iStock 2015 Downloads: DOWN or UP?

Posted on 1/2/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Where is iStock headed? In 2015 single image downloads were DOWN significantly compared to 2014, and 2014 was down compared to 2013. The company introduced subscriptions in April 2014 and that has had a major impact on the decline in single image sales.

But, if we add subscription downloads to the single image downloads then the total number of images used by customers may be UP. And if you also add Thinkstock downloads through iStock’s “Partner Program” total download could be up significantly. Royalties, on the other hand, are definitely down. Here’s how it breakdowns.

In addition to subscriptions, iStock has launched other initiatives in the last two years in an effort to appeal to, and renew relationships with, customers that had left iStock in the previous two or three years.

    1 – In September 2014 they introduced fixed pricing for single images regardless of file size.
    2 – In November 2015 they introduced small monthly subscriptions that made non-exclusive images available for $4.00 each and exclusive images available for $9.90 each if the customer purchased a subscription to download 10 images.

None of this seems to have worked.

Single Image Sales

Since 2011 I have been tracking the number of downloads and images that 430 of iStock’s leading contributors have in iStock’s collection. At the end of 2015 these contributors had a combined minimum of 56,070,000 recorded downloads since they started contributing to iStock. Based on the way iStock reports downloads the maximum possible were 58,554,000. I believe the work of these contributors represent about one-third of all the single-image downloads (not counting subscriptions) since iStock’s founding in 2002. Consequently, this relatively small number of the over 100,000 contributors should provide a good indication of what has been happening in iStock sales overall.

  Minimum Maximum Difference Average of Minimum Extimated
  Total Career Total Career Between Maximum Downloads Average
  Downloads Downloads Min & Max Downloads For Year Annual
End 2011 46,054,000 48,032,000 1,978,000 989,000    
End 2012 49,921,000 52,217,000 2,296,000 1,148,000 3,867,000 5,015,000
End 2013 53,193,000 55,579,000 2,386,000 1,193,000 3,272,000 4,465,000
End 2014 54,925,100 57,311,200 2,386,100 1,193,050 1,732,100 2,925,150
End 2015 56,070,000 58,554,000 2,484,000 1,242,000 1,144,900 2,386,900
    In the chart above Column 2 is the sum of the minimum career downloads of the contributors tracked. Given the way iStock reports downloads the actual number could be anything between number reported for each contributor and the next higher round number. For example, if the contributor had more 100,000 career downloads the next higher round number would be 10,000 higher than the one reported. If the contributor had 99,000 or less the next higher round number would be 1,000 above the one reported. The sum of all maximum numbers can be found in Column 3.  The difference between the minimum and the maximum number is in Column 4.

    Since some contributors may have just passed the minimum number and others may be nearing the maximum number Column 5 is the average of the difference between the minimum and maximum number.

    Column 6 is the difference between the minimum downloads for the previous year and the minimum for the current year. Column 5 and 6 are then added together to arrive at an estimated total downloads for the year which appears in Column 7.
Clearly the number of single images downloaded has been going steadily down. If we compare the “Estimated Average Annual Downloads” for 2013 (4,465,000) before the subscription offering was launched and the end of 2015 (2,386,900) there is a 47% drop, but these figures do not include subscription downloads.


iStock has chosen not to report subscription downloads on the contributor’s “Profile” page. Some contributors say they are getting about twice as many subscription downloads as regular single image downloads. If, to account for the subscriptions, we add in double the estimated average single images downloads (4,773,800) to the estimated downloads (2,386,900) we get 7,160,700. This would be a significant increase in downloads over 2013. But, two-thirds of those uses generate very low revenue per image downloaded and very low royalty rates.

Contributors report that since the introduction of subscription the number regular downloads in of Small and XSmall sizes have declined significantly. It is assumed that many customers who formerly purchased these small file sizes are now getting the images they need via subscriptions.
Despite the apparent increased use of images many photographers report that the royalties they earn have declined 30% to 35% compared to what they were earning two years ago.

Total Annual iStock Downloads

If the numbers for these 430 contributors represent about one-third of iStock total downloads then the totals for all contributors in 2015 would be something in the range of 7,160,700 single image downloads and 14,321,400 subscription downloads for a total of 21,482,100.

Is should be noted that nearly all of the contributors I have been following started contributing images to iStock in the early to mid-2000s. Only 4 started contributing after 2008. Since 2010, and the beginning of the steady decline in iStock’s gross revenues, the company has provided less sales information making it harder to determine exactly what gross unit sales might be.

New, more aggressive producers may have joined iStock in the last few years and may be taking a larger share of gross sales. Many of the “old hands” have certainly cut back on new production. On the other hand the “old hands” with images that have generated significant sales in the past have a search-return-order advantage. In addition, their long term experience has helped them in understand the type of images that are in demand and what they should be producing. Thus, it seems likely that this group of contributors still represent about one-third of total sales.

Partner Program

It is also important to assess the impact of iStock’s “Partner Program” on total downloads and the revenue individual contributors earn. These are sales made through (

All the non-exclusive images accepted by iStock may also be marketed through Thinkstock. In addition, some of the iStock exclusive images are also available on Thinkstock, but the exclusive contributors have the option to withhold their images from this marketing channel. Many of the exclusives choose not to contribute to Thinkstock because they don’t want their images licensed at such low prices.

The Thinkstock sales are mostly subscription. However there are also some single images at prices about the same as IOD on Shutterstock. Based on information I have received from a few iStock non-exclusive contributors Thinkstock downloads may be 1.5 times iStock subscription downloads. Thus if we add the Thinkstock downloads to those of iStock the combined total downloads for iStock contributors may be approaching 30 million.

Some non-exclusive iStock contributors report that the revenue earned from the “Partner Program,” is about equal to the revenue generated from iStock single image download and subscription sales.

Revenue Down

Thus, while downloads may be up, revenue generated has certainly been declining steadily over the last few years and royalties are certainly down. Some contributors report declines in royalties by as much as one-third compared to 2013 before iStock subscriptions were introduced. There is no indication that anything that has been done so far that is likely to change this trend.

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, 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:  


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