What Stock Subjects Sell Best?

Posted on 9/9/2002 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Now that we know who the buyers are, what do they want to buy? What are the subjects that sell? In the broadest sense almost anything. Daily there are weird requests coming from small special interest publications and book publishers for very unique and unusual subject matter that very few people are likely to have ever photographed.

Want Lists

Some stock agencies produce regular want lists of images outlining subjects that have been requested. These simply indicate that someone wanted the picture in the past. They don't necessarily mean that there will be future demand for the subject.

The Guilfoyle Report www.agpix.com and PhotoSource International www.photosource.com are subscriber services that provide a daily listings of requests to their members. Many of buyers who list with these services are small magazines and book publishers. Often the subjects requested are very specific and the rates of payment are low. The StockPhoto Network www.stockphoto.net has a free service that sends individual e©mails of requests as they are posted.

Some of the subjects listed recently on these services are: beetles used for bio©control, purple loosestrift, swamp metalmark butterfly, control panel of a city bus, control panel of diesel train, Mafia trafficking drugs, Ruggles Mine in Grafton, NH, a bust of Pythagoras (statue of his head and a bit of shoulder), a pygmy marmoset parent with two babies, drug court in session, jean manufacturing, leech swimming in a vertical position, facilities planner inside an empty building reviewing floor plans, hagfish, tobacco mosaic virus, a child taking a scary risk (released, of course).

Here's a nice one ©© a sequence showing the food chain such as an insect eating pollen, same species of insect being eaten by a frog, a frog being eaten by a snake and the snake being eaten by a hawk.

One thing that photographers need to recognize about these services is that the art buyers tend to only list their hard©to©find subjects. When an art buyer gets a list of images to find the first step is to go to stock agencies and other regular suppliers in an effort to locate as many images as they can, as easily as possible. After they get all they can from these regular sources then they list the remaining subjects on the online service in the hopes of finding new suppliers with this very unique subject matter.

If you spend a little time looking at these request lists, it is easy to conclude that their may be a demand for anything you shoot. The important thing to consider is how frequently someone will want pictures of this subject matter? Many of the subjects appear once and will never be asked for again.

If the request arises once every fifteen years, it may not be worth your trouble to put this subject on your future shoot list, even if it is something that is fairly easy to produce.

If you don't already have the images consider what it would cost to shoot it. Will the buyer be willing to pay enough to justify the time and expense of getting the image.

If your goal is to make a profit producing images then it may be best to use these requests lists sparingly. For example, if you happen to be subway driver who produces photos in your spare time and you see a request for the control panel of a subway, it is probably a good idea to call the publisher and tell them you have access and could take the picture if they like. At that point, before you have spent time shooting, you can determine if they are still interested in such a picture, their deadline and how much they would pay if you can produce the picture they need. Don't go out and shoot this picture, deliver it a few days or weeks later and hope that if it doesn't sell to this client it will sell to some other client in the future. The items on these lists are usually not high demand subjects.

High Demand

The professional photographers really needs to know the subjects that will be in demand over and over again. These are subjects worth shooting on speculation. The fact that other photographers have already shot these subjects and there are hundred's of images in the files should not discourage you. Art directors are always looking for a different view of certain common subjects.

For example consider Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge or the U.S. Capitol building. There are thousands of shots of each of these in the various photo files around the world. But any time someone does a story, an article in a book, a calendar or a travel brochure about one of the cities in which these icons are located, a picture of the icon will be used. If you have such a picture, and it is where a potential buyer can find it, the odds are much better that the buyer will use your picture of the icon (even though there may be hundreds of others from other photographers) than one of your "unique" street scenes shot in the same city.

If the buyer only has space for one or two pictures he or she must use a shot of the icon so the reader can immediately identify the location. If the buyer is doing an indepth reportage (rare) of the city then maybe your great street scene will have a chance to compete with the tens of thousands of other street scene images shot by photographers trying to produce something unique.

Years ago, Dennis Hallinan, one of the country's most successful stock shooters shared with me his secret in determining what to shoot when he goes to a new town or country. He buys postcards. Someone had determined that the subjects of these cards were the key identifying elements of the location. This gave him his shoot list. Then he would go to each location and try to produce a better image ©© different angle, different light, etc. Sometimes he produced a better picture. Sometimes his photos weren't quite as good because the postcard shooter undoubtedly lived in the area, had explored all the potential angles to shoot the subject, and picked the perfect day to take the photograph.

However, the interesting part of his story is not just that his "better" pictures sold. Often the pictures that he frankly thought were not as good as the postcard shots also sold, and sold well. This happened for at least two reasons. First, the art director may have wanted something slightly different than the postcard scene. Second, Hallinan's agent did a better job of marketing, and letting potential customers know what was available. We'll focus more on marketing in a later chapter.

If your goal is to create your personal art then you do what you have to do and create something totally different and unique. If your goal is to make money from your photography, think first of the cliche subjects.

Advertising and Commercial

I estimate that well over 60% of the uses in the U.S. are for advertising and commercial purposes. The percentage may be less for the rest of the world, but focusing on the U.S. advertising market is not a bad place to start.

The subjects needed for advertising and commercial purposes tend to be more generic and less specific. One of the advantages of generic is that such an image can often be used in many different ways. On the other hand, there tends to be few uses for a specific image simply because it is so specific. For example, there may be less demand for a common image of minor species of house cat than there is for a tiger looking fierce.

The following are some of the general categories of subject matter in the Stock Connection file and the percentage of sales of each category. Stock Connection, is a general agency with a broad base of subject matter. We focus our marketing and promotion toward the advertising community. I have indicated the percent of total dollar volume that was sold in each category over the past three years. (In general, we believe these percentage relationships will hold true for a broad based general file sold primarily to the advertising and commercial markets. Agencies that concentrate on selling to the editorial market, or have a specialist file, may have a much different experience.) åôThe principle demand for images used in advertising revolves around Business and Family Life situations. Concepts that illustrate Business and Lifestyle principles are also in high demand. Sports and Recreation are big sellers as is Transportation.

We believe, based on our analysis of the industry, not just Stock Connection's statistics, that this is a fairly accurate breakdown of the types of images regularly needed in advertising. There is lots of demand for general business situation that show men and women in the office and work environment. There will probably be 5 business images used for every one medical or money and banking image. There is a lot of demand for roads and transportation and much more than city scenes and skylines.

There is a lot of demand for concept images. There is much more demand for business and lifestyle images than there is for nature and wildlife. On the other hand, if you are a nature and wildlife shooter 15% of total stock photo sales is a significant number.

If you have a specialty in agriculture and target that market you can probably develop a good business even though agricultural pictures may only represent about 1% of all the pictures sold in the U.S.

Stock Connection's numbers for education are deceptive because, as we said in chapter 3, book sales in the U.S. represent 15% of the total market. We do not have a lot of that type of material in our file, nor have we focused any promotions toward this segment of the market. Likewise with entertainment. Pictures of entertainment personalities are in high demand and can earn photographers who produce them a lot of money. We don't have any of this type of imagery. What little entertainment imagery we have is very generic.

Considered in this way the subject areas above can provide a useful shooting guide. Within each general area you need to think about specific subjects and how to approach the subject.

Using The Internet As A Shooting Guide

The Internet provides a very useful tool to aid photographers in identifying specific subjects within one of the general subject areas.

Photographers used to be at a big disadvantages when trying to decide what to shoot because there was no way to know what was already in the files. Along came print catalogs and by looking at them photographers could at least see some of the best images that agencies had to offer. However, it was often difficult to get copies of many of these catalogs.

Now, a photographer can go to an agency's web site, do a search on "Business," "Medicine" or some more refined areas of these categories and see what is available. By looking at these web sites the photographer can get a general idea as to what probably is in demand, (keeping in mind that a lot of images on these sites don't sell), as well as how stiff the competition is in a particular subject area.

Seeing what has already been done may give the photographer an idea as to how to produce something that is different or better. Don't say, "Globe shots have already been done, therefore I won't do that." Rather, find a different way to shoot them because globes are always in high demand.

Don't copy what another photographer did as that is a copyright violation. However, concepts are not copyrightable. Thus, you can use a concept that another photographer has used, develop your own expression of that concept using different models, different sets, and photographing the subject in a different manner. That is perfectly legal and not a copyright violation.

Another resource for ideas is to go to some of the Royalty Free sites, particularly PhotoDisc, and look at the subjects of their various CD's that are for sale. Go to the first volume and look at the subject matter of the first 10 or 15 discs. These are the general category subjects that are in highest demand. Go through the total list and see how often they put out a 2nd and 3rd disc on the same subject. They didn't do that because the first disc wasn't successful.

Pick out subject category areas that you like to shoot. Now go to the general search section of the site, use that subject as a keyword and start looking at images. This will give you an idea of some of the subjects that sell and a little of the style of shooting those subjects that may work. Keep in mind that not every one of these images has necessarily sold for a use. Even PhotoDisc couldn't tell you how many times a particular image has been used because when they sell a disc they have no idea which images on that disc will eventually be used. Nevertheless, enough of these images have probably been used for this to be a good place to start in figuring out what subjects are in demand within a particular general category.

Keep in mind that if your images are going to sell they must be at least as good, technically, as the PhotoDisc images.

After you've looked at PhotoDisc go to www.digitalvisiononline.com and look at their list of CD©Categories. Again, this will give you a good idea of the broad subject matter. Now start doing search using specific keywords such as: couples, family, men, babies, etc. to see what comes up in the category in which you want to work.

One interesting thing about the Digital Vision site is that they are headquartered in England and their philosophy of image selection is more of a European philosophy than that of Photo Disc. Thus, if your image style is closer to that of Digital Vision than to PhotoDisc your images might sell better in Europe than in the U.S.

Don't think that because PhotoDisc and Digital Vision have a particular subject well covered that there is no chance of you selling a similar picture for much more that the Royalty Free rates. Many individual sellers and stock agencies are selling the same type of images every day for many many times the prices that these RF producers are charging. The purpose of this exercise is not to suggest that you must sell pictures at RF prices, but to take advantage of the research and the categorization that these RF producers have done. ‘ ÿ' 0*†(†(8 8 ‘åôThe RF industry started by using the knowledge base developed by Rights Protected sellers over the years. Now it is time for Rights Protected producers to take advantage of some of the things RF has learned about the market.

Once you have settled on a few categories to explore then go to www.gettyone.com and see what they have to offer. Many of the gettyone images (they also include PhotoDisc) are Rights Protected images licensed at Rights Protected prices. This site will really give you a good idea of the quality standard you need to aim for. It is very tightly edited and a high percentage of the images on the site have sold at least once. Many of them have sold many times. Getty says that they have about 1.2 million images on the site; that 80% of their gross income comes from 200,000 of these images (1/6th of the total), and another 10% of gross income comes from another 300,000 of the images. Thus, something between one and two out of every three images on the site has sold.

Editorial Uses

If the subjects you shoot are more editorial in nature then you might want to do some searches on www.picturequest.com. There are about 375,000 images on this site with a much more editorial bent than gettyone.com. I estimate that no more than 5% of the images on the site sell in a given year. Because the editing is much looser than the Getty or PhotoDisc sites you need to be much more careful about drawing any conclusions about what will sell. On the other, the work was professionally edited by each participating stock agency so they are images the editors believed would sell.

PictureQuest does not provide their suppliers with information as to what has been requested. Thus the suppliers must make their decisions about which images to post based on their experience selling through other venues. Given this disconnect in the information chain the only way suppliers can determine specific demand is to post images and see if they ever sell. PhotoDisc, gettyone.com and Digital Vision all have access to much better statistical information about demand than do the PictureQuest suppliers, and I believe they use that information to the fullest in making decisions as to what to post online.

A word about Corbis. We have not mentioned them here even though they have a very large database of over a million images and the site has a more editorial bent than the Getty site. For the purposes described above Corbis is not a good alternative. When they were originally setting up their site they edited very loosely. As a result there are a lot of images in the system that have never sold and are unlikely to sell. Corbis has some very good images and we believe they are making some very good sales to art directors who are willing to wade through the dregs until they find the good stuff. However, what we are trying to do at this point is help photographers get an understanding of the subjects they should‘ ÿ' 0*†(†(8 8 ‘ be shooting. In this regard we believe the Cobris site is more likely to lead photographers astray than to be helpful.

If you are trying to shoot editorial subject matter for textbooks then one of the best resources is to look at textbooks. See what they are using. See how closely the illustration ties to some specific point made in the text. Note that much of the imagery is very straightforward. Textbooks tend to make less use of "arty" images or those with "weird lighting".


Images that illustrate concepts are always in demand. The list below includes concepts that are often requested. The ones that are starred (*) are more frequently requested than the others. In planning shoots stock photographers may want to focus on producing images that illustrate certain concepts. If your image illustrates several concepts that is likely to make it more marketable.


Another profitable branch of stock photography is the personality photograph. The better known the person the more valuable the image. The more frequently editors decide to do stories about the person, the better. If there is limited access to the person, which tends to happen as people become better and better known, and if you, as a photographer, can get access to produce a unique set of images then these images will probably sell frequently and be very valuable. Sometimes images produced when a star or personality was just getting started, and when it was easier to get access to them, can be very valuable because the image shows a particular part of their character.

Often, in order to get permission to do special coverage, particularly of movie stars, or major sports figures, the photographer must agree to let the subject approve any use. Most subjects seek positive publicity and are not anxious to have their pictures used to illustrate negative stories that might appear in one of the tabloids. Such requests are legitimate if the subject is going to give you access they wouldn't give every other photographer. It is usually well worth giving up certain rights in order to get such a set of pictures.

Photographers who come up with an occasional unique shot of a personality will find it very difficult to know its true value. The best option is to try to find a stock agency to handle the negotiations for you. Most agencies would probably take 50% of any fee they could negotiate for the use, but it will almost always be worth it.


Good stock pictures must be easy to read and understand. They must instantly communicate a concept, or message. In looking at some of images that are being passed off as "stock photography" today you might think this rule no longer applies. We believe it is still an extremely important principle and that stock photographs that have lasting value will meet this standard.

Your pictures may be deeply personal for you, but if the viewer can't figure out what you were trying to communicate then it has little chance of selling. Stock pictures must aid in the selling of products or services.

Some may say that these suggestions are not specific enough. Some photographers seem to want a layout and someone to tell them exactly how the shoot the image. Getty Images is working with many photographers in this way. They send art directors with the photographer on the shoot. The art director plans the shot and the photographer handles the technical end. In most cases these images will sell.

But images produced where the photographer applies his or her own creativity and ideas will also sell. The photographer needs to consider the general types of images that are in demand and the message that needs to be communicated. Armed with that information then the photographer creates.

There are thousands of different buyers and hundreds of different ways that each buyer might want to use images. No single art director has the perfect answer as to what any particular buyer will consider the "right answer" for the use that develops sometime in the future. Every individual photographer has as much chance of creating something that will be useful to a particular art buyer as does any trained art director ©© provided the photographer is trying to produce something in one of the demand categories listed above.

Jack Hollingsworth

Context trends reported at PhotoEast in 1999.

real people
emotional center of image
everyday moments
pastel color palette
less posed
less produced
less styled
less perfect
less cluttered
less staged
life as-it-is (not life as-we-hope-for)
controlled chaos
less polished
shallow depth of field
blurry, fuzzy
actors rather than models
lots of light from behind subject
humorous (okay to laugh)
light hearted
ethnic (one race/one face)
participant vs. spectator
photographer vs. communicator
less literal
more romantic, hopeful, dreamlike
less documentative
more interpretive
simple, yet sophisticated
deeply personal
too many 'silicon models'
too happy (past stock)

Also sells

happy - too happy
more literal, not too dreamlike - less literal, dreamlike
communicate concepts © photographer vs. communicator
sharp © blurry, fuzzy
good depth of field © shallow depth of field
clean clear design © less polished, less perfect
well lit, flat light (look at majority of images on PhotoDisc)
lots of light from behind subject

Copyright © 2002 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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