How Many Unique Images Licensed Annually?

Posted on 6/11/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

One of the big mysteries in the stock photo agency business is the percentage of “Unique images” licensed annually. Some agencies, like Shutterstock, report the total number of images licensed, but many of those licensed are used by multiple customers so the actual number of different, unique images used is much smaller.

For example, in 2017 Shuttertock had 170.1 images in the collection and a total of 172 million download, or about 1 download for every image in the collection. But that can be very misleading because a very small percentage of the images tend to be downloaded a huge number of times and the vast majority are never, ever used.

I’ve talked to some of Shutterstock’s leading photographers who say that only 20% of their images are ever downloaded and most of them are only downloaded once. My guess is that overall something less that 5% of the images in the collection are ever downloaded. As the collection grows it may be a lot less than 5%.

A few years ago Alamy reported that total images licensed for the year was less than one-half-of-one-percent of the images in the collection. Many of the same images were licensed multiple times. Alamy’s collection is much larger now.

Why Is This Information Important?

This information could be very helpful to those contributing to an agency as it would give them some idea of the success rate they might expect for the images they contribute. In addition, it could enable each contributor to compare his or her personal rate with the agency average and determine their relative success rate to other suppliers.

It is understandable -- although I believe short sighted -- that agencies don’t want to tell customers, or anyone other than the actual creator of the image, which images are actually licensed and how frequently. They fear that others might use that information to compete with them and take away some of their market.

But most agencies could easily set up a system that would allow each individual creator to search a collection of the creator’s own thumbnails, and organize the returns based on the number of times each image had been licensed in the last 12 months. It would also be helpful to be able to do a separate search based on the number of times each image had ever been licensed.

In addition, it would be helpful if each contributor could see (1) the actual number of times each image had been licensed and (2) the gross revenue generated by each image, and adjust the returns based on each of these factors.

This information would only be viewable by the actual contributor who provides his or her own password. The system could be set up so no one else could view this data.

All the necessary data is currently collected by the agencies. To some extent it is also reported on the sales reports sent to individual contributors, but it is usually reported in such a convoluted manner that it is very difficult and time consuming for the image creator to make useful sense of the information.


If an image creator could easily see which of his or her images were selling it could be very helpful in determining what is of interest to customers and what isn’t. Creators could focus future production efforts on the type of imagery in demand.

A search organized as outlined above would enable creators to quickly review the images of interest to customers. Even if what customers want turns out not to be the kind of pictures the photographer loves to shoot, it may be an indication that, from a business point of view, trying to sell his or her images as stock photography may not be the best way to spend one’s time.

Many photographers have been uploading 50 to 100 images of the same situation, hoping that one will be what the customers is looking for. With such a search, photographers might begin to see that only 4 or 5 (or less) of the 50 are ever licensed, and understand why 1 or 2 were licensed most frequently. This might help them recognize certain characteristics of those licensed that should be included in future shoots of similar subject matter.

Such information could enable creators to be more effective producers. Easy access to such information might encourage creators to produce more of what customers want to buy. That would benefit agencies as well as creators

And it could be done in a way that would not expose the information of agencies or creators to anyone who might use it in a way that would be a detriment to the agency or creator.

Copyright © 2018 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:  


  • Thomas Wear Posted Jun 15, 2018
    Both Adobe and Shutterstock allow for views of sales such as you describe above. Adobe sorts by number of downloads while Shutterstock sorts by money earned, but that still comes close to tracking with downloads since the majority are for the same amount, with a few outliers at higher fees. Alamy will show you all your sales, or all in a certain time period, but you can't sort them so that's limited value. Getty/iStock also shows images both viewed and downloaded, but only a month at a time, so that's limited usefulness.
    Of course, this data is useful but not the only way to gauge performance and future needs. For example, a travel shooter with thousands of images is more dependent on long tail single sales but lots of them. For example, one photographer I work with has had over 4000 downloads of 1300 different images downloaded at one MS agency, but nearly half of those 1300 images have had only one download. That's out of a total of over 5000 images online with that agency. But the single downloads of very specific subjects continue to roll in, beside the multiple downloads of the bast sellers.
    OTOH, if someone is shooting more commercial or conceptual stock, it should be possible to get a good sense of what concepts or approaches are doing better or worse by looking at number of downloads.

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