Can Photographers Make Money Selling Microstock?

Posted on 4/6/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (6)

The most commonly heard complaint from traditional photographers about microstock is that it is impossible to make money selling pictures for a few dollars. While some pictures are still sold for $1.00, the average microstock-image price is now probably about $6.50. If the photographer receives a 20% royalty, that makes the average payment per download about $1.30.

Augmenting data collected by iStockcharts with additional research to account for known discrepancies between iStockcharts and iStockphoto’s real numbers, Selling Stock estimates that iStockphoto had nearly 3 million still-image downloads during March 2009. (See this table for details on individual March sales of top 157 iStock contributors.) If iStock sustains this pace for the entire year, it can expect close to 36 million total downloads in 2009.

That would mean $234 million in still-image revenues for iStock, but what can individuals earn?

The number one microstock producer, Yuri Arcurs, had 28,170 downloads in March. Yuri is non-exclusive, and iStock represents less than 50% of his total microstock revenue. However, from iStock alone, Arcurs can expect to earn somewhere in the area of $439,000 in 2009.

Arcurs’ division of revenue between iStock and others is not unique. Non-exclusive shooters typically earn as much or more from other agencies, making iStock less than 50% of their total revenues. It is, therefore, logical to estimate that the total revenue of a non-exclusive iStock contributor is twice or more his or her iStock revenue. As such, each iStock photographer’s total revenue can be roughly estimated at $2.60 per iStock download, which represents a 40% commission of an average $6.50 sale.

Based on March 2009 downloads, 21 iStock contributors can expect to earn over $150,000 this year. There are 45 who are likely to earn over $100,000. There are 23 more in the $80,000 to $100,000 range.

Outsiders argue that the only way you can get to the top is to have been one of the early microstock adopters five or six years ago, and that now it is too late to enter. This is not necessarily true, as evidenced by the publicly available dates of joining iStock for each contributor. A number of top iStock shooters have only been uploading for two or three years.

For more on this subject, see “Who Loses by Focusing on Increasing Traffic.”

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, 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:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Apr 6, 2009
    These top shooters would make tons more if they went to traditional stock sales agents. They must have very good images and very good images will sell really well in traditional stock. You are showing only the very top of Microstock... the very top in traditional sales are generating million dollar years!

    The problem with most Microstock shooters is that they don't have the confidence to believe that their BEST images will sell for $10,000- $15,000 sales.... and also so many $400-600 sales. That adds up to a lot of money per year. The Micro shooters lack that confidence & knowledge, so they think they need to make it up in lots of tiny, tiny sales. I would rather drive a truck than sell my images and make $1.00. The problem with sighting the very best of Microstock shooters is that the majority are getting monthly checks of $30-50 total. Good luck living on that!

    Bill Bachmann

    Orlando, Florida

  • Tibor Bognar Posted Apr 6, 2009
    I agree with Bill 100%!!!
    Tibor Bognar, Montreal

  • Thom Gourley Posted Apr 6, 2009

    I must respectfully disagree. The appeal of iStock is a mystery to me as well, but Yuri Arcurs' images stand up to any pro shooters' work and (having watched some videos on his blog) the guy is NOT lacking confidence by any stretch of the imagination. Lise Gagne is another. Whether it's the ability to market the same image via multiple distribution channels (for non-exclusives) or what, I don't know. But these are definitely top quality pro shooters who prefer to go with micro.

    I think we have to accept the fact that at some level this model appeals to some photographers. And lack of confidence isn't the answer to the 'why'. Have a look at their work. They're pretty damn good and they know it!

    Thom Gourley
    SLC, UT

  • Lee Torrens Posted Apr 6, 2009
    Hmmm... You really think someone earning $80,000 - $150,000 a year in microstock lacks knowledge about traditional stock opportunities? Seriously?

    And you think they get to that level and still lack confidence?

    There's a logical explanation about why they stick to microstock. You're getting warmer.

    Jim, the top non-exclusive microstock photographers that I speak with very rarely count iStockphoto in their top two earning agencies. Agency breakdowns that Yuri has provided in the past suggest that this is the case for him too.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Apr 7, 2009
    I feel that Yuri, and others like him, would still do much better in traditional. I have looked at his pictures and he is a good stock shooter. Why then settle for selling those good images for $1 profit for him.

    Fo the record, I have made over one million dollars many separate years selling traditional. And it does give you confidence... and SATISFACTION... to not be selling anything for one dollar.

    I think it is a mind set and he just wants to make many tiny sales, when I feel his (and others) pictiures can sell for a lot more than they all think. And I get to travel all over the world shooting -- which is wonderful --- and that kind of travel would take too long to recover in dollar sales. Microstock shooters like Yuri shoot lots of studio white backgrounds. Cheaper to stay in the studio and produce many images when you sell them so cheap. But he is a good shooter... he should to try a couple shoots shoots in Rights Managed and see the difference, cause he is good.

    I have written about much of this in my new book, which is my 15th book.. Check it out There is a place for RF and Microstock, it should just not be for everyone to sell cheap. Try Rights managed and it should feels good with the big sales going to big advertising campaigns--- something they never would do with Microstock!

    Bill Bachmann
    Orlando, Florida

  • Yuri Arcurs Posted Mar 3, 2010
    I have lots of images in both traditional and micro. I have about 4000 images in tradition actually and my RPI is about the same as in micro.
    I know for a fact that I would not make a whole lot more in traditional. It is just not like that anymore. :(

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