Three Months of iStock Sales: Has Microstock Reached Plateau?

Posted on 6/3/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

The number of images downloaded in May for 124 of iStockphoto’s most productive contributors was essentially flat compared to April. April was down compared to March, and only 33 of the 124 photographers tracked by iStockcharts licensed more images in May than in March (see this table for individual details).

As reported previously, 26 of the top 150 iStock producers have asked to remain anonymous. The remaining 124 contributors licensed 431,708 combined gross units in March. This number dropped to 380,934 in April and went slightly up to 387,500 in May.

Three-month summary of iStockphoto download activity
Date   Total downloads to date   Downloads per month Downloads for 124 top sellers
Month   Number of downloads Number of downloads Percent of total downloads
February 27 57,431,055        
April 1 59,819,807 March 2,388,752 431,708 18%
April 30 61,717,129 April 1,897,322 380,934 20%
June 1 63,801,192 May 2,084,063 387,500 19%
Source: iStockcharts

It should be noted that iStockcharts figures represent only about 90% of total iStock images. In addition, iStock chief executive officer Kelly Thompson has previously said that iStockcharts figures “are not right, and sometimes are not even close.” Nevertheless, the figures reported by iStockcharts for each individual photographer are exactly the same as the numbers reported on any given day on the photographer’s portfolio page of iStockphoto. Thus, while the overall numbers may not be totally accurate, individual photographer numbers are of a large enough sample to be representative and to allow drawing of reasonable conclusions about trends at iStock—and possibly the entire microstock industry.

Between 18% to 20% of iStock’s total monthly downloads are of images created by its top 124 contributors, but these creators represent only 1% of iStock’s more than 60,000 artists. This year, 45 of them can expect to earn more than $100,000. The bottom three of this group of 124 will probably earn less than $20,000, as will nearly all of the rest of the iStock contributor community.

The three-month download totals suggest that iStock sales may have reached a plateau, but several more months of data is needed to help determine the level and why. Based on the three-month total of 6.4 million downloads, the 2009 total would be 25.6 million, if sales on a quarter-by-quarter basis remain flat. In 2007 and 2006, iStock had 17.55 million and 10 million downloads, respectively.

Most microstock companies have operated on the theory that there is unlimited potential for growth in usage, as long as use of the Internet continues to grow. The latter certainly has not slowed, which leaves several other factors to consider as potential causes of an apparent stagnation of microstock sales:

  • Is it the general state of the economy? Despite the drop of sales of many products, Internet use and revenue generated do not seem to be declining. In times of economic distress, one would expect customers to turn to the cheaper product (microstock), rather that stop buying altogether. Thus, the economy seems an unlikely explanation.
  • Is oversupply the problem? As supply grows, it could present a problem for creators, but it should not affect the total number of images licensed. Given what is happening, creators could face a double whammy. There may be no growth in total images licensed, and the chances of any specific image being selected by a customer will decline rapidly, as more and more similar images are added to all microstock sites every day.
  • Competition. Other microstock sites seem to be getting stronger and could be taking market share from iStock, but there is no hard data to support this. We need data from individual photographers—like a Dreamstimecharts, Fotoliacharts or Shutterstockcharts—to make a reasonable judgment as to whether one site is taking market share from others. There is no indication such data will become available.
  • Could price increases be causing customers to limit their usage? That is what happened with traditional royalty-free stock and eventually opened the door for the development of microstock. One would think that the current average of $7.00 to $7.50 per download would be within anyone’s budget, but perhaps not. In 2005, before Getty purchased iStock, microstock images sold at $1.00 each. By the end of 2006, the average price had climbed to over $2.00. The average price in 2007 was $4.10 and further rose to $6.50 in 2008. For some customers, these higher prices, while seemingly insignificant, may be more than they can justify paying for the use they intend to make of the image.

Copyright © 2009 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:  


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jun 3, 2009
    Those 26 could really skew the numbers because the top 20 make such a large portion of the sales and revenue for that company. I will say that my Istock sales have done nothing but go up. I have not added a new image to Istock in 6 months and my sales are at there highest. Still not competing with my Macro sales but the sales are definitely up for me every month at Istock. Business has gotten in the way or we would have been uploading more over the past six months. We are just about to start re-uploading. We turned the back end over to a distributor to handle the uploading. My RPI at Istock is double that of any other Micro site if not triple in most cases. If they would just let us upload more work per week we would be very happy.


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