Do Buyers Need Unique Images?

Posted on 3/13/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Marketers are often told that the images they use in their marketing materials should be “unique” – whenever possible unique to their own business. In theory, that is one reason why so many experts claim that stock images are bad.

But, is that true? Do most image user follow this advice?

The importance of uniqueness may be true for large, worldwide brands that are trying to market their product to a wide audience and want everyone in the world who sees a particular image to connect it with their brand. But such marketing campaigns represent a smaller and smaller share of the marketing being done today.

Increasingly, marketing is aimed toward smaller, specialized niche groups where the promotions are more targeted and changed much more frequently than was the case in the past. An image that appeals to some in a target group may not appeal to others. The next promotion to the same group may need to show something different to catch the eye of those missed the first time around.

In many cases a promotion to a target audience in Maryland may never be seen by anyone on the West Coast and certainly not by people in other parts of the world. Thus, if the same image is used to promote one thing in one area and something totally different in another area no one -- other than the image creator who got paid for both uses -- is likely to ever know the difference.

And, of course, the problem with the unique image that no one else has, or will ever use, is that they cost significantly more to create. The professional photographer who only receive a single payment for a collection of images produced for one project has to charge enough to cover his/her time and costs. The stock photographer may be able to sell a variety of images from a single shoot multiple times to multiple different customer. Thus, the stock photographer may be able to charge much less for each individual use an end up earning more for time and costs invested than the photographer who did a unique shoot.

Why Is This Important

The industry has a whole lot of photographers running around trying to produce pictures that no one has ever seen before. They may stumble on a shot someone wants to buy but increasingly the pictures that are being pumped into the major collections never sell. A particular photo may excite and inspire the image creator, and the creator’s friends, but too often it turns out not to be something that anyone will pay money to use.

Stock photographers need more information about the images that are in demand so they can produce more, and better of the same subject matter. If an image sells multiple times, chances are that other customers will be interested in something like it.

Photographers can track their own sales. Over time when they identify a good selling image they can focus on producing more of that particular subject. But it takes a lot of trial and error to stumble on those good subjects.

In the early years of iStock they allowed their customers to organize their search returns based on the number of download and to see how many times the image had been downloaded. This turned out to be very useful information for many photographers.

As one example, back in In 2006, Lisa F. Young (Lisafx on iStock) shot some pictures of an air conditioning repairman. Most people might think that there wouldn’t be much demand for such images, but they started to sell very well. If you think about it there are a lot of small repair operations trying to promote their local businesses and there wasn’t a lot of choice.
By 2012 she had 9 air conditioning repairman pictures that had been downloaded more than 2070 times. (See here for more details.
Other photographers searching for popular subjects began to see these images and went out and produced similar images. With the new competition Lisa’s sales began to fall, but they didn’t go away completely because many customers still liked her work better. That may have been unfair to Lisa who had found a niche. But in the long run it may be more unfair to everyone to have little or no guidance as to what to create and the relative demand for certain subject matter.

I’m sure the same kind of thing that happened to Lisa happened to other photographers and other subjects. Yuri Arcurs had many images with more than 1,000 downloads and many photographers looked at his work to get an idea of what subject matter was in greatest demand. As more and more photographers produced similar work I’m sure Yuri lost some sales but he is still doing alright.

In any event iStock eventually stopped supplying this detailed information. Customers can still look for the “Most Popular” images, but they have no idea of the relative popularity between the first and the 10th or 100th  image shown, or how the search algorithm determines popularity. There is also no way to determine the relative demand between one subject and a totally different subject. Are air conditional repairmen shots in as much demand as pictures of a family group in a kitchen or of tigers in the wild? What is the better subject to spend your time and money shooting?

It is probably true that a very small percentage of the images in the major collections are responsible for a huge percentage of the downloads – maybe 60% to 70%. To be effective image creators who hope to license their work as stock need to know which images those are. They need to be able to focus on producing more of the kind of work customers want and buy, rather than shooting in the dark.

The sellers have allowed prices to fall so much that it is very difficult for anyone trying to earn a living producing stock images to succeed. If those photographers must also “guess” at what to shoot, waste time producing images for which there is little or no demand, there is very little chance anyone – either the photographer, or the agencies selling the product -- will succeed.

Copyright © 2018 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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