Graphic Design; Illustration Share Of Microstock Sales

Posted on 2/13/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

One thing that has intrigued me about the microstock business is the role designers and illustrators play as content creators and how their participation on the seller side of the market influences imagery supply and demand. Shutterstock recently reported that in 2011 32% of the company’s total downloads were vector illustrations and that in the last 5 years customers have trended to move away from using photographs to illustrate certain concepts and toward the use of very graphic illustrations.

I decided to use istockcharts to examine the 500 individuals with the most career downloads in order to learn a little more about who they are and the kind of work they do. It is important to note that istockcharts has data from 38,331 of iStock’s more than 100,000 contributors. These contributors represent more than 90% of iStock’s total downloads. On February 8, 2012 this group had a combined total of 116,519,790+ career downloads. The total images in their collections were 9,585,510..

The top 500 contributors (one-half of 1% of the total) have had 53,384,000 career downloads (46% of the total). Currently, these contributors have a combined total of 1,652,724 images with iStock which represent less than 18% of the total collection.  

Graphic Design Professionals vs. Photographers

Istockcharts list the names of most contributors with links to their iStock portfolio. By examining the portfolio it is possible to determine whether the contributor is a photographer, designer, IT professional, Videographer or Other. 82 of the contributors in this top 500 do not allow their names to be used in istockcharts so our analysis is based primarily on 418 contributors.

Number   Career Average Total Average Image to
Contrib.   Downloads Downloads Images Images DL Ratio
73 Designers 7,602,000 104,137 144,982 1986 52
37 Illustrators 3,879,000 104,838 75,035 2027 52
4 IT 231,000 57,750 8,724 2181 26
12 Other 737,000 61,417 22,224 1852 33
126 Sub-total 12,449,000   250,965   50
289 Photographers 31,746,000 109,848 1,102,532 3815 29
3 Videographers 275,000 91,667 26,394 8798 10
292 Sub-Total 32,021,000   1,128,926   28
418 Sum of Above 44,470,000   1,379,891   32
82 No Information 9,414,000 114,805 272,833 3327 34
500   53,884,000   1,652,724    

About 26% of the 418 list themselves as designers and illustrators. All the graphic arts contributions (including IT and Other) represent about 30% of all contributors.

It is difficult to determine the actual number of images that are photographs compared to illustrations because some graphic artists include a lot of photographs in their collections and many photographers use a lot of graphic design and image manipulation techniques in many of their photographs.

The average number of downloads per photographer is about the same as it is for designers and illustrators, but, on average, a photographer will have almost twice as many images in the collection as the designer of illustrator. Thus, designers and illustrators seem to get about twice the efficiency from their creations as is the case with photographers.

Photographers who hope to increase sales might want to pay more attention to the concepts that the graphic artists are illustrating and try to make their photographs more generic.

On the production side designers and illustrators have a number of advantages over photographers. Their production expenses are lower as they do not incur costs for models, props, locations or transportation. In general their equipment costs are also lower.

Graphic designers also have an advantage over photographers because they tend to work, at least some of the time, directly for the end using customer. As a result they often have a better sense of what customers actually want to use. This may be one of the reasons why their image-to-download-ratio (number of downloads per image in the collection) is so much higher than photographers.


One surprising result from this exercise was that the images of non-exclusive contributors are downloaded at about the same rate as those of exclusive contributors. About 25% of the 410 contributors were non-exclusive. (istockcharts follows a total of 5,808 exclusive contributors.) Non-exclusive contributors actually had a slightly higher download rate than those who are exclusive.

Of course, the images of exclusive contributors are selling for much higher fees and their royalty percentages are higher than those of non-exclusive contributors. Consequently, exclusive contributors should be earning significantly more from iStock than those who are non-exclusive. On the other hand, non-exclusive contributors will probably have the same images with many other distributors and may be earning a lot more in total revenue than those who are exclusive.

These statistics may be flawed because we’re dealing with “total career downloads.” The advantages of exclusivity have been greatly magnified in the last year or so as prices have been pushed up and exclusives have been given preference in the search return order. Using our current numbers as a base line we will take another look at sales in a few months and see if the comparative figures for a shorter period of time show some differences.

Contributors   Total Downloads Total Images DL per image
304 Exclusive 32,941,000 1,028,577 32
106 Non-Exclusive 10,317,000 300,740 34
90 Un-Identified 10,626,000 323,407 33
500 Totals 53,884,000 1,652,724  

Rights managed and traditional royalty free photographers should also take note of the increased demand for simple, very graphic images. Customers are looking for images that will read well when used small and where the concept is impossible to miss. Those who can adjust their shooting in this direction will probably find that it pays off.

Copyright © 2012 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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