New Life for Niche Marketers

Posted on 3/6/1998 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



March 6, 1998

Do the super-agencies effectively cover all the markets in the world? They have many

offices and

make sales worldwide.

But, they are also developing

marketing strategies that could severely limit their penetration of certain segments of

the stock

photo market. Some of

these segments represent

substantial dollar sales.

Many photographers produce a few images that can compete for major advertising uses,

and a larger

quantity of material

suitable for certain niche

markets. These photographers have tended to place all this work with a single large

global agency.

Recently, there are

growing indications that many

major agencies will withdraw from effectively supplying certain niche markets, as they


advertising sales.

Why would large agencies avoid any markets? Because the profits they can make

from such

sales, relative to the

cost of engaging in this line of

business, are not attractive enough to interest their investors.

No agency will currently admit to such a strategy, but their actions lead to this


Individual photographers

needs to carefully consider the

directions in which their agency is headed and determine if it is in their (the


best interest.

    Before I go further, I need to point out that activities attributed to "large

    agencies" in this

    article are not

    happening equally at all large

    agencies. Photographers currently represented need to watch their agency, be alert to

    the changes

    and consider their

    options. Photographers

    considering joining a large agency need to ask probing questions, particularly of other

    photographers who have experience

    with the agency.

Things To Consider

There are several aspects to this issue that need to be examined.

  • First, under what circumstances would the large agency be less effective than a

    small one

    in selling to niche


  • Second, what are the indicators that large agencies won't be a source of niche

    images in the


  • Third, editing is the key.

  • Fourth, how and why are the specialty agencies likely to benefit and who will be

    some of the


  • Fifth, how do photographers adjust?

Large Agency Strategy

Many super-agencies have decided that their future is in selling to the high end market

through the

internet and are

positioning themselves for this

future. They also believe print catalogs will be a strong marketing tool into the



These agencies have traditionally had broad, deep files that support their catalogs,

even though

the majority of their

income tended to come from

catalog sales. Some are now recognizing that the cost of maintaining these files is a

drain on

capital and they are

getting more particular about what

they accept and keep. This drain comes at a time when they need increased resources to

move into

digital marketing.

In general, leading agencies recognize:

  • They have much more material in their files than they can ever afford to


  • The up-front costs of preparing an image for digital marketing is greater than the

    cost of

    traditional filing

    methods (which must be maintained

    as well). Attaching words to the images (keywording or some type of natural language


    information) is critical to

    finding images in a digital

    file. This is true even if the file search is done by in house researchers, rather

    than the

    general public.

  • Digital preparation of editorial images is even more time consuming, and thus

    costly, than

    concept images because

    they need to be described in

    greater detail.

  • Given that in the best of circumstances an agency only licenses rights to a small

    percentage of

    the images in

    their files, in the past some

    agencies have accepted far too many images when compared to the number they are

    actually able to


  • Print catalog images will undoubtedly sell well in the digital environment, but it

    is unclear

    how much else will

    sell well enough to offset the

    costs of filing.

  • Royalty Free may take over the market for simple, clean, straight illustrations.

    Thus, it is

    unclear how much of

    this type of material should

    be accepted into the files or put in print or digital catalogs when the agency is

    attempting to

    license one-time usage

    rights at higher


At this point on-line sales figures are not significant enough to make educated

judgements as to

how much

non-print-catalog material it may eventually

be economic to digitize. Agencies are trying different strategies, but the jury is

still out. In

the long run, I believe

the Corbis approach of

digitizing everything selected and having no back up film file will not produce

profits. Providing

a broad enough

selection to catch the browser and

draw them back to the agency for a more in-depth search of the general film file may be

a better

strategy. Defining how

much is "enough" is the trick.

The major agency focus in selecting images for digital files tends to be toward those

images that

fulfill classic cliche

concepts in a new way. This

kind of image has produced the greatest return per image in the past and also happens

to be

proportionally less expensive

to file.

This agency position is understandable. As the industry changes agencies must adjust


marketing strategies to stay

viable. Agencies must

concentrate on lines of business that seem likely to produce the greatest profits, and

drop those

with marginal profit for

the effort expended.

But, in this process the odds are that those images that are not scanned will be pulled


frequently to fill client


Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Some of the public positions that agencies take are not necessarily born out by their


Watch what they do.

The following observations

are the result of dozens of conversations with photographers and stock agents over the

past several


  • Agencies are placing much more emphasis on building their "Core", "Selects",

    "Master Dupe",

    etc. file than their

    general file.

  • Agencies are narrowing the working file that they go through to cut down on

    research time.

    They talk about having

    millions of images, but the

    "active" files they look through on a daily basis may contain many fewer images.

    Often, if the

    researcher finds a good

    representative sample of images

    on a particular subject in the "Selects" file he or she may not bother to look in the

    general file

    to see what else is

    there, assuming (maybe

    correctly) that the "best images" are in the selects file.

    On the other hand, we are hearing more frequently that clients can't find the image

    they are

    looking for at the big

    agencies. For example, a client

    called a major NY agency that they work with frequently. They were looking for a

    straight simple

    shot that said Greece.

    What the agency sent was too

    arty and didn't include the cliche' images. Rather than going back to the agency, the


    assumed this was the best

    they had and called a local

    photographer. As it happened, the photographer was represented by the same NY agency.


    photographer went to his

    files, sent the client the cliche'

    images they needed and made the sale.


An agency's editing strategy is key to a photographer's success. If the image is not

in the file

it can't get used.

Change in the way a file is built is a critical long term decision. It may take years

before the

results of the change

are recognized, but if it is

ever decided that it is desirable to reverse the process it will also take years to


  • Editing at many agencies is getting much tighter.

  • Editors are looking for images of "advertising quality"

    which tends to mean major print ads. They sometimes seem to forget that insert photos

    in short

    print run brochures are

    also advertising. Images

    needed for editorial use are seldom defined as of "advertising quality."

  • Those that ascribe to the theory that RF will capture the market for straight,

    simple imagery

    believe that in the

    future, imagery sold from

    traditional files will have to be extremely unique. Thus, we find an editing emphasis

    at some

    agencies that rejects the

    type of imagery that might be

    found on RF discs. While RF is making inroads, a huge percentage of the sales of

    simple, straight

    forward imagery that

    these discs are famous for

    still comes from the traditional files.

  • Photographers are told to edit very tightly before submitting and to send only

    those images of

    "catalog" quality.

    But, there are certain types of

    subject matter that never make print catalogs, and there is no clear definition of what

    a "digital"

    catalog could or

    should contain. With this

    strategy many potentially marketable images, that in previous years would have been

    accepted for

    the files, are either

    never submitted to the agency,

    or never shot.

  • When reviewing submissions, the focus on what to keep is much more on "generic" and


    images than on "content

    specific" images.

  • Editors, and researchers, see so many great images that they may become jaded by

    the straight

    shots. They will only

    accept images with a NEW angle

    or a NEW look.

  • Agencies are pushing photographers to produce a modern or MTV look and are

    rejecting images

    with a more straight lit,

    clean, postcard look that

    established photographers have been selling for years. Certainly the MTV look is

    selling, but the

    classic straight shots

    are also selling -- if they

    are where a client can find them.

  • Images that are editorial in nature are often not considered for the files. A

    straight shot of

    a contact lens, a home

    aquarium, a city council

    meeting, or daily life in the Ukraine, Kenya or the Netherlands may be rejected. While

    the demand

    for subjects like these

    may be occasional

    nevertheless there is demand. However, the demand may not be enough to justify putting

    such images

    in a print or digital


  • Some agencies are accepting a much smaller percentage of the photographer's work.

    Photographers with years of

    shooting experience, and making

    significant five figure incomes from their agency, tell me that shoots which would have


    gobbled up in years past are

    now being almost totally

    rejected. This discourages the photographer from continued production.

  • To get the right images into the file for editorial and small insert brochure use

    it takes a

    totally different type of

    editing than what is needed

    to produce six catalogs a year aimed at the advertising and corporate market.

  • As agencies look at each image in the file to determine which ones are candidates


    digitalization, they are also

    deciding if certain images

    should remain in the file at all. This is the perfect time to purge the working file,

    if purging

    is desired.

  • At some agencies images deemed to be of lesser value in today's market are being

    shunted off to

    a secondary file that

    is seldom used. At other

    agencies bundles of images are being purged from the files and returned to the


    Another photographer with five figure sales from his agency got back 80 lbs of material

    that was

    purged from the file.

    Many of these images had sold

    in the past for small uses. Some were obviously out of date and may have been replaced


    updated images from other

    photographers, but many had a

    timeless value. The type of images that have been used as insert photos for brochures

    are now

    disappearing from the files

    of some agencies.

  • Editors whose responsibility it is to purge seem to have little understanding of

    what sold in

    the past.

  • On the other hand, Index Stock does not select as tightly for its digital file as

    many other

    agencies do. They make

    many variations available

    on-line and provide a depth of coverage of all the material they accept into their

    general file.

    Recently an image taken

    in the Western U.S. has

    turned out to be a best seller. The New York editor told the photographer, "I would

    have never

    picked this image for a

    catalog. What makes it so

    great?" As it happened there were special regional characteristics that made it a

    standout for

    regional users, but these

    characteristics were not

    readily apparent to the editor who comes from the East.

    Such special images will always be missed when there is too much emphasis on tight


Increased Use of Specialty Sources

As clients begin to discover that more and more of the specialized images they need are


available through the major

agencies I believe they will

turn to niche agencies and individual photographers who have unique specialties.

There are two types of niche suppliers. There are those that handle a special type of


and those that

concentrate on serving a particular

market like educational. (I will discuss the educational and textbook opportunities in


detail in the next


One of the dangers in developing a niche is that the demand for this specialized

imagery may be so

small that sales do not

justify the necessary

expense to adequately market the file.

Nevertheless, many niche agencies have been doing very well. Often they make major

sales to a

particular industry in

addition to occasional sales of

their unique material to the general market. Some examples are: Grant Heilman with a

specialty in

agriculture; George

Hall/Check Six selling to the

aviation industry; Custom Medical Stock, medical industry and Alaska Stock as a unique

supplier of

images of Alaska.

These agencies do some catalog

marketing, but many of their sales result from their being known for having in-depth

collections in

their particular

subject area.

Other specialty niches include Biology, Travel, Sailing, Underwater and Science &


One of the advantages for some photographers in working with niche agencies is that


agencies are often more willing to work with specialists who have a few

outstanding unique images, but not necessarily a large collection.

Two leaders in the educational field are Stock Boston and The Image Works. Their


understand the textbook market

and select images for the

files based on that knowledge.

One hallmark of niche agencies is that their researchers have a depth of knowledge

about their

subject matter that often

appears to be lacking at the

major agencies.

Researchers who work for many of the major print catalog producers spend a good deal of

their day

doing little more than

image pulling because the

research was done by the client who selected from the catalog.

I don't want to imply that none of the big agencies are doing good research for

textbook requests,

but it is becoming

rarer. And as they fail to

supply the needs, the clients will seek other sources and those with a more intimate

knowledge of

their subject matter.

The big agencies could go back to accepting everything, but I think that is unlikely.

It would

greatly increase their

costs to go after this extra 10%

or 15% of the market and consequently reduce their profits. What seems more likely is

that they

will "say" their

intentions are to supply all markets,

but will continue to edit primarily for the advertising market.

Another strategy for corporations that own both editorial and advertising oriented

agencies would

be to arrange for

simultaneous editing by all

agencies in the family of any new material submitted to one agency. There are hints

that some of

this is going on, but it

could become an

administrative nightmare on a large scale. I don't expect to see this happen soon.

Delicate Balance

Photographers who produce both editorial and corporate/advertising images face some


decisions. They can

probably earn a lot more from

advertising images, if they can get them in a catalog. But, if the catalog agency

isn't doing a

decent job of selling the

rest of their work to the

textbook and editorial market, will they really earn more from a handful of catalog

images than

they could from the rest

of their file if it were not

allowed to lie dormant? It might be better to be with one or several good editorial


The answer hinges on the volume of the photographer's work that fits the editorial

market, and the

number of images he or

she can get in the catalog.

Unfortunately, the photographer usually has to make a long term commitment to an agency


knowing how many images

might be accepted into a


The ideal solution for the photographer would be to put the best images in a catalog

with major

distribution (150,000 to

200,000 copies) and place the

rest with niche agencies that maintains a file of transparencies and are known by the

buyers for

their depth of coverage

of particular subjects and the

quality of their research.

But, seldom are the major agencies willing to accept such an arrangement. If they are

willing to

work on a non-exclusive

basis at all, agents usually

tell photographers that they give preference to those they represent exclusively (which


reasonable). However, some

photographers who have been with

an agency on a non-exclusive basis, and later go exclusive with the agency in an effort

to increase

their catalog

exposure, have discovered that they

get fewer images in the catalog instead of more. There are no guarantees.

Many agencies want photographers who are willing to shoot under their guidance in order

to develop

a balanced presentation

in a variety of categories

for their next catalog. This is all well and good if, when the photographer does what

he or she is

told, the agency then

promotes the images produced.

Too often the photographer shoots exactly what the agent asks, the way the agency

wanted it shot,

and then discovers after

committing time and money to

the project that the image still isn't accepted for the catalog.

In the past, a major production shooter might work for one or two months to produce a

set of images

for a catalog and

spent $20,000 to $30,000 on

production costs. For this effort the photographer might have ended up with 20 to 30

images in the


Now, due to competition for space, the photographer may expend the same effort in time,

and even

more money, and instead

of 20 to 30 images in the

catalog get only 4 or 5. The chances of the photographer making a profit at this point

have been

severely diminished.

In terms of taking guidance and instruction from the agency, the photographer is

functioning almost

as a staffer on assignment, except that he or she is not paid for the work. The next

step for the

photographer in an effort to earn a living is to become a staff photographer

for the agency, or work on a day rate basis to

produce images that the agency will own outright. This is happening with a few


shooting for the RF

producers and to a small degree with

some of the major stock agencies.

Part of the problem is that there are too many good photographers producing images.

There are many

more "catalog quality"

images available than there

are clients to buy them.

Stock photographers need to (1) limit their production or (2) find better ways to

maximize the

sales of the images they

produce, or (3) look to other

areas of photography in which to concentrate.

They also need to recognize that in today's marketing environment they will have to

incur some

marketing cost as well as

production costs, in order to

sell images. They have to find a balance where their total income exceeds costs.

Photographers need to recognize that the editing philosophies at some agencies are

changing and

carefully assess these

changes. In most cases photographers can easily determine the amount of usage of their

images from

each file because they are told

which images make the select file. They can then track sales of select and non-select


The photographer needs to decide whether it is better to adjust his or her shooting

style to fit

the new demands of the

agency, or find a new source for his or her material. Remember, only some agencies,

not all, are

making these changes.


The above copyrighted article(s) are for the sole use of Selling Stock subscribers and may

not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner to non-subscribers without

the written permission of Jim Pickerell, the editor. For subscription information contact:

Selling Stock 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-251-0720,

fax 301-309-0941, e-mail:

Copyright © 1998 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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