with general file rates of return.
Photographers need to carefully examine the likely payoff before incurring huge

Consider a studio setup of a business situation. Does it make sense to shoot many
duplicates so you can distribute them to many agency general files, or is it better to
try to come out with one or two great frames of several situations that are worth
putting (exclusively) in a print or digital catalog of a large agency? Learn how to
distill the concept to its essentials and maximize the distribution.

If the purpose is to make money there comes a point with any subject matter when you
need to ask yourself, "What kind of image am I going to be able to produce that will be
so unique that everyone must use it and it will knock all those existing similars out
of the box?"

If you are shooting for textbooks - an area that typically doesn't make much use of
catalogs , then the only option may be to produce volume for the general file. The
multi-agency strategy may be your only alternative. But, you also need to weigh the
cost of this production against the return.


Lawrence Migdale"> by Lawrence Migdale

submitted by (photopix@migdale.com) on Thu May 8 13:24:49 EDT 1997

Comment: jim
this is a really excellent article.

George"> by George

Fri May 9 10:50:52 EDT 1997

I believe there is a new reality emerging, concerning the use of multiple
agencies. I can find 30+ agencies in 1997 Photographer's Market that list themselves
as nonexclusive or regional exclusive. Also, there are a number of agencies in
Europe & Japan meeting this requirement. This is the basis of a good "self directed"
global marketing strategy.

These agencies are reinventing themselves, no longer content to offer file only
marketing profiles. They are agressively (more aggresively than many big lumbering
agencies) moving into CD production, web pages, and online search capability for
clients. Many big agencies are so invested in their hugely expensive catalog
production and distribution they have blinders on about the new marketing universe
forming before us.

This makes the small agencies very much more effecient than just a few years ago.
Many think the print catalog has reached a plateau, and is just too expensive to
produce trying to compete with the BIG FIVE. Agencies like PhotoBank in Irvine,CA
exemplify the new energetic, efficient agencies. Microstock (by Photri) shows an old
name in stock reinvigorating itself with innovative use of the internet. And, I have
found the smaller agencies to be much more responsive to photographers than "Acme
Stock International".

Because the big global agencies turn down more and more photographers, the new
"electronic agencies" will become the marketing arm for the rest of us.


Peter Burian"> by Peter Burian

submitted by (PBurian@compuserve.com) on Mon May 12 14:17:12 EDT 1997

It's already too late to go to Antarctica to photograph
penguins. The market is already saturated per The Guilfoyle Report and penguins are no
longer hot sellers.

In nature subjects, newsletters such as the Guilfoyle Report (which monitors trends
and includes specific current photo needs) are great as a source of info on what to
shoot. The only problem is that trends die quickly. If grizzly bears are "hot" today,
they may not be six months from now -- when your new bear shots finally get on the

It may be better to shoot concepts even in nature -- like "cute and cuddly" or
"vicious and growling" or "animal babies". These general concepts always seem to sell
well. Also, many can be taken at game farms - a lot cheaper than traveling

Ad markets accept game farm images as long as they appear natural. Why spend a fortune
traveling to Africa to make most sales in the $200. editorial market. For $1000. you
can shoot at a top game farm in MT or in Massey, Ontario, Canada and get high impact
images for sale to advertising markets - and some editorial markets.

Peter Burian

Copyright © 1997 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.  


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