Learning What To Shoot

Posted on 6/6/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Stock photo agents tend to resist supplying photographers with much information about the specific images customers license. I would like to look back to the 1980s and 1990s and remind them how such information helped agencies grow their businesses and photographers produce more of what customers really wanted to buy.

This was the era when agencies produced print catalogs to market their businesses. These catalogs tended to contain 500 to a few thousand images that were a cross section of every subject category in their collections of millions of images. These catalogs provided a representative sample of they best the agency had to offer in each category.

The catalogs were sent to potential image buyers free of charge. New catalogs tended to be produced yearly. Small specialized agencies might only distribute a few thousand catalog. At one point The Image Bank said they distributed 300,000 of one specific catalog to buyers around the world in a single year. These catalogs were also made available to the agency’s photographers as well as photographers they were trying to recruit.

Because the agencies could only afford to show a limited number of images in their catalogs they analyzed their sales experience, and very carefully edited their collections to insure that each image was a prime example of the kind of images their customers had been purchasing.

Some of the images were ones that had already been best sellers. Others were new images that had been produced since the last catalog was sent out, but were great illustrations of the concepts the agency had been selling recently.

Customer Response

Customers made heavy use of these catalogs. The images from the catalogs could be easily used in presentations. Despite the fact that the agency might have had hundreds of variation on the theme of a particular image found in a catalog, customers tended to purchase the catalog images in huge quantities without ever reviewing or considering other non-catalog images.

Major customers would also save the catalogs for referral purposes. A catalog might have 50 pictures of people working in offices, but each year there were a host of new pictures on the same theme or subject. When the buyer needed a picture of this subject matter they might go through all the old catalogs from a particular agency and maybe find a picture from an edition that was three or four years old that was exactly right for their project.

By the mid 90s many major advertising agencies had conference rooms lined with shelves of print catalogs from a wide variety of stock agencies. If an art director had a specific need for something in agriculture, wildlife or travel, she might go first to a catalog of an agency that specialized in that particular subject matter before turning to a catalog of a large agency that would have a little bit of everything.

Many agencies began to discover that a huge percentage of their total sales were of catalog images and that timeless images in older catalogs often continued to sell better than new,, non-catalog images.


Photographers used these catalogs as guides to what to shoot. While meetings with stock agency art directors, and general information about industry trends is helpful, being able to, at one’s leisure, sit down and consider what is actually being used in a particular subject area is of great importance. Every photographer has different skills and talents as well as access to different types of subject matter, at different times. To be able to search a catalog, or a database, for the type of images that have actually sold in the subject area that interests the photographers is of inestimable value. In this way a stock agency could reach, and provide advice to, a much wider range of photographers than the agency’s art directors would ever have time to contact directly.

It was clear that the images in the catalogs were what the agents believed were in greatest demand by their customers. Thus, creating images that illustrated those themes in a different and better manner would probably result in a greater chance of future sales.

One example of how this played out was in the late 80s, if I remember correctly, when Tom Grill produced a series of business images using venetian blinds as a picture element for the Comstock catalog. These pictures started getting used everywhere. The following year all the catalogs of other agencies had their obligatory venetian blind pictures. I don’t think the fact that other photographers were using the same concept that Grill had first employed had any major effect on his career. He is still doing fine. (Today you can go to Getty Images and find 1788 venetian blind pictures, 9 of them Tom Grill’s and you can go to Grill’s agency www.tetraimages.com and find 18 images.)

Another factor to consider is that now it is almost impossible for a photographer to learn much of anything in terms of what might be in demand by searching the web site of any major stock agency. There are so many variations of any keyword search that the photographer will never have time to look through all of them. The photographer does know that at least 90% of the images shown, and probably closer to 99%, have never been of interest to any picture buyers. Such research is of no help at all in determining what appeals to customers.

How Does The Catalog Experience Apply Today?

Today, it would be much easier and less costly for agencies to create a database on their site that would show only those images that have been purchased by someone. A huge percentage (possibly over 99%) of the images customers are asked to look through every day have never been used by anyone.

Photographer have no idea which images customers have found useful and which ones they haven’t. If photographers are out shooting things that no one is interested in buying it is certainly not helping them nor their agency. Some photographers may be happy to shoot images no one wants simply for the joy of taking the particular picture. But from a business point of view this is not a useful way to spend one’s time.

A database of images purchased would provide a more detailed analysis than print catalogs ever could of what customers are willing to purchase. Using keywords, it would be possible to narrowly focus searches of this database. Print catalogs were limited to just a few examples in broad categories.

If the agencies were to also provide a system that allowed the ordering of images based on downloads, or even better, indicate the number of times each image had been downloaded that would be of great help to both photographers and customers in determining how popular a particular image is relative to the general collection. If photographers could focus more on shooting images that customers had shown were the kind of thing they wanted to purchase, that would not only help both the photographer and the customer, but the agency as well.

I can understand why agencies might not want to share this much detail about their business, but offering a simple database of images that have been licensed would be of immeasurable value to photographers and customers. It is hard to see how it could damage the agency.

One thing that confuses the issue a little is the number of subscription downloads compared to single image purchases. I would rather just see a database of single image purchases. The problem with subscription downloads is that often (no one knows how often) images are downloaded for reference purposes, not actual use. This can give a false sense in the interest in the subject matter and possibly encourage the production of subject matter for which there is not much interest.

However, even then it would be better than the existing system where no producer has any idea as to what is in demand, except for his.her personal images that have sold.

Copyright © 2017 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Karl Schatz Posted Jun 7, 2017
    Jim - Aurora does quite a bit to inform our photographers what images are selling and what clients are looking for and need, and I would imagine that many other agencies do too. That said, I don't think it is necessarily Aurora's (or any other agency's) responsibility to be public about what is selling. We are responsible first and foremost to the photographers we work with, and so we share this information directly with them.

    My recommendation to photographers who are looking for this kind of specific client needs and sales information would be to begin working closely with an agency that aligns with their photography style and subject matter, and who can give them the best market information possible to match the genre of photography that they do. It would be an excellent question for photographers to ask when seeking representation for their work: What kind of market feedback does your agency give it's photographers?

    Karl Schatz, Director
    Aurora Photos

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