Numbers To Think About

Posted on 9/6/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Consider the following number of images in microstock collections.
  7/30/2010 9/5/2011
Shutterstock 11,332,581 16,000,000+
Fotolia 9,056,403 14,400,000+
Dreamstime 8,556,710 11,000,000+
iStockphoto 6,837,000 9,000,000 +
  35,782,694 50,400,000+

In a little over a year these four sites have increased the number of images they represent by 41%. Granted, in many cases the same images may appear on all of these sites so the real growth in unique images may not be quite so large. But the percent growth on Shutterstock alone is 41% and the growth on Fotolia is 59%!

This growth wouldn’t be all that bad if it equaled, or was less than, the growth in demand for images. But that is not the case. Data on the number of images being purchased or downloaded is hard get, but there are strong indications that there has not been much overall growth. Thanks to istockcharts there are strong indications that at iStockphoto, at least, the number of images being downloaded is declining

Thus, if we assume that demand is relatively flat and supply is growing at a rate of 41% or more annually, the odds of any individual image being licensed are reduced significantly.

Some argue that demand for images on the Internet is growing exponentially and there is plenty of need for more images. That may be the case, although I know of no one who has any statistics that would back up this point. But if it is true it simply means that many of those new users are getting the images they need in one of four ways – (1) taking the images themselves, (2) hiring someone to shoot an assignment, (3) getting free images off the Internet or (4) stealing.

Number of Image Creators

Where do all these microstock image creators come from? A year ago Shutterstock had 230,299 image contributors. Today they have 316,393, a 37% increase in contributors. Based on my estimates of Shutterstock’s total annual downloaded, I would estimate that each contributor receives about 2.2 downloads annually per image on file. A few get a lot more. Many get a lot less. Shutterstock says photographers can earn from $0.25 to $28.00 per download – but the vast majority of sales are much closer to the $0.25 than the other number.

Dreamstime has 120,000 contributing photographers and iStockphoto 110,000. Something in the range of 6,000 of iStock photographers are exclusive with iStock. Most of the rest probably have their images on several sites. I estimate that there are at least 375,000 unique individuals worldwide contributing images to one or more stock photo sites. This includes the RM and traditional RF sites. And the number is growing rapidly. Where do all these images come from?


It seems likely to me that a significant number are coming from the ranks of the unemployed. In the U.S. alone there are 14 million unemployed. 6 million of these have been out of work for more than 27 weeks. In addition there are another 9 million who are working part-time, but want full time work and another 6.5 million who want jobs, but have given up looking. Thus, there are 29.5 million people, or 18% of the potential work force in the U.S., who are under-employed or unemployed.

Not all these people are construction workers, day labors or unskilled. If you look at the lines of people applying for jobs many are skilled, white collar workers. Some are photographers and graphic designers. There are students who have gone to school to learn photography and can’t find anyone to hire them. Many own professional quality cameras and computers. While they would like to have full time jobs in the meantime they would like to find some way to make a little extra money. And to have some hope. One advantage of stock photography is that you don’t have to have an employer to tell you what to do. You just have to go out and Do It!

Again, there are no statistics on how many of those producing images fall into this category, but the numbers could be significant. In the next few years their numbers are more likely to grow than decline. .

Earning A Living

What does all this mean for individuals trying to earn their living producing stock images? It will become progressively more difficult to “just be a stock photographer.” There will simply be too many images chasing too few customers. Very few will be able to support themselves producing nothing but stock. As with everything, there will be rare exceptions. However, for most, stock income will be, at best, a supplement to something else. It may be a spouse’s income or a full-time job as a writer, graphic designer, or even an assignment photographer. But, it is unlikely to ever be the photographer’s only means of support.

Another thing to keep in mind is that 30% of the top 100 best selling artists on iStock photo list themselves as illustrators of designers. These people have another source of income. Licensing rights to stock images is a supplement to there income primary income. Even when they earn significant revenue from stock they have something else to fall back on. I suspect this small sample is representative of the total percentage of designers and illustrators that participate in the microstock business..

Some old timers like to argue that all it takes to be successful is to “improve the quality of your imagery.” In my opinion this holds out a false hope that success is just about producing “better” pictures. Image quality is important, but there are plenty of high quality images available on virtually every subject. And many are available at rock bottom prices. Anyone who thinks that microstock is made up of inferior quality imagery hasn’t looked at any of the microstock sites in several years.

It’s time for a backup plan.

Copyright © 2011 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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