What Sells?

Posted on 7/12/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Assuming you are taking pictures because you want to earn some money from what you produce, it would be very helpful to have some information about which images among the hundreds of millions out there are actually selling, and how frequently. What’s in demand?

The major distributors could easily supply image creators with this information, but they have chosen not to for “competitive reasons.”

It is hard for me to see how it could hurt them to help their suppliers have a better understanding of what their customers want to buy. The distributors argue that if their competitors knew what was selling they would produce the same images and then the distributor who had the image first wouldn’t be able to sell it as often. This argument seems to fall apart when we realize that a significant percent of the images in all the collections are non-exclusive and are also available in multiple other collections.  

Just because an image sells well through one distributor doesn’t mean that it will sell equally well through a different distributor with a different set of customers, and most importantly with a different search algorithm. Anyway, that’s the argument.

Are Their Other Ways To Solve This Problem?

The purpose of this story is to try to find a way to get more useful information about what images might be in high demand.

One way may be to look at what some of the top producers are doing. Where are they concentrating their production efforts? What is included, specifically, in their images?

You might want to look at the images being produced by three major production companies – Africa Studio, Rawpixel and Wavebreakmedia,

Africa Studio is based somewhere in the Russian Federation and has over 1,100,100 images in the Shutterstock collection. Rawpixel has offices in the UK, but their primary production operation is in Bangkok, Thailand. They have over 961,800 images in the Shutterstock collection. Wavebreakmedia operates out of Ireland, but has a major production facility in Capetown, South Africa and has over 510,300 images in the Shutterstock collection.

All of these organizations have a team of photographers, illustrators, graphic designers and other support staff working together to produce the type of imagery they believe will be in highest demand. If you look at the microstock.top list of the Top-100 Shutterstock Authors you will find Africa Studio at the top, Rawpixel second and wavebreakmedia sixth. I believe these companies are among the most successful stock photo producers.

One caution when using this list. Just because a company has lots of images does not necessarily mean they are successful. I know of one company in the top 50 that is earning about $0.045 per-year, pre-image in the collection. The general type of subject matter being produced has a lot to do with how well the images will sell.

Nevertheless, I think you can learn a lot from the emphasis the companies below spend on producing certain categories of images, as well as reviewing the quality of the images themselves.  

Africa Studio     Rawpixel     Wavebreakmedia  
Total Images 1,110,100   Total Images 961,800   Total Images 510,300
Food 385,349   Business 403,260   Computer 155,955
Business 86,917   Office 245,879   Business 122,189
Christmas 55,592   Computer 193,490   Office 65,021
Education 48,937   Education 97,190   Couples 57,538
Office 48,265   Travel 69,642   Education 30,483
Medical 45,197   Finance 67,880   Food 30,189
Animals 32,019   Recreation 60,867   Family 28,866
Computer 30,023   Food 33,580   Medical 28,305
Finance 25,551   Training 29,101   Recreation 27,751
Travel 25,137   Family 20,686   Training 23,147
Family 24,438   Couples 20,297   Christmas 21,612
Doctor 22,365   Coaching 18,843   Doctor 19,230
Couples 17,776   Architecture 17,454   Travel 8,757
Training 17,238   Medical 14,892   Finance 7,226
Recreation 14,444   Christmas 5,346   Animals 2,359
Architecture 7,554   Doctor 4,093   Architecture 1,986
Wildlife 4,102   Animals 2,405   Coaching 1,921
Coaching 2,582   Wildlife 1,113   Wildife 8

These keyword lists are ordered based on the number of images each supplier has in the Shutterstock collection. It should be recognized that all three of these organizations have some, if not all, of the same images in the other major microstock collections in addition to Shutterstock.

It is obvious that all these companies spend a lot of their total production time on Business, Office, Education, Computer and Food shoots. The degree of emphasis differs in varying degrees with each company.

For the most part they have found that photos of Wildlife, Architecture and Coaching are not as productive a way, dollar wise, to spend their time. If a photographer has a special interest in these subjects, and special access, that may the way the photographer should spend his or her time, but the photographer probably shouldn’t expect to earn anywhere near the revenue that Business shooters can earn.

There are also outliers in these lists that may indicate a greater importance of a certain subject category than is otherwise merited. For example, Africa Studio has 55,592 Christmas images in their collection. They do have some great Christmas pictures, but I can’t imagine they earn anywhere near per-image from Christmas pictures as they earn from Family image, or some of the other categories. Africa Studio may just have someone on their team with a particular skill and interest in producing Christmas images. The revenue earned is worth the trouble and expense even though it may not be as good as what they earn from Business pictures.

Checking Out Other Subject Matter

Photographers with other specialties might want to go to one of the three links provided. They will take you to that agency’s collection on Shutterstock.

Enter a keyword (or combination of words) that best describe the subject you intend to shoot in the “Search within portfolio” box. Be sure to use this box, not the one at the top of the page. In this way you will only get images in that particular production company’s portfolio and not images from the entire Shutterstock collection. You’ll also get a count of the number of images with those keywords and you can compare that to the total images this organization has in the entire Shutterstock collection to get an idea of how important shooting this particular subject matter is to the production company.

Then you can scroll through the images that production company offers that contain the keywords you used. Click on a thumbnail and you’ll be able to see up to 100 Similar Images from different artists. You can also see a variety of images that were shot using one or more of the same models.

Such searches will help you understand what you’re really competing against. The images you produce will have to be at least as good as these, and have equally good models, in order to have much of a chance of selling.

There is no guarantee that all the pictures shown in these searches have been downloaded -- even via a subscription. A lot of the same images get used over and over again and a high percentage never get used. In fact, if we look as Shutterstock’s statistics of total images in the collection and total downloads at the end of 2016, on average each image was downloaded 1.44 times.

These three agencies probably have a much higher download ratio, but there are limits. Some of the better agencies have reported that their download ratio has been declining significantly in the last two or three years. One top contributor to multiple microstock distributors reported that only 30% of the images in their collection were downloaded at least once in 2015 and that in 2016 that percentage had declined to 20% - and that’s counting a lot of subscription downloads.

The other way to get an idea of the quality your images will need to have in order to be winners is to do a general keyword search on Shutterstock. See everything they have on a particular subject. In many cases it will be thousands of images, but look through the first 4 or 5 pages and see if you can find anything sort of like what you want to shoot.

Click on that image to see a thumbnail. Under that thumbnail the creator’s name will be highlighted in blue. Click on that “Creator Name” and you’ll get the creators entire portfolio. At that point you can use the same procedure described above to determine if there are “Similar Image” from other artists, or more images of the “Same General Subject Matter” from the same artist. This may give you ideas of what to shoot, but remember that there is no guarantee that any of these images have ever sold.

A lot of research is required if you expect to earn reasonable money from the production time you invest. Selling stock photos is not just about taking beautiful pictures.

Copyright © 2017 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.  


  • Richard Gardette Posted Jul 15, 2017
    "I know of one company in the top 50 that is earning about $0.045 per-year, pre-image in the collection." Thank you Jim. It reminds me reading "The big short", about the subprime mortgage crisis : everybody in the business knew but nobody has reacted.

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