Some Contributors Disenchanted with iStock

Posted on 12/8/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Many view iStockphoto as the microstock industry leader. However, online forum threads about the company’s November sales and the future for non-exclusive microstockers offer a very different perspective. It appears that, in its pursuit of exclusive contributors, iStock is becoming a less important income source for many microstock shooters—not only those just starting out, but also those earning a living from microstock.

iStock has introduced a series of policies that give extreme preference to a very small percentage of exclusive contributors, to the detriment of the vast majority of those who are submitting images. As a result, many very experienced microstock shooters have seen such steep declines in their iStock revenues that they are no longer uploading new images.

iStock encourages exclusivity with higher royalties, shorter inspection queues and increased upload limits, all of which enable exclusive photographers to get more images online faster. Still, iStock has the most severe limits on uploads of any microstock company. Exclusive photographers are also prohibited from submitting to any other royalty-free distributor, and this even applies to images that iStock refuses to accept. This is much more restrictive than the standard Getty Images agreement, which requires exclusivity of accepted images only.

As is the case with most other microstock Web sites, iStock’s search return order gives preference to contributors with the most downloads. As the image inventory grows and some of the early adopters get more and more downloads, it becomes harder and harder for newer contributors to get high enough in the search return order for their images to be seen.

In October, iStock also adjusted its “Best Match” search algorithm to give even more preference to exclusive photographers. As a result, many non-exclusive contributors experienced a terrible second half of October and November, while some exclusives saw a 200% rise in revenues.

One forum surveyed 173 photographers—an admittedly small sample—and found that almost two thirds saw a decline in sales in November compared to the previous month. In some cases, the declines were 40% to 60%. Some photographers reported that, while iStock used to represent 50% of their microstock revenue, it now represents only 10% to 15%, and this share continues decreasing.

The top revenue producer for many non-exclusive microstock shooters seems to be Shutterstock, even though its royalty per download is the lowest of the major microstock companies. Depending on the photographer, Dreamstime or Fotolia rank second for non-exclusive revenues. iStock now often appears in fourth place.

In addition, contributors overwhelmingly agree that iStock is the most difficult company to deal with. Given its tight and erratic reviews, more and more photographers are deciding that uploading new images to iStock is not worth the trouble.

iStock may feel that all it needs is a few thousand of top producers, instead of the 60,000 photographers it currently represents. Interestingly, this approach is similar to that taken by Getty Images after it acquired Stone, Image Bank and FPG. But one thing is certain: iStock’s top producers will focus on shooting the high-demand subject matter. This will eventually result in a collection with much less variety than is being offered by competing microstock companies, who continue to take imagery from a broad cross-section of suppliers with varied interests. Time will tell which strategy is most effective.

Copyright © 2008 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:  


  • Don Farrall Posted Dec 8, 2008
    Lets be clear, I am not a fan of microstock, however I am tracking it, as it effects the total stock photo marketplace dramatically. I for one see some value in different agencies / outlets having different imagery. I totally understand image exclusivity, but I don't think agency exclusivity serves anyone very well. As noted, Getty operates under image exclusivity, and I think that works. Lots of Getty contracted photographers contribute to other RM and RF agencies without issue. I don't get the point of having five or ten microstock agencies all selling the same photos. This just makes for a lot more work for the photographers. Istock is trying to be the place that has the best microstock offering. Not the same. Will it be the best? Thats not for me to say, but I do understand. Contributors are not the main customers, and this is about appealing to customers. Yes Istock may be taking some heat for this, but they are in the forefront from a buyers perspective and if buyers discover that Istock actually has a lot of material that is not available elsewhere they will drive more buying traffic there. I think they are making a mistake by not allowing contributing exclusive photographers to sell (different RF imagery) at traditional prices at other outlets like Alamy, or Corbis. Changing this limitation would make exclusivity more palatable.

    Again for the record, I would rather see all microstock agencies close up shop. I think the overall effect on the value of photography and the lively hood of full-time stock photographers has been greatly damaged by the introduction of this give-away marketing scheme. I don't think it's sustainable in it's current form. I do understand the attraction, especially to those who were not able to make any headway in selling photos prior to the introduction of microstock. I am bothered by the fact that so many of those who are capable of making it work in the traditional marketplace have been so quick to abandon rational pricing so that they can get to the top of the (collapsing) pyramid that is microstock.

    I have been around enough of this imagery to understand that there are some images that cary more potential in the microstock environment. But contributors are placing everything there, and this is in my estimation a huge mistake.

    Don Farrall

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Dec 8, 2008
    I agree with Don on this. he stated it well. But I even make an even stronger case for photographers NOT to go to Microstock at all. You are selling yourself out from lack of confidence in your images. Giving them away for 20 cents (your share) shows me that you don't believe your imagery is worth more.

    And in most cases, IT IS WORTH MORE! Photographers too often suffer from under-confidence. Sure, some" yoyos" who do photography for a hobby like to sell even for 20 cents to say they are "published" somewhere. But for photographers to really make a living, Microstock can NOT be the way. I wish, with all my lectures around the world on stock, I could instill the fact that your images are GOOD and should not be given away!

    I will not put any images on any Microstock site and I do wish more of you photographers could make that stand also!

    Bill Bachmann
    Orlando, Florida

  • Mike Marlowe Posted Dec 9, 2008
    Well put Bill but unfortunatley the genie is out of the bottle and the race to the bottom has become a stampede. Microstock (and even stock in general) is not a viable business model for a contributor. Its a very viable business model for the agency.

    As klein put it "Content is increasingly ubiquitous, so power resides with the consumer, not the provider."

    Of course, for a few, select artists whose work makes them stand out, there will always be a demand and living to be made but the end market for that is shrinking too and much of it will end up on microstock sites.

    The only power a provider has left is the power to say no.

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