Jim Pickerell: From Vietnam to Microstock

March 16, 2011, Author: Vitezslav Valka, Categories: Interview, Photographer, Showcase
This time I’d like to talk with more than just a skilled professional. Jim Pickerell was in Vietnam as a photographer and that is something I could talk about with Jim for hours. But Jim is also one of the best industry analysts. The wonderful  thing for me is that he’s still searching for information and new approaches in the stock photo business while others just blame the industry for this and that. Big respect to Jim for what he has achieved and the positive influence he commands over our industry.

You have a long experience in the industry. How did you get started?

When I was in high school I worked in a camera store where I sold cameras and photo supplies, and processed customer film using the “dip and dunk” method. I attended Ohio University for two years and majored in photography. At that point I felt I needed more time to practice what I had learned before finishing my degree and I knew I would have a selective service military obligation after college, so I joined the Navy as a photographer. After Navy photo school I was assigned to the Navy photo lab in Yokuska, Japan. Later, I became a Tokyo based staff photographer for Pacific Stars & Stripes, a military newspaper circulated to all military instillations in the Asia/Pacific region. This is where I first became interested in photojournalism. The newspaper sent me all over the Far East on assignments.

After four years in the Navy, I went to UCLA and three years later received a degree in Political Science. During this period I did lab work for UPI and one summer I served as a National Geographic Magazine intern. The day the rest of my UCLA class was attending the graduation ceremony I was on a plane to Tokyo to begin a career as a freelance editorial photographer.

After a summer in Tokyo where I worked hard, but generated almost no income, I got a one month temporary assignment from UPI to go to Vietnam and cover for them until they could send a staffer out from New York. When my month was up I decided to stay in Vietnam because living was cheap and it seemed to offer more photographic opportunities than anywhere else in Asia at the time, but even that wasn’t much. This was 1963. There were about 15,000 U.S. advisors in country, no U.S. combat units and for the most part it was pretty quiet. I was the only non-Vietnamese freelance photographer based in Saigon at the time. The other two Western photographers were Horst Fass of AP and the New York photographer who replaced me at UPI. A few other Westerners came in an out from time to time, but no one stayed long.

Three weeks later the Vietnamese military overthrew their president, Ngo Dinh Diem. I was the only photographer in Saigon shooting color that day. Earlier that year Life Magazine had decided that they wanted to try to use a color shot from the major news story in the world each week. I came way from that event with my first pictures in any national magazine and a Life cover.

More about Jim’s early period in career can be found in John Lund’s blog.

How was the Vietnam daily experience in 1963 as a photographer?

When I first got to Vietnam Saigon was very quiet. News organizations were only interested in comments from high ranking officials (very few photo opportunities) and what the Americans were doing. The only Americans in the country were military advisors to the Vietnamese army units. So I made every effort to find Vietnamese army units going on patrol and photograph the American advisors as they worked with the company commanders. Most patrols were what we called “a walk in the sun.” Almost never was there any contact with the enemy. Mostly it was wading through rice paddies or walking through jungle.

As we got into 1964 and 1965 and American combat units started arriving there was more opportunity to spend those “days in the sun” with American units, but still there was very little actual contact with the enemy. Viet Cong actions were usually hit and run. When American units went out in force the enemy usually faded away.

On a typical day I would get up about 3:00am, go to Tan San Nhut airport and hop on a C-130 for an hour or so flight to where some U.S. unit was going on operation that day.  At the airport where the operation was being staged I would join up with the troops and we would all hop on Huey helicopters. The helicopters would take the unit (usually company sized) to were they though the VC were and drop the troops in a rice paddy nearby. The troops would sweep the area for an hour or so, usually find nothing and then get back on the helicopters and go to another location. Usually there were three or four locations to be hit in a day. At the end of the day (usually no later than mid afternoon) the troops were dropped at their base and then I looked for another C-130 ride back to Saigon to process and ship my film. Seldom did I stay in the field more than a day at a time. The next day I would do the same thing all over again.

Where can I buy the book ‘Vietnam In The Mud’?

It is out of print. There are a few available on Amazon.com

Vita: Just ordered one.

Where do you spend your day now?

I spend my days now talking to photographers and sitting in-front of a computer. I try to uncover and analyze bits of information about the stock photo industry and put together a report that will help my readers maximize their photographic earning and anticipate future trends to the degree possible.

Is Selling Stock your full-time entertainment?

Yes, if you call what a person does to earn a living entertainment. For me the job of informing and educating people about various aspects of the photography business is my profession, not some I do for amusement. I do enjoy what I do. But, I won’t continue to do it unless I am somehow adequately compensated for my efforts. If there is no compensation then I’ll go off and do something else to earn a living.
This needs to be said, because I believe many of the people who are contributing images to microstock sites do so, not because they have much hope of earning money for their efforts, but because they love to take pictures and do the computer work necessary to prepare their images for marketing. For them, taking pictures is entertainment and a way to amuse themselves. The affirmation they receive when someone likes one of their images enough to use it is all they need in the way of compensation. What they might earn for their efforts is of no concern. They have another means of support.

Vita: Interesting perspective!

What do you like about the current changes in the industry?

I like much of the imagery that improved equipment and digital technology have made it possible to create. In many cases these images have a quality that could not have been created in the analog world. I like the fact that it is much easier for microstock photographers to communicate with each other and learn about the income trends than it is for macro photographers. I like the micro system of reporting sales to photographers and the payment systems are a tremendous improvement over what macro offers. It is very useful to be able to determine which images are selling well, which images aren’t. The relative demand for various types of subjects is of tremendous value to photographers when planning shoots.

I like the credit system of pricing uses which provides a lot more flexibility than the macro systems or either fixed prices (RF) or negotiated prices (RM). The credit pricing system that offers discounts based on the number of credits purchased (basically, on company size and volume of use) is much fairer than the macro systems that often require a separate negotiation with each buyer for each usage.
I still think pricing based on usage is a better than pricing based on file size, but micro has been able to build in a lot of elements of usage pricing into its systems so the current macro systems are much closer to RM in the way they structure prices than they are to traditional RF.

I think RM sellers could adopt and make effective use of many aspects of the credit pricing system and that it would be more to their benefit than the current methods they are using.

I believe the ability organize search returns in a variety of ways is also of tremendous benefit to customers.

I believe it would be helpful if photographers had better data as to who the customers are. In this area macro does offer more information, but if the distributors were truly interested in helping photographers there is a lot of room for improvement on both sides.

Do you still believe that comparison shopping works in microstock?

I don’t believe I ever thought “comparison shopping” was an important element of microstock. Customers may compare sites when they first start looking for microstock, but they will soon settle on the functionality of one site that they like. I don’t think they will comparison shop for particular images after that. This is particularly true since all the sites offer huge choice and most of the same images are available on multiple sites. For the most part prices are similar enough from site to site that there is little advantage in comparison pricing. It is not worth the customer’s time to go from site to site looking for images.

Every customer has a maximum price he or she can afford to pay and they will reject images that are too expensive, but I do not call that comparison shopping.

Was there some suprising development in microstock during last 2 years?

To me the most interesting development in 2010 was IS’s move to introduce multiple brands at different price points. Obviously this strategy have been very successful for them and I think we will see all microstock distributors making much wider use of the strategy in the future.

What are the most important features of an agency for you?

This is not a comprehensive list, but some things that I think are important.

From the customers point of view:

  1. Ease of search.
  2. Ability to organized search return order.
  3. Ability to control the number of thumbnails delivered per page. Scrolling is easier than refreshing pages.
  4. Ability to search for pages out of sequence rather than being forced to search in sequence order.  I would like to be able to jump to page 30 or 50 if I am tired of seeing all the same old pictures in the first few pages.
  5. Ease of transacting a sale
  6. Reasonable prices. This is a particularly important consideration as the industry tries to find an appropriate price point for premium collections.

From the photographers point of view

  1. Ease of uploading pictures and getting them accepted for marketing.
  2. Understandable explanations for rejection.
  3. A fair way to get images near the top of the search return order.
  4. A fair royalty share of sales.
  5. Image exclusive, not photographer exclusive. And some significant benefits for being exclusive.

Who are the innovation leaders?

If you have to pick an industry leader it is IS, but lots of distributors are constantly testing different strategies. Just because a strategy is a new innovation doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work in the long run or be beneficial for the distributor or the photographers.

What do you think about being exclusive?

In the past I have generally been in favor of non-exclusive representation so the photographer can spread his risk and test a variety of marketing strategies. Another issue is that every agency edits differently. Thus, a photographer has a greater likelihood of getting more of his work where buyers can find it by being non-exclusive, rather than exclusive.

However, given the way IS is structuring its exclusive offering and the extra benefits and opportunities exclusive photographers are given compared to non-exclusives it is going to become very difficult for the most productive photographers not to go exclusive with them.

At the same time I think it is unfair of IS, or any other distributor, to demand that photographers not submit images that IS has rejected to any other agency. The fact that IS inspectors have rejected an image, does not mean the image is of no interest to buyers, or that it would not sell if it were available on another site. I think exclusive arrangements should be image exclusive, not photographer exclusive. Allowing a company to control ones destiny with a photographer exclusive relationship is worst than slavery. It is also interesting that Getty Images, IS’s parent, used to be photographer exclusive but a few years ago went to image exclusive.

Should we change/improve anything at Pixmac especially for Jim?

Check out my article. It is hard to make recommendations without seeing all the numbers, but it seems clear that the Premium images are priced way too high for most of your customers. Therefore they are not selling all that well and in fact not earning as much money for their suppliers as they could earn if they were priced a little lower. Therefore I would:

1 – Add several more steps in the price adjustments based on downloads. For example: 1 credit for 2 downloads or less, 2 credits for 3 to 5 downloads, 3 credits for 6 to 10 download, 4 credits for 11 to 20 downloads and 5 credits for 21 or more. These numbers could be adjusted based on the actual number of images that fall into each category. As you begin to get more downloads you can make more adjustments at the top end.

2 – In addition, I would adjust the price of packages of credits so it would be possible to purchase credits for as low as $0.50 each. That way the first time a picture is purchased it is very inexpensive. A 2 credit picture would cost $1.00 and a 3 credit purchase would cost $1.50.The more steps you can include in the number of credits required and the costs of credit package the easier it is for the customer to find something they can afford.

In addition, you will get a better idea of what your customers are willing to pay and where to set your price points. Maybe credits should be priced at $0.50, but there should be no 1 credit pictures. Every picture costs at least 2 credits, but the 3 credit picture only costs $1.50 and the 4 credit picture costs $2.00 instead of the $4.00 it would cost now.

I think all the other industry leaders have proved that customers are not clamoring for simple systems with only 3 variations. They are more than willing to deal with many more variable as long as one of the price points meets their needs.

Does the idea of a “Stock Photo Food Court” model make sense to you?


What is your dream country?

I have traveled and worked in more than 90 countries. There are things I like and dislike about all of them. If we’re talking about where I want to live then it is right where I live now (Washington, DC area), not because of the political system or opportunities offered in this country, but because of the friends and personal relationships I have here. If were talking about where I would like to re-visit next, India, Japan and China are high on my list.

Vita: Thank you Jim. It was interesting to see that you like the idea of several price points. We’ll be working on that in the future for sure as that is the way how to achieve ‘variable price’ without the need to use subscription where the user chooses their price point by downloading all or just some images included in the subscription package. As for non-linear searching methods I hope our Visual Similarity offers something in this sense, but you’re right that there must be other ways how to show millions of images fast.

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