Knowing What To Shoot

Posted on 9/25/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Stock agencies do a very poor job of advising photographers what to shoot. Most successful businesses try to keep the people producing their products well informed about what is selling and what isn’t. They don’t want their workers wasting time (and costing them money) producing products no one wants to buy.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the stock photo business works. The people selling the imagery are not required to take production costs into account. All they must do is pay producers a percentage of whatever portion of the production they manage to sell. They don’t pay salaries or other benefits to workers. They don’t supply tools, or other overhead costs that might be necessary for producers to run their operations. Sellers feel no responsibility if producers are unable cover their operating costs and earn a reasonable profit for their time and effort invested. That becomes the producers problem. Not the seller’s responsibility.

As a result, fewer and fewer of the images in the agency collections ever sell. We don’t know the exact number of unique images any of the agencies license because many of the images licensed are licensed multiple times. We have no broad based information about the subject matter of what’s selling, let alone specifics. But, if we just look at the broadest sales statistics available it is clear that an increasingly growing percentage of the images being added to the major collections are not what customers want to buy.

Consider Shutterstock. If we go back to Q1 2016, Shutterstock had 81 million images in its collection and 41.2 million downloads (50.86%) in that quarter. Two-and-a-half years later they had 215.1 million images in their collection (2.65 times as many) and only 45.2 million downloads, a 9% increase per quarter in a period of two years. Clearly more of the kind of images they are adding isn’t the answer to a significant growth in sales.

Back in 2006 Getty had about 1.7 million images in its Creative collection. In that year they made almost one sale for every image in the collection. (Many images sold multiple times in the year so some images did not sell.) Now they have 27,349,333 images in their Creative collection.  I estimate, based on analysis of some photographer sales reports, that in 2017 they licensed about 4.5 million uses. That’s 3 times as many images licensed and 16 times as many image in the collection.

And about one-third of those licenses were for prices of $5.00 or less. Thanks to lowering prices, the Creative collection as a whole generated about half as much revenue in 2017 as in 2006. Just cutting prices doesn’t make customers want to buy more, if what they need is not there, and easy to find.

Getty actually seem proud that 97% of the people who visit their site are just browsing and never purchase anything. They seem to be more focused on getting everyone in the world to look at their collection than in actually making sales. It has become t too hard for real customers to find something that will work for their projects. Is the answer to let everyone have as many images as they want for whatever they are willing to pay?

Can Anything Be Done To Change Things?

1 – The big agencies could give customers and creators the option of reviewing just the images that have actually been licensed at least once by someone. That would make it easier for customers to do a quick review. They would then have a clear understanding of the portion of the collection that other professional users had found useful.

If the customer doesn’t find what they want in the “used” collection, then they can turn to the “unused” collection. But, at least, they have saved some time in their search.

2 – If agencies think this is too much information to make available to all creators they could at least set up a database, only available to staff, that identifies images that have been licensed compared to those that haven’t. I don’t think any of the big agencies are doing this. If they had such a database they could make better decisions about what images to add to the collection and what to encourage creators to shoot.

Possibly, agencies don’t want to give inspectors access to such data. But, once the inspectors insure that the images meet all the technical requirements, the images could be passed on to a second tier of editors who could accept image that appear similar to what is selling, and reject large portions of the type of imagery that has shown no evidence of being what customers want to buy.

3 – Agencies could also segment their collections, as iStock has done successfully, into Signature and Essential collections. However, instead of dividing the images based on whether they are Exclusive or Non-exclusive to the agency -- which really makes no sense in today’s market -- segment them on the basis of whether they have ever been Licensed, or are Unlicensed.

iStock charges 3 times the price for the Signature images as they charge for the Essentials. It would make a lot of sense to charge a higher price for images that had been previously licensed indicating that at least one customer had determined the image was useful for a commercial purpose.

It is interesting to note that iStock has about 6 times as many Essentials images as Signature and yet it licenses about the same number of Signature images as Essentials despite the fact that Signature are 3 times more expensive.

What I am proposing is that every image would enter the collection as Unlicensed. The first person to license that image gets it for the unlicensed price. But, once it has been licensed it is automatically moved to the Licensed collection. It appears in all future searches of Licensed images and is priced, going forward the licensed price.

4 – Being able to review Licensed images separately from Unlicensed would be a big benefit to many buyers, but the agency might be concerned that the Unlicensed collection would be so large when compared to the Licensed that no one would ever want to use it.

One way to solve that problem would be to split the Unlicensed into three different collections. Give users the option of searching collections based on age. For example:
    1 – Images uploaded in the last 60 days that have not been licensed.
    2 – Images uploaded between at lease 60 days earlier and less than 6 months that have not been licensed?
    3 – Images that have been in the collection more than 6 months that have never been licensed.
Users who regularly look for the same subject matter would probably come to recognize that if they check the site every couple months the have probably seen all the older images before. If the images weren’t useful previously then the customer probably doesn’t need to look at that part of the collection again.

See this link for more thoughts.

5 – Another possibility which could improve revenue if the agency makes a decision to separate Licensed images from those that are Unlicensed is that they could charge more for the images that are more popular.

Here is a sample schedule for how that might work. The price would rise slightly depending on the number of times the image was licensed previously. The chart shows three different options for how rapidly the price might rise. Considering, the number of images that are currently being licensed for less than $5.00 none of these schedules is particularly unreasonable, and yet this could dramatically raise the overall revenue generated by the images.

  Image Licensed Price A Price B Price C
Level 1 Never Licensed $5.00 $5.00 $5.00
Level 2 Once, but less than 4 times $7.50 $6.00 $10.00
Level 3 3 times, but less than 7 times $10.00 $7.00 $15.00
Level 4 6 times, but less than 10 times $12.50 $8.00 $20.00
Level 5 9 times, but less than 20 times $15.00 $10.00 $30.00
Level 6 19 times, but less than 50 times $20.00 $15.00 $40.00

For more on this idea check out this link.

If the major agencies would just consider some of these ideas there is a good chance they would (1) improve the quality of their collections, (2) make it easier for their customers to find what they need and (3) grow revenue for themselves and their contributors.

However, these ideas are not revolutionary. They have been possible for a long time. And there doesn't seem to be any indication that the agencies are likely to move in any of these directions.

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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