Superstock Creates the X-File

Posted on 1/22/2002 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



January 22, 2002

Two-Tier Scanning Strategy

Problem! It's impossible to license rights to images a customers never sees. Thus, the
issue for photographers and stock agencies is how to get more of their images where they
can be seen by customers?

SuperStock has developed a new two-tier online search strategy that may offer their
photographers a tremendous advantage over photographers represented by other agencies.

Many agencies are only accepting a small percentage of the new images being offered by
their photographers. There are several factors that drive that strategy.

  • - The web is becoming the predominant place where customers go to look for

  • - There is a high up-front cost of scanning, cleaning up the scans and keywording
    every image that is made available on the web.

  • - There is already a tremendous oversupply of images on the web in most subject

  • - Some customers are discouraged from using the web because it takes too much of
    their time to use keyword search and look through too many thumbnails to find the right
    image for their project.

These factors have lead many image suppliers to focus on tighter editing and purging their
files. SuperStock recognizes that for photographers to be successful they need to find
ways to show a larger portion of the images they produce. As a result SuperStock has
developed a two tier editing strategy for the images they make available on the web.

First Tier

The first level of editing (tier) is similar to what all the other agencies are doing. The
images selected are unique shots that illustrate the classic concepts in a new and
different way. CEO Jim Ong points out that the subject matter that sells hasn't changed
since SuperStock first started selling stock images in 1973. What constantly changes are
the buyers needs to find new and exciting illustrations for these same subjects and

The images SuperStock selects at this level are of the highest quality in every way. Many
of these images will go into one of the two or three new print catalogs that SuperStock
produces annually. SupersStock currently has about 45,000 images online that fall into
this category.

These images are scanned at 300 dpi and large enough to allow them to be printed as a
double page spread. This produces approximately an 80mb file. Once an image is color
corrected and cleaned up it is compressed as a JPEG at a Photoshop setting of 11. These
images are then made available to the customers by page size - double page (A3), full page
(A4) and half page (A5), which approximately corresponds to JPEG sizes of 20MB, 10MB and
5MB. Most customers tend to choose the intermediate size of 10MB (40MB uncompressed).

Once this level of editing is completed, there still tends to be a lot of images from any
take that in the past would have gone into the general film files. These images may meet
the needs of certain clients, but are unlikely to sell many times. In the past, if the
customer couldn't find what he or she wanted among the catalog selects, a researcher would
have been asked to search the general file for other options.

In the digital age SuperStock needed to find a way to make their researchers more
efficient. But, they also recognized that the film files contained many valuable images
that needed to be accessed in some way because these were images that many customers

They were also driven by the fact that 2/3rds of their gross revenue comes from
sub-agencies operating outside the U.S. and a significant portion of this income came from
dupes of "file selects," not just the catalog images. At their peak they manufactured
approximately 1.25 million dupes in one year. These factors led to the development of
their second tier editing strategy.


This level of editing is designed to take some of the remaining images - 2nds, 3rds and
similars - that every photographer produces and get them into an online environment where
they can be seen by their researchers and included in lightboxes that are sent to their
customers. It is important to note that the quality of these images it equal to the first
tier images, but for various reasons it is not expected that they will be licensed as
frequently as the first tier. This X-File gives both the agency and the photographer a
chance to earn revenue from images that don't survive the initial tight edit, but
nontheless are images some customers want to use.

One of the dilemmas SuperStock faced was how to cover the costs of scanning and keywording
images that are not expected to sell in high volume. They developed a system to scan these
images at 72dpi (instead of 300dpi) with the longest dimension at 600 pixel's wide.
This produced an image that was suitable for preview and comp use, but not good enough for
final reproduction.

They use a UMAX Power Look 3 flat bed scanner to do this work. At their current production
rate they expect to produce low-res scans of about 250,000 new images per year. They
intend to scan a much larger percentage of all new work submitted than had been possible
in the past, and as time allows go back into their existing files of about a million
images and scan those that have continued market potential.

To save time and costs on the keywording side, they use a category system of search. This
category system has three levels and according to Chief Operating Officer Kai Chiang sorts
the images into almost 3,000 different categories.

You can get an idea of what these categories are by going to the SuperStock web site
( and under "Search for Images" click on "Search Rights Protected". In
this area you can either search by Image Number, Keyword or Category. In the category
section there are three levels of search. The 17 primary categories are: Animals,
Architecture, Business, Computers, Concepts, Food and Drink, Health, Industry, Lifestyle,
Miscellany, Nature, Objects, People, Sports, Transportation, USA and World Travel. Under
each of these sections there are many sub-categories and in many cases a sub-sub-category.
That's how they get to the 3,000 different divisions.

It so happens that for years their film file has been organized in these categories.
Whenever an image is accepted into the system it is first assigned to one, or multiple
categories. (If it goes into multiple categories in the film system extra dupes would have
to be made. In the digital environment multiple extra categories can all be keyed to one
specific film location.)

When an image is accepted into the file it is assigned a specific number that identifies
its category. Thus, the process of migrating from the film environment to one of digital
categories is very simple to implement. It is also a system that the sales people and
researchers, both in the U.S. and abroad, are very familiar with.

The current category search that is available for customer viewing on the site shows only
the 45,000 prime select images that have been scanned to 80MB and which are fully
keyworded. However, the in-house researchers, and the researchers at the more than 60
sub-agencies around the world that represent SuperStock, can review the Second Tier images
as well.

High Resolution Delivery

When a second tier image is selected by a customer, SuperStock has the capability of
creating and delivering a high resolution file within two hours during the normal work
week. They run two scanning shifts between 6am and 10pm EST. They have two Heidelberg drum
scanners in-house as well as other scanners. Whenever and image is selected that hasn't
already been scanned to high resolution, it is sent immediately to the scanning department
for scanning and clean up.

Once the image has been delivered to the customer to meet the immediate need, it then goes
through a process of additional keywording, if necessary, and is included among the first
tier images for general search by all customers. In this way images that sell are always
migrating to the higher levels of search.

Is The Second Tier Really Needed?

Some might think that with 45,000 top quality images available in the first tier the
second tier wouldn't be needed and that researchers would seldom find cause to even look
at this group of images.

The best indication that this not the case is that after only two months of operation of
this second tier system, SuperStock is already making 8 to 15 sales a day from these

As they move forward a lot will depend on how they modify their editing strategies for
first and second tier images. It is certainly possible that their first tier selections
will get even tighter. This would reduce their initial costs of scanning and keywording
and still give them the opportunity to present a greater variety of images to the

Also important will be the percentage of customers who learn to utilize agency researchers
to narrow and focus their initial search rather than relying on a keyword search that they
do themselves. At this point no one is sure whether the customers really like spending
their time doing their own searching, or whether they would prefer to have some help.

SuperStock has a total of 18 sales people and 13 researchers in the U.S. with the
capability of doing secondary searches at the present time. In addition all of their more
than 60 international sub-agents can use the second-tier database for searching.

Kai Chiang says that to date most of SuperStock's customers use keyword search, but as the
company places more emphasis on marketing their research service that could change. I
believe that because of the language difficulties category searches will be used much more
heavily in non-English speaking countries than keyword searches.

Finally, there is the question of whether these second tier images will be made available
for direct search by the customers, or not. Part of the internal debate at SuperStock is
whether this direct access to additional images will be appreciated by the customers, or
whether they would simply see it as an overwhelming number of choices to review. This
decision will likely be made once they have more experience with researchers doing these

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, 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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