Exclusive Representation For Microstock Photographers

Posted on 1/4/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (11)

2011 may be the year when the stock photo industry returns to the idea of exclusive representation -- specifically, being exclusive with a microstock agency.  

For many year the widely held belief has been that the way to maximize returns was to get your images represented by many distributors. When possible, the best solution for the image producer was to get the same images represented by many distributors, but at the very least the producer wanted the ability to put different images with several different collections and distributors in order to have a better chance to reach all the customers and to spread ones risk.

Now, iStockphoto’s has developed an exclusive strategy that may bring about a change in this way of thinking. While there are several downsides for image producers to the iStock strategy, the upsides may more that compensate for the difficulties.


Before being allowed to sign up as an iStock exclusive contributor photographers must contribute images on a non-exclusive basis and have at least 250 downloads. (Based on istockcharts figures, only about 14,000 of its more than 90,000 contributors have enough downloads to go exclusive. However, probably less than 7,500 are actually represented exclusively by iStock. Some who qualify on the basis of downloads may not qualify for other reasons.)

Exclusive contributors must also have a minimum 50% approval rating of submitted images and no royalty-free stock images with any other agencies or businesses with the exception of Getty Images. This includes royalty-free priced at traditional levels.

The no other royalty-free images with anyone else makes it extremely difficult for many photographers to participate in iStock’s exclusive program. Many are earning significant amounts of money from other non-microstock collections. They would have to pull all those images, and give up all that revenue before they would be allowed to become exclusive iStock contributor.

In some cases the contracts of these photographers will not allow them to pull images quickly. In addition, if they were to pull them there is no guarantee that iStock would add them to its collection and give the images some chance of earning additional revenue in the future.

Another big disadvantage is that rejected images are not allowed to be offered for sale elsewhere. The photographer may not give such images way for free either on his or her own or another site. However, the images may be licensed as rights-managed. Despite these disadvantages the advantages may outweigh them.


Among the big advantages of any microstock offering is that the image supplier may get more images into play than with a traditional royalty-free company. After production, the images are made available for purchase in a much more timely manner than is the case in the traditional environment. Sales can be tracked on a daily basis to determine which subjects are in demand and which aren’t. Royalty payments are made whenever the image supplier requests them provided the balance due is at least $100.00. And finally, it is not unusual for microstock contributors to make 10, 20 and more times the number of sales as they might make if their images were licensed at traditional prices.

iStock has recently established multiple collections at different price points where exclusive contributors can place their images. Photographers must be exclusive with iStock to participate in these collections. These collections are Exclusive, Exclusive+, Vetta and the Agency collection. For more information about the prices to use images in these collections see iStockphoto: Sales Down, Revenue Up. Some of these collections have been operating for less than a year and yet it appears that many of iStock’s customers are more than willing to pay the higher prices to use the images in these collections.

In 2010 some exclusive contributors earned an average of between $5.00 and $8.00 per image downloaded depending on how many images they had in the higher priced collections. To some that may not seem like much, but keep in mind how many times each image sells. In addition it seems clear that these average rates will go up in 2011 as the higher priced collections get a full year to deliver results.

Other factors that seem likely to occur are that exclusive photographers will be allowed to place more images in the high priced collections. Right now photographers are allowed to designate a certain number of images -- in some cases as much as 20% of the total images in their collections -- to be licensed at Exclusive+ prices. In addition, the prices in terms of number of credits required to purchase a particular file size will be raised and the fees charged to purchase a package of credits will increase.

When considering whether to offer non-editorial images as RM, traditional RF or Microstock it is important to recognize that less than 2% of all commercially oriented images are licensed as RM, less than 4% are sold at traditional RF prices and well over 90% of all images are licensed as microstock. The odds that anyone will even see your image and greatly reduced if it is not offered as microstock.  

Another factor to consider is that iStock appears to be favoring exclusive photographers over those who are non-exclusive. Certainly, with the changes in the 2011 royalty structure exclusive photographers whose images tend to be licensed for more credits were treated better than those who are non-exclusive. Given the discussion on the blogs it seems likely that many of iStocks non-exclusive contributors will pull out of the agency. That doesn’t seem to bother iStock as it pushes toward developing an offering that aims more toward supplying images to high end users and less toward the small player who purchases an occasional image for small uses or for a web site.

Since May of 2009, I have been tracking information for 198 of the leading iStockphoto sellers based on istockcharts data. (http://istockcharts.multimedia.de/)  IStockcharts currently follows the sales and other data of 36,781 of iStockphoto’s more than 90,000 contributors. I estimate that in 2010 the images of this small group of suppliers represented in excess of 20% of all the images downloaded from iStock. The vast majority of this group are exclusive contributors.

As of December 31, 2010 this group of 198 had a total of 611,462 images in the iStock collection, or something in the range of 7.5% of the total collection. Thus, their images sell at a much higher rate than the images of other in the collection.

If we look at the top 1% of the collection’s contributors in terms of total images downloaded over the contributor’s lifetime with iStock, I estimate that something in the range of 50% to 70% of all iStock sales come from the images of this group. It seems to me that iStock is on track to narrow its total number of contributors and to not grow the collection a great deal in terms of number of images. Rather the company will focus on improving the overall quality. They want to sell more to the higher paying customers and are less worried about selling to the masses. Already there are indications from those who report their sales on the blogs that iStock sales for non-exclusive contributors are declining and that many of the low end customers seem to be turning to Sutterstock and some of the other major microstock sites.

Based on the data from the 198 I have tracked since 2009, I believe iStocks overall number of units licensed in 2010 was probably in the range of 23 million and that was about 9% less than the number licensed in 2009. Despite the decline in the number of units licensed, the revenue generated probably rose from around $200 million in 2009 to about $300 million in 2010 due to increased prices. Undoubtedly, we will see more growth in 2011 and the exclusive contributors will be the ones who benefit the most.

Copyright © 2011 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.  


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jan 4, 2011
    I personally do not like the change that was made. One thing as an independent contractor is you can shoot for one company and then go shoot something completely different for someone else. I don't believe they are giving you employee benefits which is more or less what this contract amounts to.

    There are no health benefits or standard costs that an employer has to pay the government to cover their employees unemployment or Social Security.

    This leaves the photographer with no coverage. When Istock decides they can fire you there will be no income until you can start to rebuild with other agencies.
    This has to be clear to everyone that the photographer comes out on the worst end of the stick with this kind of contract.

    Contractors can build houses all over the world, imagine if they could only build for one company, would they be a contractor anymore, no they would be an employee for a building firm. If there is one thing that has really turned this business around in a negative way for photographers it is this contract.

    I have images in RF that are tied up there for many years, because of that I cannot become an exclusive until all my RF images are removed from every site in the world. So professionals that have mastered the business and can really produce top selling images are excluded from this contract until they remove every image from every site in RF.

    If you want to see control over what we make no matter how hard we work this contract is for you. It is not an ethical contract in my mind although I am sure that it is legal.

    The thing I love about shooting stock is the freedom to run my own business, join this contract and that is not in the equation anymore.

    I am sure their are companies like Wall Mart that make deals with different suppliers to only sell their product at their store. If I was offered that I would turn and run, I want to be able to distribute my work to whom ever I feel is worthy of making us both a strong income.

    I can add to their collection through the Agency Collection but they are only paying 20% so why bother. I have to split part of that with the third party agencies that will let me submit. I lose money with that system since I already have almost 20% at Istock to begin with as a non exclusive.

    Also this point about RM percentages of images in the market, RM stills produces 50% of the industries returns so I don't think that percentage you presented is very relevant.

    I produce for all three license groups from RM to Micro so I do have a bit of insight as to what is taking place. I am very happy with Microstock as I am with Macrostock, I just don't think having to work for only one agency gives us much power as contractors and will give more power to the agencies than ever before.

    Done with my rant : )

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jan 4, 2011
    Wow... photographers are now being offered the CHANCE to be exclusive for IStock and still make a few mere dollars per sale .... AND they can't make any money anywhere else. WHAT A BARGAIN.... can't wait to see how many suckers sign up for that!!! -----------------

    Exclusive SHOULD mean BIG sales!!


  • Christopher Futcher Posted Jan 4, 2011
    Great post! I can tell you've done your research. The changes at iStock are controversial but I feel they are in my favour being an active exclusive contributor. In May 2010 I pulled all my images from other sites and became exclusive. Within four months my total income from stock rose over 400%.

    In response to the comment above that's like telling people not to open a burger joint like McDonads but rather a steak house. I know of exclusive photographers selling over 7,000 images per month. Multiply that by $6 per image that's over $500,000 per year. If I have the CHANCE to make that kind of money selling images for a few dollars each I'll take it.

  • Christopher Futcher Posted Jan 4, 2011
    Also in response to Bill's comment exclusive photographers can make money other places, just not by selling RF licenses. I still work with my commercial clients and take on the odd wedding here and there.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jan 4, 2011
    In response to Christopher.... you yourself would feel a lot better when you make really good sales (over $10,000 each at times) from only doing RM. Those sales are not as frequent as they were, but they still exist. And they NEVER exist in Microstock. ----- Total income raising 400% .... great. But I would gladly cpm[pare my total sales with any stock photographer in the world ---- bar none. We are led to believe that RM is dead and we MUST get into RF and Microstock to survive by he powers that be. I am here to tell all stock photographers that I am one of the top three sellers in the world and I DO NOT sell anything on RF or Microstock. ----- so it can be done. And you feel a lot better getting a fair sale price than you do in many little dollar (or six dollar) sales! You just need to know what to shoot, shoot lots, learn how to market them and get them into buyer's hands ---- even in a recession there are millions of pictures to be sold. ======= www.billbachmann.com

  • Christopher Futcher Posted Jan 4, 2011
    That's great that you are one of the top three stock photographers in the world. I picked up my first DSLR and learned the word aperture in 2008. I'm not trying to compare myself or any other microstock photographer with you, I'm just saying that I along with thousands of others would happily sell images at $6 each. I may not have licensed an image for $10,000 but I consistently make several hundred month after month after month on single images. I'm plenty happy with that. By the sounds of it anyone not in the top three sellers in the world is a sucker. Call me a sucker then.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jan 4, 2011
    To C.F. ---- No, you are not a sucker. I just feel that if photographers that are limiting themselves by NOT selling anywhere else on just Microstock (ie, exclusive there) are missing out on hundreds & hundreds (your words.... I would make it thousands & thousands in RM) by not selling the same images in other agencies. The way I make a lot is by my many agencies selling. Check out my website and newest book online at my website. www.billbachmann.com And keep shooting but CONSIDER making RM images n some other agencies and you may step up to many more dollars. It is wonderful to get money from MANY agencies each month --- it adds up.=====


  • Christopher Futcher Posted Jan 5, 2011
    This is the first time I've heard of you Bill. I guess it's because I haven't been selling stock for very long and did things wrong. All I know is that I have been able to keep my expenses very low while making four times more than if I finished my college degree. And I did this all only two years after buying my first SLR camera, a Nikon D80 with kit lens. It wasn't until spring 2009 that I knew RM even existed. I don't have 60,000 images from around the world to license and a great reputation, I have 1800 images from three places mostly with friends and family as models. To be honest, I prefer selling thousands of RF licenses for one local agency (I used to live in Alberta near iStock) per month and not having to travel much. I have considered making RM images but like I said, I'm very new at this and iStock is working very well for me and teaching me tons. Since exclusivity with iStock doesn't include RM I may venture into that model someday but for now I see lots of potential to increase profits significantly more in 2011 by submitting RF to iStock exclusively.

  • Christopher Futcher Posted Jan 5, 2011
    Bill, maybe you should put all your images up exclusively at iStock. Over the last seven months I made an average of $9.15 per image per month. If you put all 60,000 of your stock images up you'll be getting $549,000 per month. That's almost $6.6 million a year. You may be doing better than that, though, in which case maybe you should stay RM.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jan 5, 2011
    They will bury me first! I just don't believe that Microstock will support you in the next year. Talk to me in a year when you see sales go down because so many people think Microstock works. Even the top seller in the world in Microstoc,k Yuri Arcurs, sees his sales go down because there are so many cheap pictures each month on flicker, etc. I don't want to compete with those .... I want the top end images. But good luck to you! I hope that you can see my point sometime because I DO KNOW this business!==== www.billbachmann.com

  • Christopher Futcher Posted Jan 6, 2011
    I don't know this business and I will come talk with you when I see a significant drop in sales.

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