Real vs Arranged Photos

Posted on 3/14/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

There is a lot of noise about the demand for photos that are “natural,” “candid” and more “realistic shots of real people” rather than the carefully arranged, high production value photos that have been best sellers in the stock photo industry for many years. (See this story)

The major stock photo databases are filling up with more and more grab shots taken without any attempt to modify the real scene. In addition, photographers are now encouraged to provide a series of photos of every situation. When they come upon something worth shooting they shoot it from every possible angle. By the time the photographer has finished shooting he/she usually has a pretty good idea of which are the best one or two story telling pictures from the situation. But, photographers are encouraged to submit everything in hopes that someone might want to use one of the other elements or publish a “sequence” of the situation.

It is also worth considering that there is no such thing as a completely unbiased “natural, realistic” photo. Whenever a photographer chooses to capture an isolated moment in time he/she is consciously, or unconsciously, choosing to include or leave out something. Like it or not, the photographer’s bias is involved.

Nevertheless, many photographers are moving away from the idea of carefully planning shoots. But are these candid, natural shots what are really selling?

Sure, some of them sell, but do the images that sell represent a significant portion of gross revenue? Are the candid shots that sell used mostly on low paying web sites? Buyers may say they want photos that look more “candid” and “natural,” but in many cases the photos they choose to use have been carefully arranged to look natural.

Getting The Answer

Getty Images, Shutterstock and Alamy could do themselves, the sub-agencies whose images they represent and image creators a favor by carefully analyzing what pictures have actually been selling in the last few years, and the trends, if any. I don’t think they are doing that. If they were they would be making more of an effort to encourage well thought out production shoots, and finding ways to raise prices on at least some of their offering.

Rather than basing their decisions and advice entirely on gut feelings and comments they hear from a few buyers, I would suggest each build a database of just the images that have actually been licensed in the last few years. This will likely be a very small fraction of their total database even for a company like Shutterstock.

Then index the database on gross revenue each image has generated. This should give the agency a good idea of what images are being used in print rather than just being posted on a web site for a short period time. It may be harder for Shuttertstock to make such a determination, since everything is offered at basically the same price, but if they just look at the number of times each image has been downloaded it should provide some useful information.

Once the agency has organized the database in this manner, it should go through the database  image-by-image and make a determination as to whether each image is the result of an arranged situation, or whether the photographer just stumbled upon the situation during his/her normal daily activities.

Why Should The Agencies Care?

First, if they know what customers really want to use, they can better advise their contributors on what to shoot. They can also make better decisions about what new submissions to add to their database as well as search-return-order.

If they discover, as I suspect they will, that very few of these candid pictures actually sell, they may want to make some different decisions about how they grow their collections. It they discover that when they post ten or fifteen similars from the same shoot only one or two actually sell, they may want to give some thought to how they clutter their collection with images that are of no interest to anyone.

The agencies are currently on track to drive all photographers who are willing to spend time in planning a shoot and dollars for better production values out of the business. This is particularly true of photographers living in North America and Western Europe (see this story) where production costs and cost-of-living are high.

Maybe, that’s not a problem. Maybe they don’t need those photographers. Maybe the photographers in the low cost-of-living countries are producing enough of the high production value images to satisfy customer needs. Maybe customers who need high production value images will continue to be satisfied with those already in the collections.

If the agencies don’t have good answers to these questions they are putting their businesses at risk.

Sharing With Photographers

It would be great is the agencies would also share the databases described above with their photographers. Then each individual photographer could see what is actually selling and what is in greatest demand. Individual photographers could make better decisions about what to shoot and how to spend their time.

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, 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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