Is Average RPI a Useful Measure?

Posted on 9/23/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

I was recently asked this question. “I wonder if you could possibly let me have your estimate of what the average annual income for a single microstock image is currently.”

The average annual income or a large group of photographers is pretty meaningless. It depends greatly on how many images a photographer has in a collection, generally how productive he is, the kind of imagery he shoots, whether his work is represented by a single agency or many agencies, which agencies in particular, and probably a number of other factors.

Many microstock photographers are earning a very small annual return per image for the images they have in agency or distributor files. But the same is true of the vast majority of photographers who license their images as rights-managed.

I estimate that total gross revenue generated from the sale of microstock images in 2010 will be between $400 and $500 million—let’s say $450 million. There may be 25 million unique images being licensed as microstock, because most images are represented on multiple sites. This would mean that the average annual income per image would be about $18. Assuming the photographer gets 20%, he would earn about $3.60 per image on file.

The gross 2010 revenue from the licensing of creative rights-managed images in the Getty Images collection is unlikely to reach $174 million, probably falling short by quite a bit. (These calculations do not consider editorial images.) On average, 35%—or $60.9 million—will be paid out in royalties to photographers. Getty has about 2 million creative rights-managed images, which would mean photographers are averaging $30 per image on file. But this is Getty, the world’s number one licensor of rights-managed imagery. What about all the photographers not represented by Getty?

At Alamy, 2009 gross sales were just under $23 million and probably have not increased much in 2010. The company currently has more than 20 million images in its collectionm including both rights-managed and royalty-free imagery. The average per image is just a little over $1, and photographers receive 60% of that. Of the 20 million images, Alamy licenses rights to less than 200,000 in a year, so the vast majority of images actually earn nothing.

And all the other rights-managed images in agency collections around the world? It would be surprising if the sum total of revenue these agencies generated for creative images exceeded $400 million. And how many images are we talking about? Likely somewhere between 50 and 100 million. If it is 50 million, then the average gross sale is $8, and for photographers receiving 50%, that is a net average return of $4.

Returning to microstock, The reason for the return-per-image question was to determine what some of the better, harder working photographers can expect to earn from shooting micro. In August, I did an earnings analysis of 168 of iStockphoto’s exclusive photographers with the highest number of total downloads during their microstock careers. I was able to gather data that allowed me to estimate a minimum and maximum number of images they might have licensed in the previous 12 months. 

All of these exclusive photographers receive 40% of the gross license fee. Conversations with a number of photographers indicate that their royalty share is now in the range of $4 or more per download. Thus, by multiplying the number of downloads by 4 I came up with an estimated minimum and maximum total earnings for the previous 12 months.

Then by dividing the gross sales revenue for each by the number of images each had in iStock’s collection as of July 1, 2010, I was able to make an approximate determination of the average return per image. As you can see from this chart, the average return ranges from over $400 per image for some with collections of relatively few high-demand images to under $10 for some with lots of images in the file. The overall average for this group of 168 photographers is between $51 and $62 per year.

If anything, these figures demonstrate that it is impossible for a photographer to estimate his or her potential earnings based on an industry’s or a given agency’s average return per image. A given photographer’s own RPI may have some application to what that photographer might be able to earn from future productions, but it probably has little or no relevance to what other photographers might be able to earn.

Copyright © 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:  


  • Mary kate Denny Posted Sep 24, 2010
    It is informative to see that iStock exclusive photographers earn 40%.
    I find that my Getty return with RM is averaging 30% of gross even though some sell for 40%. MKD

  • Rahul Pathak Posted Sep 24, 2010
    Nice analysis, Jim. I'm curious how $50-$60 annual RPI compares to the typical RPI in the RM/RF market.

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