What Is “Commercial” Stock Photography?

Posted on 6/16/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Have we lost sight of what commercial stock photography is? Have we become so obsessed with “real life” and “natural” the we think that anything that is arranged or posed is bad? Does an image have to shock to be good stock?

I received two promotions this week. The first came from Dissolve promoting the launch of their new 50,000 still image collection. To give customers a taste of what they have to offer they created a showreel called Thematica that features some of the images.

Most of these images are from leading stock photo production companies like Culture, Millennium Images, Mint Image and Westend61. After you’ve looked at Thematica go to http://dissolve.com/photography and check out the “Trending Topics” collection.

It seems to me that in an effort to get away from the complaints we so often hear about “stocky images” they’ve turned to just plain weird images. The weirder the better. I can’t imagine that many of these images will sell for advertising or promotion uses. And these images are not cheap. They are priced at rights managed levels.

In their press release Dissolve says, “Because these distinctive – often one-of-a-kind – rights-managed photographs may be licensed exclusively (by territory or industry), they’re ideal for uses where something “recognizably stock” would be unacceptable – such as flagship brand collateral like corporate home pages, Fortune 500 advertising campaigns, large outdoor buys, and layouts in major magazines or media outlets. All images are cleared for commercial use. Upon request, Dissolve’s researchers can also provide license history for the images, by industry, medium, and geography, for further competitive peace of mind.”

I don’t want to say that none of them will sell, but I think the preponderance of them are not the kind of thing real customers want to buy. One photographer pointed out that many of these odd-ball images are the kind of things that “win contests.” They are the kind of thing that art directors want to look at in Communication Arts, PDN or American Photography annuals. But when it comes time to choose an image for one or their clients they go to more traditional stock or hire someone to shoot what they need.

Traditional Stock

The second promotion came from Jim Erickson. See here. The situations are clearly staged, but they look natural and real. In fact, to me they look more real than most of the images in the Dissolve collection.

These image are from an assignment shoot for Quigley-Simpson for Chase United Explorer Visa Card, but they are very representative of what Erickson has in his stock collection. He sells a lot of stock, and for high prices.

To my way of thinking Erickson’s work, not the images Dissolve is showing in this promotion, are the kind of imagery “commercial” customers want to buy. I must confess that I don’t see a lot of what is being used in Europe and Asia. Maybe the Dissolve imagery is what they love over there. But I don’t think much of what Dissolve is showing in this collection is likely to be used here in the U.S.

What’s Selling

A big part of the problem may be that image creators have almost no idea about what is selling. They are told to shoot “candid” and “natural” and “real life.” They think anything that happens in front of them, or anything unusual that they can imagine, is a good stock picture. They crank it out. Agencies grab it up and clutter their databases with such imagery. Is there any wonder there is little or no growth in the demand for stock images – particularly images at RM prices.

Agencies need to start showing their contributors more of what is actually selling – and give the contributors some idea of for how much. If the image is being downloaded as part of a subscription that may not mean much. The art director may want to show his friends something weird. He may have no plans to ever use such an image in a client's project.

It would also be useful to know the kind of images that have earned more than $100, or $500, or $1,000. Unfortunately, that might not be that many images, but it could give creators -- and agency picture editors -- a better understanding of what customers really want to buy.

Copyright © 2016 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.  


  • Anthony Harris Posted Jun 17, 2016
    Dear Jim,

    Thank you for the article on the value of work being showcased by Dissolve and Jim Erikson. I must say on this occasion I could not disagree more with your position.

    The dissolve showreel was thought provoking and while on the face of it may not include imagery that has an immediate concept, all do and it is in that deeper connection that the value for (some) customers may be found.

    In a market absolutely saturated with highly commoditized pictures and a world full of imagery, there is a desire for stock photography that engages customers on both an emotional and creative level. There is also room for a broad church of approaches from the work featured in Thematica to the excellent work in Jim Erikson’s portfolio. What is key as I said is that they provoke an emotional response either through their conceptual nature or authenticity to ensure that they engage with the audience and offer value that commands a premium price point.

    If the showreel from Dissolve was your fairly typical mundane gallery of stock I don’t think for one minute you would have spent valuable time writing a feature and so in choosing the images they have ( and am very proud to see Image Source content included) they have prompted a response and discussion which can only be a positive step.

    Best wishes,
    Anthony Harris
    CEO Image Source

  • Peter Dazeley Posted Jun 20, 2016
    Dear Jim, interesting piece. The trouble for the creator is that when you have a weird or unusual image it is usually very difficult to key word them, in such a way that they can be easily discovered.

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