Posted on 2/15/1996 by Bob Thayer | Printable Version | Comments (0)



The interchange below took place on the STOCKPHOTO web site
in February. The dilemma Bob Thayer has is common to many photographers.
Three experienced stock photographers offer suggestions. If you want more
information about the STOCKPHOTO service send an e-mail to HREF=""> or send

If you have a stock photo issue you would like to see discussed on Taking
Stock Online send an e-mail to gfb@puq.pbz .

Selling Through Stock Agency or Direct on the Web

Bob Thayer

I'm at a crossroads in my career. I wonder if I might get some opinions
from those of you who run stock agencies and those who belong to them.

I've been taking pictures seriously for about fifteen years and have maybe
20,000 transparencies (35mm and 6x7), mostly nature, plants, animals, national
parks, etc. The majority of my work has been done for my own audio- visual
productions and book projects. I have had some luck in selling stock but
my sales have been few because of the time it takes to research, package
and mail out submissions. My photography is still a part time occupation
- I haven't given up my day job yet.

It sounds like I'm a candidate for putting my work with a stock agency.
But I have resisted so far, after hearing stories of how photographers are
abused by agencies. Do agencies want photographers who are not full time?

I know my photographs are going to waste if they are not available to the
market, and today the market still looks to agencies. BUT how long will
it be before all stock photographers have sites on the web and prospective
buyers will simply scan the web - request an image - and have it downloaded
directly from the photographer? No shipping, no originals, no middleman.
Or maybe, buyers will list their needs on the web and we will simply submit
our images electronically for their approval? My concern is that I will
get into an agency just as they go out of style.

Should I devote my energy into setting up my own business and web site or
should I actively pursue an existing agency? Will agencies decline as the
computer age progresses?

I look forward to the discussion and the advise.

Rules for supplying feedback


Jim Pickerell

Your questions are not simple to answer, but here are a few general thoughts.
In addition see my newsletter, Taking Stock, at HREF="//">

but you will have to watch it over time, not just take a one shot look,
if you want to get a thorough understanding of what you should do.

You're discouraged by the time it takes to research, package and mail out
submissions. The questions you need to ask yourself are: (1) Am I making
enough from the sales I do make to justify the amount of time I have to
spend to do the research for all the projects I send out? (2) Are there
reasons why an agency would be able to do it faster and more efficiently
than I can do it or will it take them just as much time?

Remember, if you get an agency to accept your work someone is going to have
to put all that work you now have organized in a new file. Then they are
going to have to do same kind of research you do to fulfill requests. Since
they have full time people to work on this, chances are they will be able
to fill more requests than you can. Chances are they will be aware of more
requests than you see. But, will they work on every request that comes to
the agency, or only those that seem likely to be the most productive from
their point of view? Will they send out your images on all requests that
your subject matter might remotely fit, or will they send John's (another
photographer in their stable) because in their judgement his imagery is
better for particular requests and they don't want to overload the client
with too much to choose from? If that happens is that good for you, or not?

Will prospective buyers scan individual sites of prospective photographers
to find images? That is happening now with limited success for the most
photographers, but there are a limited number of sites that a buyer needs
to search.

In my opinion, when there are thousands of individual photographer sites
and no unified system of organization for searching them the buyers will
totally ignore them. There has to be some system to call up images of a
selected type in an organized way. This probably means keywording in a
way that is easily understood by even the casual user. If there are a hundred
different systems none of them will get any attention. Hopefully, there
will be a standard, but at the very least only a few approaches. So far,
nobody is willing to work toward a standard and everyone is trying to do
their own thing.

The only people who have anything working now are a few individual stock
agencies and organizations like PNI and KPX. The only entry to these networks
is through stock agencies. A network that would be open to photographers
directly is needed, but there is no indication that one is likely to appear.

In addition the existing networks are offering images at very low prices
and hoping for high volume. So far there is very little evidence that the
volume will ever materialize, but the low prices are becoming well

You also need to think about why someone would want to work to find your
nature, plants, animals and national park pictures rather than those that
are already easily accessible in stock agency files. Are they that much
better? Are they that much different? You are in the area where there is
the greatest supply of imagery and relatively little demand. Jack Hamilton
commented to you based on his specialization of shooting teens for the
publishing market. He has two things going for him. There is a much greater
demand for the kind of imagery he produces than there is supply. Also, he
knows his market and what it needs. He has identified a good niche. Maybe
you know your market too and have a good idea of who is going to want to
buy rights to your pictures, you just haven't indicated that in your post.
You suggest that clients might scan thumbnails and then download large files
as needed. A thumbnail catalog can work for individual photographers, but
the downloading of large files is probably going to require some type of
larger organization or agency.

I can't imagine a photographer paying for the storage space to have a 20MB
to 30MB file of every one of his images online for ready access. More likely
is that when a request is made to use a particular image the large file
will be pulled from a CD-ROM archive and uploaded. But someone has to be
around to handle that operation. Are you ready to tie up your computer for
the time it takes to download this size of a file? Your worried about the
time it takes you to do research, package and deliver images. Custom delivery
of digital files may take about the same amount of time. Only organizations
with huge mass data storage, and a big volume in sales, are going to be
able to approach digital delivery in any other way.

I believe that agencies that focus on maintaining large general files of
film will decline in the computer age, but many existing agencies will find
ways to transition into this new marketing environment. There will still
be many research, pricing and delivery services that agencies could provide
in the digital environment that would save both the buyers and the photographers
time, and thus would be a useful reason for having an intermediary.

Jay Brousseau

IMHO, you need to know where you work fits into the marketplace to know
where to best place it. This will require serious effort on your part.
are the most abundant & competitve subjects in the marketplace. If you are
friends with a successful stock photog., ask him/her to look over your
representative sample of your best work and give you an appraisal. If you
can get access to catalogs from the larger agencies (Image Bank, Tony Stone,
FPG), you can see their best work and compare your images to theirs. Most
serious stock shooters have them. It's a big, diverse market. Your expectations
of what earnings you might expect or be happy with are also unique to you.
If a few hundred dollars here and there are within the acceptable range-
there are many more choices. An agency generally expects it photographers
to be a continuing source of images because they spend valuable resources
and time researching, evauating data, and comunicating the needs of the
market to their artists. From my point of view, it's important to be with
a major agency because of the amount of energy and expense I go through
to produce my images. But there are big trade offs to this relationship-
some of them can seriously restrict the potential earning power of some
images. The up side is that many of *my* images would not produce nearly
the income they do if they were anywhere else but at a large agency -no
matter how much money energy I invested in marketing them. The point being
that I mostly produce the kind of images that are best marketed by a large
agency. There are other images I produce that my agency is not the best choice
for - but I am prevented by contract restrictions to use alternative marketing
devices such as specialized agencies or "Direct Stock".

I agree that there are few people making more than pocket change from web
sites this point. Probably because the high-end users don't want to do
their own research- it's still easier to use the agency to do all the leg
work. That may change, but the effort required to maintain & market a web
site, service clients, and handle transactions is high, and doesn't yet
attract the kind of buyers with real budgets to offset those costs for
business people like myself.

Jack Hamilton

Most of you do not know me, but I have made my living in the stock photo
biz for the last 30-years---as a stock photo illustrator.

For me, making the decision to not go through stock photo agencies has not
been a difficult one. What you do need for openers, is a good solid grounding
in what this "stock photography" thing is all about. You will
probably have a lot of suggestions hurled at you to buy this program, or
this book, etc. Well, all that may be as it may. I AM NOT SELLING ANYTHING.
I'm an honest-to-God practitioner specializing in shooting/marketing photos
of teens for the educational publishing market.

Now, my years of experience have taught me two VERY IMPORTANT THINGS:

  1. Stock photo agencies handle generic photos...and getting involved with
    them will make you one of thousands...but then, if you make generic type
    photos, then this is the only way to go...

  2. The successful STOCK PHOTO ILLUSTRATOR, of today (and tomorrow) will
    specialize in a certain subject matter, for a certain-type of market. Like
    me: teens in moments of interacting, for the educational, textbook market.
    This is one of the lower paying markets...and thus the agencies shy away
    from it...and YET THE HIGH VOLUME of photo uses make this a sure winner
    for the cat who is doing his own marketing WITH A PLAN!!!

    Now with all that said, I'm going to negate what I said in the first part
    of this message...and recommend ONLY ONE BOOK: Sell and Resell Your Photos,
    , by Rohn Engh (published by Writer's Digest Books)

    So much for the plug... But it honest-to-God will save you years of frustration
    and tears trying to figure this whole stock biz out.

    Good planning, shooting and two cents worth (oh, heck, in
    this day of inflation, let's make it a nickel)

Copyright © 1996 Bob Thayer. 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


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