Is Volume Production Necessary To Grow Revenue?

Posted on 5/28/2014 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Most agencies are constantly trying to add new images to their collections, but a huge percentage of the images they already have are never licensed. Photographers are constantly encouraged to produce more and better pictures. If they cut back on production sales often decline. Since there is no way to be sure what customers will want in the future, agencies hope that if they keep adding new images they will eventually stumble onto something a future customer will want to buy.

Most photographers have a unique style and approach to their subject matter. For photographers It is important to understand if their approach resonates with buyers, or if those who are looking for images want something else. To manage costs and efficiently plan future shoots photographers need to be aware of the percentage of their images that are actually licensed compared to the total they produce.  This varies with each individual, but it is useful to have some idea of agency averages. Most agencies are privately held and the data concerning percentage of downloads is almost never shared with image creators.

Based on figures in Shutterstock’s recent quarterly report it is clear that while revenue and the number of images in their collection grows each quarter the percentage of images licensed has been steadily declining over the last two years. On average each image was licensed 2.89 times in 2013.

While the figures I have for Getty, Alamy and other agencies are not as detailed as those provided by Shutterstock, I’m pretty sure the same thing is happening at most of the major agencies. Getty has 5.7 times as many images in their collection now as they had in 2006. The number of images licensed annually is about the same as it was in 2006, but revenue generated is less than half what it was in 2006.

Currently Alamy has 47.22 million images in its collection. The company only licensed rights to about 400,000 images in 2013. Many of the images actually licensed were licensed multiple times so the actual number of unique images licensed was much lower. I have no way of knowing how many.

Percentage Of Images Licensed

By examining some of the iStock data it is possible to gain some additional insights. iStock has about 20 million images in its collection

I searched three popular generic categories – People, Nature and Backgrounds – and got the following search returns from each site. It is important to note that in some cases the same image has two or all three keywords so there is some duplication in the numbers. At most these three categories may cover half the images in the collection and probably a lot fewer.

People 3,109,793
Nature 4,337,630
Backgrounds 3,204,668

I organized each category’s returns by “Most Popular.” The image with the most downloads is number 1. The rest of the images are shown in order of number of downloads with all those with “0” downloads at the bottom of the list.

Many images are downloaded a few times, but not enough to cover the cost of production of the image. I also determined the percentage of images downloaded between 1 and 9 times and the number downloaded 10 or more times.

  Never Downloaded Downloaded
  Downloaded Fewer 10 Times More Than 10 Times
People 54% 90% 10%
Nature 73% 95.5% 4.5%
Backgrounds 69% 93% 7%

It is interesting to note that despite the heavy concentration of people images in the collection people images are more than twice as likely to be licensed as a nature images. On average an iStock photographer will have 10 people images in the collection for every one that is licensed and 22 nature images for every one licensed.
Shutterstock currently has 37,457,664 images in its collection, almost twice as many as iStock. I have no way of calculating the percentage of Shutterstock images that are actually downloaded at least once, but I suspect that the percentages are similar to iStock. Since over 90% of Shutterstock’s downloads are through subscriptions, and many subscription customers tend to download many images they don’t eventually use, it seems likely that on average the images actually downloaded may be downloaded 5 or 6 times more frequently than iStock images are downloaded.

  iStock Shutterstock
People 3,109,793 7,118,682
Nature 4,337,630 8,977,987
Backgrounds 3,204,668 17,903,902

Can Volume Sales Of Chosen Images Make The Difference?

However, if the few images chosen are licensed hundreds of times that can make up for a lot of the images that are never used. There is at least one image in the iStock collection that has been licensed more than 24,000 times and quite a few that have been licensed more than 1,000 times. But these still represent a very small percentage of total images in the collection.
Based on my analysis of the downloads of over 400 iStock contributors who are among those with the most downloads, I believe iStock had somewhere in the range of 11 to 13 million total downloads in 2013. If I am right about the 20 million images in the collection, on average each image might have been downloaded about 1.6 times.

Shutterstock had an average of about 2.89 downloads per image in the collection, but this higher number could be attributed to the huge percentage of subscription downloads that Shutterstock reports. Subscription customers tend to download many images they never use because there is no additional cost -- the fee they pay is simply shared among a larger number of contributors.

Sales volumes vary greatly among contributors depending on the subjects covered and the individual’s creative style. It is interesting to consider a few contributors whose sales volumes are at the extremes. Illustrators often have a much higher average downloads per image compared to photographers.

The following are statistics from some of the iStock contributors with the best download per image results. The top 3 are illustrators. You can review their portfolio by clicking on their name. The bottom 4 are photographers with relatively few images compared to the total number of downloads they have had since they started with iStock. These creators have developed a style that customers like. In addition they have figured out what customers want rather than producing images for which there is little demand.  Click on the creators name to view his or her portfolio.

    Total   Home
  Images Downloads Date Joined Country
    To Date    
Koun 233 140,000 Nov 2006 Greece
fpm 460 140,000 May 2005 Germany
Scott Dunlap 405 140,000 Oct 2003 U.S.
SteveColeImages 4608 190,000 Feb 2006 U.S.
mammamaart 2753 230,000 Jan 2003 Germany
skodonnell 4095 330,000 Nov 2005 U.S.
nico_blue 3461 350,000 Oct 2004 U.S.

Compare these with “Coloroftime” a Romanian volume producer with 73,000 downloads from 27,248 images, an average of 2.7 downloads for every image in the collection.

Kathy Gold is an illustrator and one of the top 70 producers at Shutterstock with over 24,000 images in the collection. She also has her images on many other sites. Kathy had a dream of being a stock artist. She spent 3 to 4 years working 24/7 to produce her art only to discover that she can’t make a living at it. At $0.25 to $0.40 per subscription download she earns a combined total  from all the microstock sites where her images are represented of about $300 a month.

She says, “It's not just about creating the art. You also have to prep the art for uploads. That means each piece has to be titled, keyworded and descriptioned. Each online stock agency has a different platform, so you have to learn them all. I found shutterstock and canstock the easiest to deal with whereas fotolia is a nightmare with submissions.”

It is not just about having a passion, working hard and producing volume. It is about figuring out what customers want.

Copyright © 2014 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:  


  • Eduardo Ripoll Posted May 31, 2014

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