iStock Exclusive or Multi-Agency Non-Exclusive?

Posted on 3/21/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

I’ve been asked by an iStock exclusive contributor with more than 10,000 images in the collection if he should go non-exclusive and put his images with multiple agencies. This contributor has been regularly adding new images, but his gross revenue has been steadily declining month by month.

Up till now the contributor (not living in the U.S. or Western Europe) has been able to support himself on the income received from microstock. But he says that if the current trends continue it will be tough for him to survive on microstock income alone.

This is a very tough decision.

If he goes non-exclusive with iStock his income from iStock will certainly drop dramatically. He would have to put his images with Shutterstock, AdobeStock and Alamy and the revenue from those sources would need to match the exclusive iStock revenue. He has also got the time or upload to consider and the hassle of meeting the requirements of the new agencies. From what I hear from contributors who have their images with these other sources growing revenue over the long term seems doubtful.

I have talked to iStock exclusive contributors who have tried the multiple agency path and they tell me that iStock will generate more revenue than the other sources combined. Some even tell me that iStock exclusive generates more revenue than having images in a Getty Images RF collection. (Of course some of those iStock images will be sold through at higher prices than normally paid when they are found in the iStock collection.)

The biggest reason for the sales declines so many photographers are experiencing is the huge oversupply of imagery in all subject areas. In virtually every subject category there are way more good images than any customer has time to review. Thus, unless an image sells well in a short time after being uploaded it ends up so far down in the search return order that no customer ever sees it. This problem might be solved by deleting images that have not sold after a year and uploading them to a different collection, but that is not an easy process.

Probably the most important factor is the subject matter of the images the photographer is producing. Are they subjects that are in high general demand worldwide, or are they niche subjects for which there is relatively little demand. If there is relatively little demand for the subject and there is a high volume of images with similar keywords in the same collection that is the kiss of death.

Growing revenue is not just about producing more or better images of the same thing you have been producing. It is almost impossible for anyone to produce more than all their competitors will upload of the same subject matter with the same keywords. Shutterstock’s 2017 sales are instructive. Total downloads for the year were up about 3% compared to 2016, but there was a 46% increase in new images added to the collection in the year. Customers are not buying that many more images, but they have more and more choice. The odds of making a sale are less and less.

It may also be interesting to compare the average price per image licensed going back a few years. Determine the total numbers of images licensed in each year: 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Then divide those numbers into the gross royalties received during the year. I believe many photographers will find that the average return per image licensed has been declining steadily and that decline may be greater than the decline in number of images licensed.

So what’s the solution?

It may be possible to do some exclusive shoots for iStock and different shoots that the photographer distributes through multiple other agencies on a non-exclusive basis. If the photographer can determine that certain subject matter sells much better than other subjects he shoots and then concentrate on shooting more of the high demand subjects in the future the multi-agency strategy may be helpful. The difficulty here is that there may be other subjects that he has never photographed which would be even more popular, but he has no sales history to gage the popularity of those subjects.

Finally, if the photographer needs additional income to survive then he should start looking for some other sideline business as a way of generating additional revenue because microstock as a source of income is not likely to improve.

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:  


  • Tibor Bognar Posted Mar 24, 2018
    For me it's as simple as "Don't put all your eggs in one basket". Fortunes of agencies go up and down (unfortunately more often down) and if you are tied to one all your income may suddenly disappear. Corbis photographers have experienced a sudden dramatic drop of income when they found themselves at Getty. If I was manufacturing widgets I'd like them to be available in many stores, not just one! Many agencies insist on exclusivity, but when images are selling for a few dollars this can not be justified with any rational argument.

  • CHARLES MANN Posted Mar 24, 2018
    There is a problem with your "Solution", if the contributor is "Exclusive" with iStock they CANNOT by contract sell any of their images via another RF agency, they could do RM. So they can't really "test the waters". And it does not look like iStock/Getty will be going to "Image Exclusivity" anytime soon.

    Another thing that I have read from other contributors that have dropped the crown is that some files do better at some agencies, so the buyers might not be exactly the same across all agencies. So what you shoot might play a role in this as well.

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