Recipe For Disaster

Posted on 8/8/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

A key to success of any business is supplying customer what they need and want. Sometimes you can sell them things they don’t need, but there is a limit as to how long you can survive with that strategy.

Image user don’t want more images. They want to find exactly the right image quickly. They don’t want to be editors. They want someone to do the editing for them. Most don’t have a lot of time to waste.

Recently, I talked to an “inspector” for one of the major microstock sites. I’ll can him Tom to protect his identity.

JP Do inspectors make any judgments about the quality of an image, or do they pass every image that meets technical standards?

Tom - In theory, inspectors are supposed to only look at technical standards, which are already set very low. The directive now is to not even look at the title, description or keywords. The only thing that matters to the agency is the image file itself.

In addition, most inspectors accept/reject based on their personal bias. I have seen really well done fashion images refused because the inspector didn’t like them. I have seen lifestyle images with motion such as a panned shot of an Uber car being refused because it wasn’t in focus.

The only thing micro stock companies care about is the size of their database. They know, and do not care, that a majority of approved files are garbage.

JP - Are inspectors ever given any kind of information as to which images are actually selling? Ideally, if they were able to look at exactly what is selling in particular subject categories they would have a better idea of what to accept and reject from submissions.

Tom - Inspectors are given absolutely zero information about what sells. It seems that sales data is highly secretive and the only people who know what actually sells are the owners of stock photo companies.

On the topic of sales information, every agency sends out monthly or annual emails to contributors about what is “in demand.” The subjects and search terms often feel like useless information since none of them deal with actual sales data. They all deal exclusively with the amount of searches vs. the number of files online.

JP - The more I look at the big sites the more similars they seem to upload. It seems that many photographers, particularly part-timers, upload every frame they shoot.  Often many of these similar are shown side-by-side in a search (particularly if they were recently uploaded).

Often these similars dominate the first few pages of any particular search and require customers to review many pages before they find much variety.

Tom - About five years ago, inspectors could and would reject files that were too similar to others already accepted from a given contributor. This kept the amount of spam down and made it easier for buyers to find images. Now, inspectors are not allowed to refuse extremely similar images, even if there is a series of 300 pictures of the same baby wearing the same hat with the same posing.

JPDoesn’t this make it harder and harder for customers to quickly find the right image for their project.

Tom - Agencies do not care about what the buyers want. They all think buyers want “more images” to select from when in reality the buyers are wasting excessive amounts of time sifting through junk.

If Its Not Working Why Do They Do It?

A lot of this seems to be driven by shareholders. Shareholders want growth. To them growth means more pictures. When the microstock agencies started, growth in the number of images seemed to go hand in hand with revenue growth. That was in the 2000s when a few million images on a broad range of subjects was a lot of images. The agency with the most images seemed to grow the fastest. Other agencies felt they needed to adopt the same strategy. Now that strategy seems to no longer work, but it still keeps shareholders happy.

In Q2 2018 the number of Shutterstock downloads represented 21% of the images in the collection. If we go back to Q1 2016 it was 51% and in Q1 2014 it was 80%. Obviously, if they just add more images it doesn’t result in a proportional increase in downloads.

In June, Getty Images has 23,922,471 images in its Creative Collection. I estimated based on major contributor sales that they licensed about 4,500,000 uses (18% of images in the collection) in 2017.
If we go back to 2006 when Getty was supplying much more detailed statistics than they do today, they had only 1,767,214 images in their collection and they licensed 1,661,696 uses (94% of images in collection) during the year. And in 2006 they licensed those images at much higher average prices, and earned more than double their current revenue, than is the case today.

It seems clear than more images alone does not result in more revenue, yet all the major agencies continue to try to outdo each other in getting more images.

No one seems to be able to develop a counter strategy that might better satisfy customer needs.

(Also Check out “Picture Researcher Needed” to better understand the need.)

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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