Posted on 1/7/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Recently there has been a lot of talk in the U.S. press that “uncertainty” is the reason why the recovery is jobless, why businesses are sitting on billions in cash and why business leaders are cautious about expansion into new ventures.

Uncertainty is also a major problem for stock photographers. There has always been – and will always be -- the problem of figuring out what the customer will want to purchase and then producing a good image of that subject. It is not a viable business plan for photographers to simply produce images that they, themselves, like. To sell, the images must be something that someone else needs – and needs enough to be willing to pay to use.

But now, there are several additional levels of uncertainty.

Assuming you have identified something customers need and have produced a great image of that subject matter, how many other people around the world are producing something similar simultaneously? A decade ago there were a relatively few photographers producing images that were marketed as stock. Most lived and worked in North America or Western Europe. The Internet has not only made it possible for many photographers from other parts of the world to actively participate in the stock photo business, but it has also made it possible for talented amateurs with no expectation of earning a living from their photographs to participate in the market.

There is an explosion of good imagery on virtually every subject. Most of it is available on the Internet. While not always easily findable it is there for customers to stumble upon.

Once a creator has produced a great image of a subject that is often used there is the uncertainty of where to place it so it has the potential of being seen. The answer used to be on one of the sites of major distributors of photographs. Even before that, the answer was the print catalog of a major distributor. But now most Internet searches return thousands or tens of thousands of images – and most customers will only look at the first few hundred that are displayed. Thus, one’s image may be in a collection, but never seen. And the image creators has almost no way of knowing if that is happening (uncertainty), and no way of controlling or changing the situation even is he does know.

Rather than going to the traditional stock photography sites more and more customers are using Google and Flickr to find images, either because they are unaware of professional sites, on in the hopes of finding something different.

While the supply of easily available imagery is certainly growing dramatically, there is uncertainty about whether demand is growing at an equally rapid pace. Some argue that many more images are being used on the Internet, and thus the demand for stock photos is growing dramatically from what used to be an almost entirely print-based use of stock photographs.

Traditional vs. Microstock

I believe the print market is declining as print publications go out of business or reduce the size of their offering. In the last decade I believe the number of images licensed by traditional distributors worldwide has been remarkably stable at between 4 and 5 million images a year. Most images from these professional sources are used in print; some in digital. Prices per use have declined dramatically.

There has been a remarkable growth in the use of microstock (low priced) images. In large part microstock sites address a totally different customers from the ones traditional distributor’s have addressed. Growth in this area in terms of number of images used has slowed and I believe is about to plateau at a level of about 125 million downloads per year.

Microstock distribution sites are heavily used by traditional print customers, but traditional distributors have not been able to make significant sales to microstock customers, even when they have lowered their prices dramatically.
There is no way to estimate the growth in unpaid uses, but it is certainly huge.


Virtually, all images available for licensing are on the Internet. The only way to find images on a particular subject is to use keywords. Many photographers build their own web sites, try to promote those sites, offer little or nothing in the way of keywords and hope that customers will come to their site, look through all the images there and find something they want to purchase. The chances of selling images in this manner are slim to none.

But with keywords there is uncertainty of whether you have used the same words to describe the image as the customer will use when searching. If not, the image will not be found. Some web sites limit the number of keywords. Must microstock sites have limited the number of keywords to 50, requiring the image creator to think very carefully about the words to connect to the image and which ones to leave out.

iStockphoto has always limited the number of keywords to 50 and prohibited what is called “spamming,” or using words that don’t apply directly to the specific image in an effort to get their images seen no matter what search term customers use. For example, if you have a picture of a European looking dentist treating a patient you can’t use the keywords Greek, Italian, German, French, English, and Scandinavian as separate keywords in hopes that anyone looking for a Greek or German dentist will find your image even if the person in the picture doesn’t happen to be of those nationalities. Any one nationality might be legitimate, but no individual can be all of these different nationalities.

Recently, Getty has moved a number images from its site to iStockphoto. Many of these images have more than 50 keywords. In addition Getty has not been careful about prohibiting spamming. This gives the images of Getty contributor a theoretic advantage over those of iStock contributors who spent a lot of time making careful decisions about what keywords to leave out.

The preferences that certain collections, or images are given in the search return order is another uncertainty that image creators have little information about and no control over.

For example, a couple years ago Getty created The Agency Collection (TAC) on iStockphoto. It was designed to charge higher price for certain premium images. Initially, these images were pushed to the top of the search return order (SRO) and were licensed frequently because they were seen frequently. This generated exceptional revenue returns for the image creators. Creators started focusing on producing for this collection. But, Getty discovered that customers were leaving iStock because they thought all the good images on the site were too expensive. Getty lowered the TAC images in the SRO so they were seen much less frequently, if at all. As a result, just as TAC contributors though they had the answer as to where the put their images, and started producing aggressively for TAC the rules changed to the point that many may never recover what they have invested in image production.

Are Changes Possible?

In fairness, in the technology world changes take place very quickly and companies need to respond quickly in order to stay competitive. But, in most industries where the companies both produce and market their products the production side of the business has access to detailed information from the marketing side about what is selling and what is in demand. When there is an oversupply of a product the company stops manufacturing more of it and moves to something else. They don’t keep filling their warehouse with more and more of what customers have stopped buying. When customers stop buying something, the production side isn’t left wondering what is happening. It knows immediately.

In stock photography production and marketing are totally separate entities. The cost of production is not a factor when determining marketing side profits. Marketing pays nothing for products until they sell, and then only a percentage of the revenue the product generates.  

In most cases marketing doesn’t provide the production side with any of the vital statistics needed in order to make wise production decisions. This results in total uncertainty for producers. Microstock distributors do a better job of supplying information than traditional distributors, but in neither case is the production side managed in a way that would insure that producers, as well distributors, profit.

If they want better relations with producers, distributors try to limit the adjustments they make to marketing strategy, be more transparent when they make changes, and in general make more detailed sales information available so producers can plan. There may be no way to bring about such changes, but distributors should not be surprised when their most business oriented and productive producers leave the field and move on to something else. Given the present uncertainties there is no way for producers to intelligently manage their businesses.

Copyright © 2013 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.  


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