Understanding What Stock Photo Buyers Want

Posted on 10/3/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Stock photographers need a better understanding of image buyers – their frustrations and what could make their lives easier. Jon Anderson is CEO of Foto Sushi a new stock agency. He is also a Creative Director who has worked on B2B and B2C projects both within an advertising agency and corporate marketing organizations for more than 14 years.

In a recent Foto Sushi promotion sent to image buyers, he hit on some very important points that all image creators ought to consider. The following are the 4 major issues he dealt with. At various points in his promotion I’ve inserted some of my own thoughts that I hope will further reinforce and illustrate the serious disconnect between image creators and image buyers.

Jon Anderson

There is a major gap between what traditional stock sources offer and what creative professionals need when searching for people images. On average, it takes four to six hours for a designer or art director to find a usable photo. Our fellow creatives know what a painful and costly four hours that can be. We’ve all laughed about the goofy expressions, but let’s get to the heart of the problem.

#1 Creative professionals are largely uninvolved in the process

Stock agencies rely on photographers for the images they offer. They employ teams of curators to edit their massive collections. They crunch numbers and analyze sales data to drive content.
    JP - They don’t “analyze sales data,” or at least do it very effectively. If and when they do, they don’t pass that information on the the image creators so they can make intelligent decisions about producing what the end users need.

    They keep photographers in the dark and that’s why customers have to deal with so much crap.
    You and other designers, the end users, are seldom involved in the creative process. You don’t think like a photographer. You don’t curate, and you only count beans as a single or double espresso.
Photographers are of course artists, but they are trained differently. They frame their subjects to fit nicely on your mantle. They crop in, and they often add a soft depth of field for a pleasing effect. It’s perfect for your family portrait, and it can work nicely for a select project if an art or creative director wants that specific look.

Stock photography should be versatile. Photos should work for a variety of purposes, and flexibility is of paramount importance. If you’ve ever labored to make a cropped image work in a web banner that is 1,400 pixels wide, then you know the pain we are talking about. So what is it we as end users want.

#2 Cut the crop

Images that are shot with big (and I mean big) canvases adapt easily for web banners or ad spaces. We can crop them ourselves. Every designer we know hates rebuilding a cropped head or shoulder. It’s time consuming, and it isn’t easy to do. It is far better to have the subject fully visible in the frame so that it’s easy to extend the background and position the model.

#3 God save us from the soft depth of field

A bokeh effect, or soft depth of field, is very artistic. It is a wonderful technique to photograph your kitten’s softness or to capture your barista’s leaf design on top of your latte to snapchat your friends. When it comes to people images, however, it is very difficult to clip or mask a subject with soft edges from the background. Difficult, like eating a bucket of hair difficult. You know what we mean.

Traditional stock agencies don’t understand you, the end user. They see their photos as “finished” products, and they neglect to consider how much labor it will take to make their photo work for your project. After all, they’ve given you a nicely cropped image with an artistically focused subject.

Clipping it out is your problem. Again, stock imagery must be flexible. It is better by far to start with images in focus. A talented designer will likely have spent an obscene amount of money on their education. They should be trusted to be able to add their own depth of field after trimming out an image.

#4 Take us to the hardware store

Let’s be honest – the traditional stock agencies are not artists. They are hoarders. If you asked to borrow a screwdriver, they would give you the keys to a junkyard and tell you they’re sure they have a nice one in there somewhere.
    JP - Yes, they are “hoarders.” The current philosophy is to grab as much of everything as they can, hoping that somewhere in the pile there will be something customers can use. And the irony is that the more they grab the less time they have to really curate.

    They used to curate. Now, they want the customer to curate for them. They try to use their algorithms to show what other customer have liked, but given the massive amounts of data the algorithms aren’t working very well. That’s why as you point out at the beginning “it takes four to six hours for a designer or art director to find a usable photo.”
Anderson says, “It’s understandable, really. Stock collections are just that – collections of photos from many different sources over an extended period of time that are difficult to catalogue. Quality differs. Angles of perspective differ. Lighting is inconsistent, and clothing styles vary. The cameras and lenses used change from photographer to photographer. Resolutions differ. Expressions? Don’t get us started.

“You can easily imagine a designer working with a deadline. It’s nearing 5:00 p.m., and it’s looking like it will be another long night. The task? Find three people images that will work together to make three web banners. They need to be consistently lit from the same angle, they need to be clipped from their backgrounds to fit into one, and they need to look like they belong together. The search will be exhausting, but designers have come to expect that. The real pain comes from creative compromise. Designers are artists, and they want to make something amazing. In the end, they often have to settle. The search and subsequent work just takes too long. Producing work that is “good enough” is a tough pill for any designer to swallow.”

Additional Thoughts From Jim Pickerell

Photographers need a better understanding of the problems image buyers face. It used to be that stock photographers actually had opportunities to talk to buyers. They went to their offices, showed portfolios and actually worked on assignments. From what I hear (I’m no longer shooting) that seldom happens anymore. Now photographers go out and shoot with little or no idea of what buyers will need or of buyer’s problems.

The few pros that are left are being driven out of the stock business because the return per image produced is so low that they can no longer justify the time and cost for new production. The amateurs are taking over. They make pictures that they “like” or think are “cool.” If someone buys them that OK, but these amateurs are not in it for the money. As a result, art buyers are required to spend more and more of their time sifting through piles of images that aren’t quite what they need.

With Foto Sushi you’ve identified a narrow segment of the market where there is great demand.
However, there are a lot of other types and styles of imagery needed. For photographers who produce such imagery the issues are much more complex, but better direct communication between buyers and photographers will certainly be the key.

Image creators need a better understanding of exactly what the universe of buyers are actually purchasing and using in each of the creator’s particular subject area, not just which of the creator’s own images a buyer has purchased.

Copyright © 2016 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.  


  • Peter Dazeley Posted Oct 4, 2016
    the difficulty about stock photography, is not giving customers what they want, it is about giving them what they want next.

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