Illustration Segment Of Stock Image Industry

Posted on 8/16/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

A readers recently asked what I believe the illustration segment of the stock photo industry is worth. A very good question. Since, I've spent most of my career as a photographer, I tend to think of the stock image business in terms of photography, but the reader is right that a huge percentage of the business involves the licensing of graphics and illustrations, not photos. Let me see if I can break it down.

I published stories earlier this year (here) and last year where I estimated the total market for stock imagery at about $2.4 to $2.5 billion annually. As I see it, the growth I flat, and given continuing price declines, I believe gross revenue generated can easily decline going forward.

While there will certainly be an increasing use of images, I believe sellers have already reached all those who are willing to pay anything for the images they use. There may be continued growth in the number of photos, illustrations and particularly video used on the Internet, but it is unlikely to translate into much, if any, growth in revenue from the licensing of image use. Going forward, it will be about taking market share, not market growth.

Three Segments

When we talk about the stock image market there are really three segments – Video, Editorial with a particular focus on news and for lack of a better word Creative. Most of the creative images are designed to illustrate concepts, and in some case provide a historical perspective.

There is little, if any use of stock illustration in the Video and Editorial segments of the market so we must separate these two market segments out of the $2.5 billion before considering the size of the Creative segment of the market. Some may argue that there is a lot of illustration used in Editorial, but I believe almost all of it is produced by staff creators, or freelancers working on assignment for the editorial companies.  

In April 2015 ACSIL published the results of a survey that estimated the worldwide market for stock video at $550 million. I think that may now be in the range of $700 million.

I believe total Editorial sales worldwide are about $400 million. I do not include educational textbook use in this figure as I consider most of type of imagery used more on the Creative side of the business. Thus, that leaves about $1.4 billion for the Creative side.

Microstock vs. Traditional Stock

In 2015, I estimated the total market for Microstock at about $850 million. I believe that has changed very little in the last two years. That would leave about $550 million for the traditional stock imagery side of the business.

While some of the illustration is licensed through traditional stock imagery outlets, I believe the bulk is licensed by the microstock suppliers.

Separating Photos from Illustration

From 2011 through 2016 I tracked the sales on a semi-annual basis of about 430 of iStock’s leading contributors. Virtually all of these contributors had been supplying images to iStock prior to 2009 and I looked at their total career sales at iStock. In January 2016, I broke down the sales based on whether the contributor shows mostly illustration or photography.

As it turned out almost exactly half had only supplied photography, 25% supplied only illustration and the other 25% supplied both photography and illustration. For this final quarter of the group it was impossible to determine the percentage of sales that were from either illustration or photography.

I estimate that between 35% and 40% of images licensed by the 430 was illustration. While these contributors are a small percentage of iStock’s total contributors they represent about one-third of iStock’s total downloads. Thus, I believe this small group is representative of iStock total contributors.

It is interesting that photographers contributed a lot more images to the collection than the illustrators. On average the photographers had 17.85 total career downloads for each image they had in the collection. The illustrators had 32.41 downloads for each image in the collection. Those who did both photography and illustration had 25.86 downloads per image in the collections.

This tells me that illustrators have a much better understanding than photographers of what customers need and will want to buy. Thus, illustrators are able to focus their production on images that are likely to be in demand and waste less of their time producing images that no customer is likely to purchase.

I suspect this is because many of the illustrators have more frequent contact with actual customers, via assignment projects, than is the case with a high percentage of photographers.

As an additional data point, a few years ago Shutterstock published some figures that indicated that about one-third of their revenue in one quarter was from illustration, but they have not provided any such breakdown since.

Gross Illustration Revenue

Based on the above I would estimate gross annual microstock revenue for illustration at about $315 million.  I would add another $35 million from the traditional side for a total of $350 million out of $2.5 billion for illustration

It is interesting that when I search the Getty Images collection only 6% of the images seem to be illustration. The rest is photography. For the keyword “people” 10% of the iStock collection is illustration. That same search on Shutterstock produces 17% illustration. With the keyword “business” on Shutterstock 57% of the images are illustration.

Copyright © 2017 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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