Captioning and Filing

Posted on 1/10/1997 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)


Captioning and Filing

January 10, 1997

The following is the first in a series of articles we will be doing on various
aspects of managing a stock photo business.

Developing a system to caption and file images is critical to making them
available for sale. But the primary thing to keep in mind when developing any

system is that it is very easy to spend more in time and money in captioning and
filing images than you will ever earn from their sale.

The average return for the photographer for each image in a well-edited stock
agency general file is $1.00 per image per year. Photographers selling their
work directly will probably not do this well even though they keep 100% of the
fees collected.

You'll be lucky to get 10% to 20% of the images you shoot selected by a stock
agency. Thus, your annual return per image shot is actually $.10 to $.20 per
image. If it costs you $.10 per image to caption it will take you a year of
sales just to pay back that cost. Then you have to pay for your film, shipping,
time to shoot, etc. It may cost you less than $.10 to caption an image, but do
some analysis of the system you plan to implement before getting too deeply
committed to a costly procedure. Consider the cost of your time and what you
could be doing otherwise.

Importance of Captioning

Nevertheless, proper captioning can be extremely important to successful
licensing of editorial subject matter. It may be less important for images
designed for the corporate market because generally such images illustrate
concepts that are obvious from looking at the image. Often, locations or other
specific information about the image are not necessary for images that are
primarily of use for corporate or advertising purposes. Of course, if you are
shooting travel locations captioning is always extremely important.

I used to caption every 35mm frame with a printed label attached to the 35mm
slide mount. This was done before editing. Each image was given a unique

Part of the logic behind this was that I distributed most of these frames to
many agencies around the world for their consideration. Very few frames were
thrown away. When those that were not selected came back from one agency they
were shipped off to another for their consideration. My marketing arrangements
with U.S. agencies were non-exclusive. With foreign agencies I would not put
similars with any other agency in their country, but could put similars with
agencies in other countries.

Such marketing arrangements are becoming less and less advisable as we move
toward an environment where any agency will be able to sell anywhere in the
world. Consequently, I am now attempting to be represented by fewer agencies
with a focus toward those that can give me the broadest worldwide distribution
in print or digital catalogs. I edit very tightly, caption those few, and
basically forget about the rest.

I have concluded that it costs more to put seconds into the marketplace than I
am ever likely to earn from them.

I used to track, by number, every image sent to any agency. A huge amount of
assistants time was spent in keying in numbers. I have stopped this practice
because it is not worth the time invested. Frankly, the likelihood that I will
ever get all my images back from most of my stock agencies is slim, no matter
how good my records are. (See Return of Transparencies, page 5, March 1996.)

Never send any image to an agency you can't afford to lose. Make sure you have
good similars or duplicates of anything you intend to leave with your agency.

New Strategy

Currently, when film comes back from the processor I do an extremely tight
edit, caption only the selected images, and put them in plastic sheets. Each
image has it own unique number. I throw away only the out-of-focus and
obviously unusable images. The rest of the outtakes go into 2"x2"x9" boxes you
can purchase at any coin supply store. I can put about 175 images in one of
these boxes. I mark the group with the unique numbers of one of the selected
images from this group. Thus, if I ever need to use any of these images I can
refer to the number to get the proper caption information. These coin boxes are
filed in transfer files and seldom referred to. If there are in-camera dupes,
which I shoot very few of these days, they are in these files.


I print out four lines of information on labels. The first line is the
copyright symbol and my name. The second line begins with a unique sequence
number that is created by the computer. Each one of my numbers begins with two
letters and has up to five digits. I begin a new two letter sequence each year.
The number is simply a unique identifier and has nothing to do with where the
image is placed in the file.

Some photographers may shoot subjects that require much more caption
information than will fit in four lines. I recommend that they type this
information on a separate paper, code it with the number on the image, and file
it in sequence number order according to the code. Don't try to send it out
with each request for that image, but when clients want additional information
you can locate it quickly.
As a general rule I would not bother trying to send this additional
information to your stock agency. Very few have the capabilities of handling
any information not on the slide mount. Most will simply lose it. Understand
your agency's system for handling such information before you go to the trouble
of supplying it.


I have used two systems and find both have their benefits. Both involve
putting the images in plastic sheets. In one case I store them in file folders
by categories. You can choose the categories based on the kind of material you
shoot. If you are a travel photographer the categories might be by state. When
the categories get too large (10 to 20 plastic sheets) I try to subdivide.

My Washington, D.C. file, where I live, tended to grow rapidly. Therefore, I
have sub-categories for: Capital Building, White House, Other Government
Buildings, Scenics, etc. Photographers outside this area wouldn't need that as
many sub-categories. The purpose of categorization is to make it easy to find
certain subjects quickly.

I try to choose categories that are representative of the way images are often
requested. For example under Business I might have executives, meetings,
on-phone, at-computers, laptops-on-location or under Recreation I might
subdivide by various sports.
I put a code on the images that helps me refile. This can be put on the label
at the time of caption, or later by using a separate label. I use "AA" for
abstracts, "BB" for banking & currency, "FA" for family/mother and child, "FB"
for family/father and child, etc. There is no relationship between the serial
number and the filing code. The categories will vary from photographer to
photographer depending on specialty.

The other method is to store the plastic sheets in 3-ring
binders, again with some kind of category system.

In choosing a filing system the most important things to consider are ease of
finding the images and ease of refile.

I like the heavy, non-archival plastic pages because they keep their shape and
the slides don't fall out like they do from the archival pages. I have some
images that have been stored in the non-archival pages for almost 30 years and I
don't see any degradation of the color although everyone tells me that is
supposed to happen.

Model Release

I number model releases in sequence and store photocopies in notebooks. The
originals are stored at another site. In my relational database of the unique
image numbers there is a field for model release number. Thus, if I look up the
unique number of the image it will list the model release number, and I can
immediately go to my notebooks and find the proper model release.

If I do a shoot with five models and do one situation with two, another
situation with a different two and some shots with all five, I will make extra
copies of the model releases and give each group a separate number. That way if
someone wants to use a particular picture I know which two models were in that

This system only works as long as your agency doesn't tear off your identifying
label with your unique number so they can put their own number on your images.
I have one agency that likes to call me five or ten years after I have submitted
images and says, "We've got this picture of two people by a computer terminal.
Can you tell me the models' names and send us a copy of the releases?" But, the
only identifying number they can provide is theirs, not mine.

Delivery of Images to Clients

When I deliver images to clients the only thing that goes on the delivery memo
is the unique number of the image. If necessary, from that number, I can track
back and quickly find out all the other information I need to know. I don't
need to waste a lot of time and paper printing out other information the client
will hardly ever want to know.


At Stock Connection our prime selects are all in print or digital catalogs. We
have a master catalog that contains every image. We search for subjects using
keywords. Once we have identified the images that fit a particular request we
retrieve the transparencies by using the image number. All transparencies are
filed in sequence number order making them very easy to locate.

Very few photographers making sales directly will be able to justify the
expense of keywording every image in their file. I have discussed keywording in
previous newsletters and in Negotiating Stock Photo Prices. At the Stock Agency
level, and the catalog distribution level, keywording is extremely important.
For an individual photographer's file it is a waste of time.

When we first started putting images on discs we asked photographers to do the
keywording. We found that we get better results (more sales) when we use
trained people to do the keywording. Photographers should supply location names
and information that can not be deduced by looking at the image, but stock
agency-trained keyworders can do a better job of descriptive and concept
keywording than most photographers. Don't waste your time in this effort.

Computer Program

The following are some computer programs for captioning that may be useful.

  • Cradock Captionwriter, 7100B East Main Street, Dept. O, Scottsdale, AZ
    85251, phone: 1-800-947-7155 or 602-949-1707 - For IBM and MAC
  • InView & StockView from HindSight Ltd., P.O. Box 4242, Highland Ranch, CO
    80126 phone: 303-791-3770 MAC only
  • Slide Scribe, 7685 Washington Ave. So., Minneapolis, MN 55439 phone:
    612-942-7909 Fax: 612-942-7852 Programs for PC or MAC (I also get my labels
    from them. They are 1 7/8" x 7/16" for laser printers and come 4 across with 84
    to a sheet.)
  • Proslide II from Ellenco, P.O. Box 159, Dept.C, Tijeras, NM 87059 phone:
  • NSCS Pro, P.O. Box 2605, Evergreen, CO 80437 phone:303-674-3009 fax:
    303-674-7022 Windows only
  • FotoAgent 1.2 from ProPublishing, Inc. 954-680-1771. Windows only

My personal preference is to start with a database program like dBASE or
Filemaker Pro and custom build files to accommodate my needs. I find the
turn-key stock management packages too restrictive.


We have a program that will produce barcodes for our numbers. However, I have
come to the conclusion that this is another time-waster. Barcodes can be useful
at the end of the day if you are trying to get several hundred images itemized
on a delivery memo and out the door. But the time it takes to put barcodes on
every slide in your file is not justified if 90% of them are never requested.
This is the case for most photographers.

Some people try to solve this problem by barcoding the images the first time
they go out. This will take as much, if not more, time as it would to simply
type the image numbers on your delivery memo. If the same images go in and out
very frequently it may be worthwhile to set up a barcode system. But if the
bulk of your images are requested once and then sit in the file for two or three
years before the next request, don't waste a lot of time on barcoding. We have
had no trouble in reading barcodes through plastic sheets.

Tracking Images Sent to Clients

When we send images out to clients we track each image by unique number and we
make a photo copy of the slide page. In this way, if the client loses a
transparency, we can identify exactly what is lost. This not only helps us
recover $1500 per transparency when a client loses one, but it also results in a
lot less loss. When clients see unique numbers they know you can track the
images and they tend to handle them with a lot more care.

Tracking which images sell may be useful in planning future shoots, but only if
you have a good volume of sales. If you only make a few hundred sales over a period of a few years the
information may be too random to be of much value. For individuals, most of the
tracking software may tend to waste more of your time than increase sales. For
agencies such tracking makes much more sense.

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, 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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