What To Shoot: Learning From Microstock

Posted on 12/1/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Stock photographers are constantly concerned with what to shoot. Everyone knows that people pictures tend to sell in greater volume than non-people pictures, but people doing what? Which concepts are in greatest demand? Information most helpful to answering such questions comes from microstock sites—not from companies licensing at traditional prices—and is freely available to everyone.

It is of tremendous value to know which subjects are most frequently requested. This list of some commonly used concept words, created using iStockphoto.com, shows the number of downloads for each keyword’s top-selling image. It also shows the total number of images available for each keyword.

The list illustrates the relative importance of various keywords. Among these, “out of balance” is the concept with the fewest downloads: 127 for the top-selling image. Compare this with the top sellers of “childhood, “freedom” or “leisure:” the latter has been sold 13,756 times. The obvious conclusion is: images that illustrate childhood, freedom or leisure are in much greater demand than those that represent “out of balance.” Photographers interested in shooting other subjects can search for them on iStock and determine their relative importance by using this list as a guide.

Also of interest is the total number of images available for a given subject. For example, a photographer may decide to shoot leisure pictures, because they are in great demand. However, iStock already offers 110,630 leisure images. It will probably will be very difficult to come up with a truly unique image on this subject. In addition, iStock may be reluctant to add images to an already well-stocked category.

In contrast, only 144 “out of balance” images are available through iStock, and there are 127 downloads for the top seller. Additional images on this subject might generate more sales for the category, and there is very little competition, so the odds of making a sale are much better than with high-volume sellers. “Saving,” a subject likely to be in high demand in the coming months, yields 407 images and 1024 downloads. Other examples of keywords with low supply compared to sales include “victory”, “integrity” and “senior couple.”

Photographers can also determine how many traditionally priced images are available for a given keyword through specific agencies, but Getty Images, Corbis, Alamy and others do not publicly offer information on the number of images licensed. In the opinion of Selling Stock, the relative importance of various keywords in the iStock collection probably holds true for traditional collections.

In any category, it is important not to base decisions solely on the number of downloads. Top-selling images for each category may also better illustrate the concept. One of the reasons the top images are best sellers is that they generate sales from customers searching in many different categories. For example, the top seller in the “communications” category also tops the sales for “global,” “happiness,” “joy,” “success,” “technology” and “winning.” This particular image may have been over-keyworded with terms that apply only very marginally; nevertheless, it worked, because this placed the image high in search-return order of results for many categories.

In addition, examining microstock databases reveals that under-keywording is more likely than inappropriate keywording, particularly when it comes to concepts. The iStock collection includes 260,365 images for “happiness” and only 98,816 for “joy,” though most of the images presented in the “happiness” category could also legitimately include “joy” as a keyword. This suggests that many photographers are missing out on sales by not expanding keyword lists with synonyms.

As illustrated by this more extensive list of concept keywords, which Selling Stock first published in 1993, the general concepts that customers look for have not changed. Now, thanks to microstock distributors, photographers are able to learn more about relative demand for different subject-matter categories and make better decisions when producing new stock.

Copyright © 2008 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.  


  • Bill Brooks Posted Dec 1, 2008
    This sharing of information shows how Microstock is ahead of traditional stock. Microstock is using the web to use the collective conscience of the entire photographic community to come up with fresh new interesting work. Traditional stock is art directing using a small committee of underpaid editors, and it shows up in the boring lack of variety in traditional images offered for sale at traditional libraries. Traditional libraries are using microstock low prices as an excuse for getting beat up in the marketplace, but big budget clients are moving to microstock because of the superior content, not the price. Microstock is fast getting to the creative point that microstock libraries will be able to raise their prices for big budget uses. This price increase will not help traditional libraries with their formula content, because for big budget clients it is about the image, not the price. Written with great sadness by a traditional stock photographer.

  • Greg Pease Posted Dec 1, 2008
    To Everyone at Selling Stock,

    Thanks for this very helpful article on What to Shoot, and for all the other topics you've covered this past year. Kelly and I

    are grateful for your dedication to our profession.

    A belated Happy Thanksgiving,

    Greg and Kelly

  • Don Farrall Posted Dec 3, 2008
    Bill Brooks says "Traditional libraries are using microstock low prices as an excuse for getting beat up in the marketplace, but big budget clients are moving to microstock because of the superior content, not the price."

    Does anyone else here really think this is the case? Not me. I shoot stock and sell through Getty, but I also have assignment clients at agencies. These people hate using microstock. Their clients come to them with photos that they already found on the internet for cheap! They (the clients) don't know / respect the difference, but the creatives do, and they are having to put a lot of effort into convincing clients that shooting something specific, or buying high quality stock is in their best interest. These AD's hate placing ads that cost tens of thousands of dollars with photos that are not very unique just because they can save a few dollars. I have shot from many , many comps that still have the Istock logo over them. For comps these folks don't even bother to pay a buck for a file. Kind of funny, really.

    There is some quality content on the micros, to be sure. I don't think it belongs there, but then I have a direct line to placing my images with Getty, and many don't so I do understand how this is happening. There is plenty of "clip art - crap" on the micros as well.

    Don Farrall

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