Microstock Sales: Top iStock Earners

Posted on 10/13/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (10)

 In “Tips on Adding Microstock as a Revenue Stream,” Kelly Thompson said: “Today, some artists are finding they can make a good living exclusively selling microstock. iStockphoto has many contributors making anywhere from $40,000 to $500,000 a year.”

For most of the year, we have been tracking the number of downloads for 117 of the 150 most productive iStock contributors. (We have been unable to identify the other 33 in the top 150.) Total downloads of the 117 during the last seven months represent about 17% for all iStock contributor downloads.

Average downloads per month have declined slightly for 65 of these 117 contributors since March. Another 47 may have also seen a slight decline. (It is impossible to be more precise. In June, iStock changed its method of reporting downloads from exact numbers to ranges. For those with more than 100,000 career downloads, it is only possible to determine that the actual number is somewhere in the range of 10,000 images. For those with less than 100,000 total downloads, the numbers are within a 1,000 image range. To make our estimates, we considered both the possible low and high number of downloads.) Only 5 out of the top 117 have definitely seen an average growth in sales in the last seven months.

This table, which omits photographer names as irrelevant to this discussion, lists the number of units downloaded for each photographer in March and the low and high monthly averages for the seven months ending with September. From these figures, a range of annual income is extrapolated in the last two columns. (These figures are based on iStockcharts data, an average of $6.50 price per download and non-exclusive contributor royalty percentages.)

Note that the total number of downloads in March is just slightly below the total maximum possible downloads for these contributors. We know that many have just recently passed the minimum number; thus, the actual number of downloads for this group is probably closer to the 368,873 average of the minimum and maximum than it is to the maximum number.

On the other hand, while prices remain static, gross revenue for the industry appears to be increasing. It is believed that iStock’s gross 2008 revenue was around $160 million and they have announced that they are on track to gross over $200 million in sales this year. Since the price per download has not changed, this suggests that there is still growth in the number of units licensed. However, the $6.50 average price per download is for still photo sales only. The prices for vectors, illustrations, video, audio and the premium Vetta collection are all higher. Increased sales of these items could explain an overall increase in gross revenue even if the number of units licensed is flat or declining.

Among other reasons for the declines these 117 iStock photographers are experiencing could be:

  • The economy, though according to a recently published Graphic Design USA survey, designers (the high-end microstock customers) are using microstock more and more in these challenging times to keep their costs down.
  • New iStock photographers taking share from those who are more experienced.
  • Other competitors taking market share from iStock.
  • Lack of new customers.
  • Product becoming too expensive for some of the old customers, despite the fact that it still seems cheap to producers.

It is important to recognize that iStock has more than 80,000 contributors. These 117 are among the ones with the most total downloads, but they are only a very small fraction of total suppliers. Some of the ones at the bottom of this list may have sold more images in the past, but for one reason or another have stopped adding to the collection. All have had at least 63,000 total downloads in their iStock careers. There may be a few others with fewer total downloads, but who are aggressively adding new work and will have earnings higher than some on this list.

Many of Thompson’s points are good advice. And yes, a few people earn significant money from microstock—but be realistic as to your earning potential. Also keep in mind that these earning figures do not take into account any productions costs. For some of the top earners, production costs are significant. For most photographers it may be better to think of microstock as supplemental income rather than a sole source of revenue. Even then the photographer may find it necessary to invest more energy and financial resources than initially anticipated in order to realize a reasonable return.

Copyright © 2009 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.  


  • Gildo nicolo Spadoni Posted Oct 13, 2009
    i got a check fo $3.51 in august and $0.00 for september.
    thank you microstock for making me a rich photographer ( L O L )
    and i have about 1000 images on line too.
    if this keeps up i'm gonna jump out of a basement window head first.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Oct 13, 2009
    Your headlines often make it sound like the Microstock photographer will do WELL. In actuality, even with your numbers, 117 out of 80,000 photographers are even making enough to stop their other jobs. That is 0.2%... almost none!!!

    Tell it like it is... Microstock photographers better also sell shoes!

    You need to quit offering "pie in the sky" headlines for over 99% of all these Micro people.

    Basically all of these photographers would do much better with Rights Managed images... and they also would not feel they are giving their images away.

    As one of the top RM sellers in the world, I get tired of photographers calling me and saying they are going to make money in Rf and Micro, and then calling in two years to say they are QUITTING shooting! It is sad that the career of "Photographer" is taking such a beating from people who just give their images away. I teach seminars and write books to try to help, but 99% of people who sell stock in Micro are going to ALWAYS need another job to support themselves!

    Orlando, Florida

  • Jon Feingersh Posted Oct 13, 2009
    If any of my successful photographer friends and I had the gross annual earnings of all but the very first entry on the chart, we would slit our throats. Even the first entry is worrisome if one wants to make a good living in stock photography.

    I suppose it's sour grapes to say how foolish it is for anyone to think they can make a living in micro-- either now or in the future.

    There are three results of all the effort being put into micro: customers getting images for cheap (whether it's warranted or not), images becoming more and more devalued, and photo agencies making the greater share of profit from photographers' imagery.

    All one can hope for is a further stratification of clients, with those who realize how much time, effort, and money goes into top-value-added productions being willing to pay the cost for top-value stock imagery.

    Jon Feingersh

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Oct 13, 2009
    Again, I agree with Jon. Beginning photographers, take heed from Jon & me and other successful photographers.

    YOU ARE ALMOST CERTAIN TO NOT BE ABLE TO MAKE A LIVING WITH MICROSTOCK... PERIOD. Don't listen to one freak guy who does well they say... listen to the facts. You can not afford to produce stock and sell it at Micro prices. Next year you will be selling cars.

    Bill Bachmann
    Orlando, Florida

  • Jack Seto Posted Oct 14, 2009
    I also noticed that some of these top earners are also inspectors (editor) for istock. Maybe that explains the great number of images they have online :-)


  • Morgan David de lossy Posted Oct 14, 2009
    I love Bill's comments!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Strangely, my last RM Corbis statements were quit up. (back to pre-crisis figures)

    And I nearly haven't been shooting for them in more than a year. All these micro-stock talks got me worried, I should'nt have been.

    Shooting RM gives you time to shoot great images without counting figures and stats all day long.
    You can spend hours on a single image and still make a good living.
    My oldest RM images still sell...

    But still... I don't know if I get the guts to go back on shooting a lot of RM.
    I suppose I'm still worried about these micro-stock stats...

    Morgan David de Lossy

    PS: sorry for my bad english.

  • Don Klumpp Posted Oct 14, 2009
    Jim, micro-stock doesn't need a cheerleader. It needs someone to show the pratfalls of a business model that devalues photography while ignoring the cost of producing images...rent, model fees, cameras, lenses, computers, insurance,utilities, post production, keywording and salaries all have a cost. Are micro producers making a net revenue or only existing on their cash flow? It seems they will always be chasing their proverbial tails.

    Don Klumpp

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Oct 14, 2009
    Did you hear that, Jim??? No cheerleading for Micro stock. Just tell people who are considering it what the facts are ---what they can expect to have it cost in real dollars for producing images that they practically give away! Explain there is little or no money left even with many sales (if you want to call them sales-- I prefer giveaways).

    That is the type of article you need to write and stop the "glowing" headlines of riches ahead.

    If you want to quote me, or talk to me as we have done many times, feel free to call...

    Bill Bachmann
    Orlando, Florida

  • Peter Bennett Posted Oct 14, 2009
    Microstock is essentially a pyramid scheme, those who got in early had a chance of making good money, but now with the huge volume of images out there, it’s a fool’s game. To say it is a good entry way for new photographers is completely wrong as well. First off, rising productions costs make it an untenable situation, big earners have always needed large staffs to churn out the assembly line on of new images that are constantly needed. How does a new photographer learn anything about their craft that way, they are simply producing widgets.

    If I ask myself what my body of work would have looked like if I had started out that way, I can safely say that everything I love about my craft would never have been experienced and nothing would be worthy of hanging on my wall.

    Entering photography via micro is like entering the retail business by getting a job at Wal-Mart. You wouldn't learn much about the retail business, you would only be learning how Wal-Mart conducts it’s business, which is not a pretty picture, and neither is Micro.

    Peter Bennett
    Ambient Images Inc.
    P: 310-312-6640

    Specializing in New York and California images

  • Tim Mcguire Posted Oct 15, 2009
    Without the production expenses (all of them) and overhead figures, gross revenues mean next to nothing.

    Tim McGuire
    EVOstock Founder and Administrator
    www.EVOstock.com, a virtual stock image collective for pro photographers and visual artists.
    EVOlve or go extinct!

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