Survey Explodes "No Money in Microstock" Myth

Posted on 10/17/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

When talking about microstock, most traditional stock photographers like to say, “You can never make money selling pictures for $1.00!” The data from Selling Stock’s recent survey and other available industry information tends to explode that myth.

In any industry, there will always be a Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Tom Grill, Yuri Arcurs or Lise Gagne. While we should celebrate their accomplishments, most people need to be careful in judging what is possible based on the success of market leaders.

One of the Selling Stock survey’s 20 responding microstock shooters reported uncharacteristically high revenues; his numbers were excluded when calculating averages. The combined gross photography income of the remaining 19 microstock shooters was $590,695. Their total stock income was $480,458. While 13 earned almost all of their income from microstock, 6 only attributed a very small fraction of their total stock income to microstock.

There were four microstock photographers with gross revenues of more than $70,000; four had sales of less than $2,000; and the remaining 12 fell between these figures. The average microstock income was $25,287. However, this figure is higher than 38% of non-microstock shooters earned.

Other interesting figures come from iStockphoto. Photographer Duncan Walker publishes a running total of photographers who have achieved diamond status and have had more than 25,000 iStock downloads: there are 267 to date. The median photographer in this group has just over 50,000 downloads, and Lise Gagne has over 754,000. (Walker’s Web site is worth examining. Not only is it possible to see each photographer’s total downloads, there are also links to individual portfolios that show the types of images in demand and the number of downloads for each.)

Getty Images’ public records for 2006 and 2007 suggest that iStock has had more than 52 million downloads since 2005. Over 18.2 million of the 52 million downloads were of images belonging to these 267 photographers.

Today’s average microstock licensing fee is $4 to $5—not $1. While still not great by traditional stock standards, the volume makes up for the low price for some photographers.

Many microstock photographers are not doing nearly as well as iStock’s 267 diamond-level contributors. There are several hundred who have significant numbers of downloads—between a few thousand and 25,000—but the vast majority are not making many sales at all.

iStock represents the work of over 60,000 photographers, with an average portfolio of 60 images. Almost 58,000 have had a combined total of less than 34 million downloads since the beginning of 2005, averaging 570 downloads each. Well above 95% of iStock photographers are probably not earning very much—and in most cases, photographers are not doing as well with other microstock portals as with iStock.

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:  


  • Greg Ceo Posted Oct 17, 2008
    As with all of these models, RM, RR, RF and microstock, one would have to know several other things to know how to base a business model off of shooting:

    1) How many images does each photographer have in each collection?

    2) How many images has the photographer contributed in the last year?

    3) What was the average cost per image to produce. (Lets exclude overhead here and just think about the actual shoot cost, not camera purchases or what it costs to keep the electric on in your studio.)

    4) Which is the "Average" salable life of an image?

    An istock contributor can only submit 15 images a week I believe. So to achieve great numbers of images, even if every single image a photographer sent in was accepted, would take quite a while. On top of that, if costs have to be kept low and the life of an image is 3 years, how long would it take to make your investment back?

  • Don Farrall Posted Oct 17, 2008
    I had a conversation with a microstock photographer who is doing quite well, with royalty revenue in excess of $120,000 a year. He considers himself among the top 15 in the world. Weather that is true, or not, I can't say. He would like very much to move "up the food chain" to Getty, to make a higher return per sale. He is young and has worked pretty hard, has something like 2500 images on istock, and other sites as well, he is not exclusive. He figures he makes about $1.00 per download, on average, from all downloads combined. His work is pretty good, but not that special. Getty won't take him. It frustrates him. He feels looked down upon. I asked him what kind of imagery he wanted to be producing for Getty and he replied "the type of stuff that sells well on the micros, ( trite predictable business concepts ... my words not his ), the stuff that he now has on the micros. I told him those images won't sell on Getty, and he asked why, I said because people like you killed that market. Why would someone pay hundreds of dollars for something that they can buy for a few dollars. A few years ago his portfolio on Getty would have likely earned him 3-4 times as much as it is now on the microstock sites. As better work, and more subjects appear on micros, the market for those images being sold for a reasonable return on traditional sites is going away.

  • Betsy Reid Posted Oct 20, 2008
    Jim, While your survey results are very interesting, with only 20 microstock photographers responding, it's not accurate to claim your data has "exploded myths."

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