28 May iStockphoto

As the first and largest revenue-generating microstock agency, iStockphoto is the market leader in almost every metric you can measure. But for contributors, it’s usually a love or hate relationship, with little middle ground. Let’s take a closer look and see why some people happily throw themselves into the cult of iStockers, and others completely write off the biggest agency in the microstock business.

iStockphoto Background

iStock logo

iStockphoto are widely credited with starting the microstock industry. They were the first microstock agency to launch with a head start of around three years. The website started off providing free photos of the founder, Bruce Livingstone, before he started accepting photos from other contributors and charging a small download fee to cover hosting costs.

The website has an intense community, dominated by the industry’s largest base of exclusive contributors. The site is structured to nurture this community and it works. Their user forums are the most active of all microstock agencies, and their user-to-user communication facilities are by far the most advanced. See the website feature listings below for more details.

Bruce sold the company to stock photography industry giant Getty Images for US$50million on February 10th, 2006.

iStockphoto Details

Web Address www.istockphoto.com
Google Pagerank 8
Google Backlinks 3,940
Alexa Rank 289
Image Stats 1,745,061
Minimum Image Size 1600 x 1200 (approximately 2MP)
Vectors Yes
Footage Yes
Licenses Royalty Free and Extended Licenses: Reproduction limits; Multi seat; Items for resale; Electronic items for resale.
Compensation 20% (up to 40% for exclusive photographers)
Pricing From $1.20 for Xtra small
Payment Methods PayPal, MoneyBookers, Payoneer, Check
Payout Threshold $100
Referral Program $10 one-time payment for referred buyers only
Application Process Submit three example images for review
Exclusivity additional 5-20% depending on your total sales
Upload Methods HTML Form, iPhoto plugin, Aperture plugin, Image Manager application (Mac & PC)
IPTC Data Yes
Delete images? Yes, immediately and individually
Currencies US Dollar, Canadian Dollar, Euro, Pounds Sterling, Australian Dollar, Japanese Yen, Chinese RMB
Languages Dutch, English, French, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese (and Brazilian Portuguese), Russian, Spanish
Headquarters Alberta, Canada

Cool Features

  • Photographer Ranking – iStockphoto have a ‘Canister’ ranking system based on the total number of sales. Each photographer has an icon for their canister level displayed on their profile page.
    Bronze 500 iStockphoto Bronze Canister
    Silver 2,500 iStockphoto Silver Canister
    Gold 10,000 iStockphoto Gold Canister
    Diamond 25,000 iStockphoto Diamond Canister
    Black Diamond 200,000 iStockphoto Black Diamond Canister
  • Creative Networks – This is a buddy system that allows you to link to other members. Your creative network of linked members is displayed on your profile page.
  • Sitemail – This allows you to contact other members directly without everybody exposing their email addresses. The system is well developed and functional.
  • Disambiguation – One of the most controversial features of any microstock website. Disambiguation, as the name implies, removes the ambiguity around keywords.
  • Keyword Wiki – Allows members to suggest additions and removals of keywords of other contributors’ images. This keeps everyone honest and allows the community to maintain the integrity of the keywording system.
  • Free Images – iStockphoto provides a Free Image of the Week. You’re also able to download the previous two free images.
  • Most Popular Files – iStockphoto have put a lot of effort into their most popular files page. It provides a list of the top selling photos and highest rated photos for the last week, last month and the last three months. They even take it further with a zeitgeist showing the top 5 gaining files, top 5 declining files, photographers on the rise, and photographers with the highest average downloads per file.
  • Lightboxes – Like most microstock websites, iStockphoto has a lightbox facility. Lightboxes containing images from more than one photographer can be made public and shared. The lightbox page shows the most popular lightboxes across the website.
  • Dollar Bin – Images that don’t meet the technical requirements of the inspectors are sometimes offered to be put in the Dollar Bin. Here, they’re available for… you guessed it, a dollar.
  • Statistics and Graphs – This is another area where iStockphoto excels. The stats tab of your own profile page shows you your earnings and downloads for the current month, and separately for the current calendar year, in a nice simple graph. You can scroll back and forth between the months and years within these graphs.iStockphoto stats graph for May 2007
  • Personal Blogs – Each iStockphoto member can write their own blog right there in their public profile.
  • Interviews – As part of your public profile you can answer a standard set of interview questions designed to provide the public with a light-hearted idea of who you are and what you do.
  • Avatars – In addition to uploading a picture to your public profile, iStockphoto allows you to create a small icon 25 by 25 pixels. This avatar appears beside your username in many parts of the website. It’s part of the personalization that contributes to the community aspect of the site.
  • Exclusivity Estimator – If you’re considering going exclusive you can use the Exclusivity Estimator to gauge how much additional income you’re likely to make, based on your choice of expected growth rate. It’s a nice tool, especially when you see your future revenue figures going so high on the graph.
  • Peer Reviews & Ratings – Each photo on iStockphoto can be rated and reviewed. Both are public and reviews indicate which member wrote them. Ratings are from 1 to 5.
  • Merchandise – iStockphoto is one of the few microstock agencies which sell branded merchandise. Their selection includes hats, t-shirts, bags and mouse-mats, all bearing the iStockphoto logo.
  • Screensavers – Yes, iStockphoto have screensavers. They connect to their website and display either the photos from the recent Free Image of the Week, or the results of their Steel Cage battles.
  • Statistics Widgets – Apple Dashboard and Konfabulator/Yahoo widgets are available to display your statistics and content updates from the website. There’s even a Windows version though it’s becoming quite outdated (v0.7).
  • Software Plugins – These little tools make life a lot easier if you use iPhoto or Aperture to manage your images. They make it possible to upload your images directly from the application, saving quite a few steps of the process, especially if you’re completing your IPTC data.
  • LightShows – This little software gem enables you to automatically browse through the images in a Lightbox and even control the speed. It’s not going to impact your sales, but it sure makes life easier for people who view a lot of lightboxes.
  • ColorSchemes – Don’t like the standard blue color of the website? Go to your control panel and change it to one of the other six colors.
    iStockphoto's colour scheme selections
  • Metric & Imperial Measurements – Whether you’re in the modern world of metric measurements or still in the imperial ages, iStockphoto can accommodate you.
  • Sell Prints – buyers can buy prints of your images in addition to licenses (downloads). Contributors can opt-in to selling prints on a per-image or portfolio-wide basis.
  • Steel Cage Battles – Designers keen on creating visually appealing images by combining other images can enter the iStockphoto Steel Cage to battle it out with other designers for glory and an extra profile icon. These battles make for some exceptionally interesting creations.

Performance – How well does iStockphoto Sell?

iStockphoto is by far the best performing website for me in terms of revenue. Most microstock contributors that report them to be in their top four and many report them to be in their top two.

While their inspectors are tough, the have a good buying market and sales are high. Their commissions are low compared to all of their competitors, but thanks to relatively higher prices and great sales volume they usually produce more revenue.

See how iStockphoto performs for me per image and by earnings.

The Verdict

Their website is well organized and extremely functional. However, for contributors the iStockphoto uploading system requires more effort than any other:

  • The controlled vocabulary requires that each keyword be manually disambiguated
  • Each image must be assigned at least one category
  • Model releases must be uploaded individually with each submitted photo showing a person, and where more than one person is visible all model releases must be stitched together in a single JPEG file.

The application DeepMeta allows iStockphoto contributors to manage a local database of their files and provides some great automation features to make the process easier and more efficient. Regardless of how you contribute to iStockphoto – exclusively or non-exclusively – DeepMeta will save you a lot of time. And it’s free!

Despite the higher level of effort required in submitting, iStockphoto are definitely worth the effort. They’re likely to be in your top two earnings generating microstock websites if you choose to contribute to many. They are relatively tough in reviewing, and getting past the approval process can require some persistence.

Register with iStockphoto here and see how well they sell for me in my latest earnings report.

  • laurent
    Posted at 13:26h, 18 June Reply

    I find your blog very informative blog and well done. I read your istockphoto review and it is true they are pretty tough on reviews, I did not manage to have a picture approve yet although I have more than 300 on fotolia. Will check the others you are suggesting
    Keep up the good work !

  • Cliff Parnell
    Posted at 12:15h, 01 July Reply

    Great blog, find myself coming back to it more and more often, I have learnt a fair bit about the backgrounds of microstock imaging. I am an exclusive with iStock going under the name of ManoAfrica, and having just completed my first year there have sold just over 6000 images from a portfolio of just under 1000. I have earned a touch under $5000, far exceeding my expectations. iStock has become a bit of an addiction and the excitement of sales and the extra income have brought new meaning to my life. It would seem that I am not alone,

  • Dan
    Posted at 07:04h, 24 October Reply

    Good review Lee.

    In my experience Dreamstime and Shutterstock are tougher reviewers than iStockphoto. Like you, iStockphoto is far and away my leading earner. Enough so that I may go exclusive this spring.

    • bflo11
      Posted at 12:32h, 26 January Reply

      I have the direct opposite experience: I was accepted on my first attempt at Shutterstock, and now have 200+ images there, but I have tried to get approved three times at iStockPhoto and been rejected all three times. I don’t know what else to do to get into iStockPhoto. Any tips to get past their initial review process?

      • Lee Torrens
        Posted at 16:58h, 26 January Reply

        Hey Bill, a while ago I collected some advice about passing reviews and put it together in this post. I hope that helps.


  • Willis Shackleford
    Posted at 11:33h, 20 April Reply

    It’s really strange how we all seem to experience different approvals at the big (6). For me I have a 90% acceptance rate at Shutterstock but only a 31% acceptance rate at iStock. I’m in the 75-80% rate of approval at Fotolia, Dreamstime, Stockxpert, Bigstock and 123RF. iStock has been very disappointing for me in terms of acceptance and sales. I also upload to Alamy but not that much. I only upload rights managed images there and they are few and far between for me. It just blows me away how different is can be for each of us.

    I shoot in RAW and JPG with a Canon EOS 20D. I have a studio with a lot of flash equipment as well as a 12 foot by 24 foot white vinyl backdrop. I meter everything with a goal of keeping the white at 255. It’s not always easy but I think I have it for the most part. I will say that I have shot over 5000 family portraits over the years as well as hundreds of weddings. However entering into microstock has been a rude awaking for me. What they want and what the general public want is completely different. The days of doing what ever it takes to make and acceptable image are no longer. Over editing and filtering don’t work for microstock. This has made me better however so I’m grateful for what I’ve learned thus far by getting to this biz.

    I would like for one of the successful photographers with iStock to write a step by step How-To for iStock. Because what I’m doing now isn’t working.

    • Tony
      Posted at 17:47h, 01 May Reply

      You just need well composed and colorful images, well focused, with no noise and no sharpening (well maybe a little bit only in photoshop). Pictures with what they call “copyspace” sell a lot better, so be sure to use the third rule a lot.
      Successful images attact the eye at the thumbnail size, so, before you upload your file, unzoom it to the thumnail size and see what the buyer will see at first glance. You have to be able to guess what the picture subject is about when viewed at this size, but hey, don’t tell this to anyone, it’s a secret…

      Good luck,.

  • Eric
    Posted at 17:13h, 06 July Reply

    I think this was a great overview of istockphoto. You can get a lot of this info if you just go through the application process. I’m very interested in starting to sell some microstock images and istockphoto seems to be the way to go. My only issue is I’m 16 and can’t technically enter into any binding agreement that is nonessential. Does anybody know if i’ll just be rejected? Also it sounds like most successful stock photo sellers seem to enter non-exclusive agreements with multiple websites, as opposed to a single exclusive one. Is this true?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 06:37h, 07 July Reply

      Hi Eric, yes, the unfortunate answer is that you’ll need to wait a couple of years to enter into most agency contributing contracts. It might be worth contacting their support to see if there is any way you can have a parent or guardian co-sign, but I haven’t heard of anyone getting around the age requirement.

      Yes, it’s true, the majority of microstockers are non-exclusive. There are some top microstock photographers who are exclusive with iStockphoto and they’re clearly very happy with their decision, so there’s no simple way to go. Weigh up the pros and cons and decide for yourself. Whichever way you go, the decision is reversible


      • Sebastian Sandqvist
        Posted at 23:09h, 19 January Reply

        I’m 15 right now and just started selling to istock. Just make the account under a parent’s name and request the Minor Contributor form. The support people are really nice, so just send them an email and request more info…
        Hope that helped..

  • Anna
    Posted at 11:18h, 05 August Reply

    iStockphoto certainly sounds interesting but why would they need a scanned image of your government issued driver’s license or passport in their signup procedure? (I know, to know that the applicant is who they say they are, and of legal age). However, this is a serious security risk, and the document could potentially be used to steal the applicant’s identity. Do you think that they have servers no one can break into?
    I don’t. iStockPhoto is not worth the risk.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 12:04h, 05 August Reply

      HI Anna, I actually find this practice more assuring than concerning. It shows that they’re serious about knowing who contributors are, which will result in fewer legal issues which cost money and reputation, which hurts the contributors as well as the agency.

      Plus, you can obscure the document number and date of birth, and put a big ugly watermark with the agency name over the entire image. I do this and it makes it impossible for anyone with access to the file to use it for identity theft.

      You can’t avoid risk in business or in life. You need to manage it. Given iStockphoto are among the top earners for most contributors, it’s a risk worth managing if you’re in the business of selling stock.


    • PedalFaster
      Posted at 14:26h, 16 December Reply

      I was concerned about the driver’s license upload as well because of the obvious security issues so I phoned Istock and asked them if I could blank out all the security info such as the bar code and other visible security marks. (They said yes so I did and it was accepted) As well you could add a moustache to yourself or something just for kicks as long as you are clearly recognizable as You and your address and birthday matches what you have provided to Istock in their application. They really just need to confirm your claim that you are who you say and your address is correct because they will be paying you for your work and want to do it legally. This is why you have to provide your SIN as well for tax purposes.

      I know it seems invasive but it is reassuring that they are trying to do things legally. Who really wants to be audited by the IRS or whatever agency because of tax evasion due to online sales? Ebayers (which includes me) get away with it all the time but really you could get nailed if they wanted to audit your income and you don’t declare it. Istockphoto is just trying to protect themselves and you from tax fraud and they need this info to do it.

  • Anna
    Posted at 11:29h, 06 August Reply

    Hi Lee,
    Thank you for your reply.
    The watermark is a great idea. Never thought of that.
    However they do want to see the date of birth AND the applicant’s image (Why??)
    At least this is how they replied me.
    I did some Googling as I thought I can’t be the only one concerned about this issue, and found this:


    It’s an interesting read.
    It is of course good that they want to know who their contributors are, but they should find another way. I don’t find them contributor friendly, putting their contributors at risk.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 13:00h, 06 August Reply

      Hi Anna, thanks for following up. I stand corrected on obscuring the date of birth.

      I read the article. The difference between verifying customers and verifying contributors is that contributors ‘receive’ money, so there’s more attraction for scammers. The ID requirement helps deter people from stealing photos and uploading them as their own.

  • Randy Jay Braun
    Posted at 14:28h, 06 November Reply

    This is one of the cleanest, simplest blogs I have ever read. Your information is valuable to me as I am just getting started in microstock. Thanks so much.

  • Henri Faure
    Posted at 09:47h, 17 November Reply

    Do not send photos to iStockphoto.
    It is no longer the most powerful in terms of sales, indeed Fotolia and Dreamstime can do better.

    I have been contributor in iStock since November 2007. At the beginning all was best I uploaded lots of photos and may sales increased. Then I became exclusive and my sales kept growing from 80 files per month to 120 in January 2009. But on February 17th, my sales dropped from an average of 5/day to less than 1 per day. Since then I could not sell more than 2 files peer day and last week was dread ful with only 8 files sold.
    I worked had to upload 500 files – in fact 1000 because 50% files are rejected – and when I began to earn some money.

    Impossible to know why my sale dropped in one night. The support says that its because the quality of other contributors has increased, but if you look at the database, you dont see a significant quality increase and anyway the quality on the files could not increase by 10 in one night, on February 17th.

    What they did with me. They used my files to draw traffic via Google paying my only 25% of the price and when I could earn some money they threw me by the window. In iStock ther are some happy few who sell 300 files a day or more and eran several thousand Dolars per month. These contributors are protected and most customers are directed to these contributors. The new ones see their best files rejected when the risk to compete with those of the happy few, I was here here only to make volume and to attract people from the net. Others take the money.

    • michael p.
      Posted at 07:49h, 02 December Reply

      Absolutely true. It has become increasingly clear that they were using contributors to favor a few protected ones. It’s disgusting. And since end of November the site even stopped working properly. And they’re not fixing it.

      Istockvideo had obvious problems for years. New contributors would have their files get stuck in the queue for months (or years) while large contributors were able to upload and have 20000 videos approved.

  • john austin
    Posted at 13:06h, 01 December Reply

    tried to become a contributor, was turned down because i did not have a government photo id, i think that this a bit much in this day and age when every other site does not require this type of identification, surely any type of photo id that is with an accredited organization and can be proved with just one phone call to the said org.should be enough, also with the amount of id theft the very idea of putting personel id on a site that is not nessarily secure [just look at the amount of hits] is very worrying, any comments?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 15:58h, 01 December Reply

      Hey John,
      Yes, this is not an uncommon complaint. My comments are that iStockphoto has never given me any reason to doubt their commitment to security and their site security is actually very tight.

      I always put a heavy watermark with the name of the site (in this case “iStockphoto”) over my ID before sending it in. This way the image cannot be used against you in identity theft, though the information is another matter.

      Other people say they’ve had no problems submitting a document with the document number totally obscured, which also overcomes the threat of the information being used – though I haven’t done this myself so I can’t guarantee it will work.

      Hope that helps.


      • john austin
        Posted at 11:53h, 02 December Reply

        Hi Lee, thanks for the info, very interesting, I am still unsure about the ‘legal’ bit that they quoted, other sites don’t quote it, having been a victim of ID theft in the past I’m sure you can understand my reticence in putting my details on a site that many people have access to, even though you yourself say that it is quite secure, for now I am going to let it rest and go with another site, again thanks for the reply,


        • Ugur
          Posted at 22:51h, 26 April Reply

          Hi John,

          Could you name a couple of sites that do no require photo ids being sent? Troubled with the same idea. Although I would like to put some pictures, I just don’t think it would be worth the risk.


  • MM
    Posted at 15:15h, 17 March Reply

    I liked iStock, it was my best seller in stock. But lately I became unhappy with it, I upload more and more photos and my portfolio is around 700 now, the photos that are selling great on other sites get “lost” there…and i really don’t understand why…so I have sales but I’m really unhappy with it…portfolio is getting bigger, the sales stay the same…probably I’m doing something wrong.

  • LB
    Posted at 08:46h, 22 March Reply

    I would like to give some feedback about how unethical istockphoto can be from a customer’s point of view.

    I am a web developer and have always recommended istockphoto as a good source for images. I have stopped that now as they do not bother to send reminders to customers when their credits are about to expire. Setting up automatic reminders is not difficult. I have just lost over £28 in credits and istockphoto would not tell me why they don’t send reminders (Ticket ID: 654968).

    This is an unethical way to run a business and I feel that I’ve just been robbed!

    I have tried asking if they would return my credits and they replied “Unfortunately from a technical standpoint, it is not feasible to extend the credits after such a long period of time.” I don’t dispute that my credits had expired but just cannot accept that istockphoto can run their business and profit like this without bothering to implement an automatic reminder system. If you do a search you will find many, many other users unhappy with this. Makes one wonder how much easy money they’ve made over the years!

    Very disappointed.

  • kent andersen
    Posted at 07:02h, 13 April Reply

    Seems like it is time for a new reviews on the microstock pages. It is obviously more than 3 years old, and thats a lightyear in this business. Would be great to read a new review and how great this is now.

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  • Zuma
    Posted at 19:54h, 15 June Reply

    How old do you have to be to a contributor on iStockphoto? I have searched the site and found no required age. It says something about legal age, but how old is that? I am 16 and I wanted to try and see if they would except my photographs. But I don’t want to end up getting in legal trouble for signing up and I’m not old enough to do so.

  • Scott Leigh
    Posted at 19:48h, 11 August Reply

    ^ There’s a parental permission form that needs to be filled out if underaged. Ask for it and they will email. Don’t think its readily on site.

  • JOhn Novotny
    Posted at 07:35h, 16 December Reply

    I have one thing to say about iStock. Their video contributor process is a nightmare. Never seen anything so user unfriendly and buggy in my life. But we’ll tough it out to for iStock.

    • michael p.
      Posted at 07:51h, 02 December Reply

      Istockphoto haven’t been able to fix their video problems for years and will certainly not start now.

  • Fran
    Posted at 17:40h, 06 December Reply

    How old do you have to be to be an iStock Contributer?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 17:43h, 06 December Reply

      18, though I believe you can still register if you get authorization from your parent or guardian.

  • Ben
    Posted at 07:53h, 15 December Reply

    In my experience istockphoto are terrible. he approval process was fine however i’ve waited over 3 weeks for having 2 uploads looked at. A total of 1 min worth of footage and three weeks later its still pending.
    For a company that makes money off contributors they treat you like crap. Don;t use them

  • jpnenuph
    Posted at 05:16h, 31 January Reply

    I agree with Ben, it’s probably the worst microstock agency out of the 11-12 I am contributing to. The upload process is a real pain and takes 3 times as much time as anywhere else. The review time is one of the longest (in my experience only Veer is worse). And the acceptance rate is BY FAR the lowest.
    All seemed to have started well when I sold an extended license of one of the first pictures I had uploaded. Only for it to get cancelled one week later (card fraud I guess). Since then they have rejected EVERY picture I have been uploading.
    Definitely not worth the time spent on this. Shutterstock and Dreamstime are so much better…

  • jeanne
    Posted at 08:36h, 23 February Reply

    can anyone tell me how to upload my license to istock.com in jpg format. I scan it to my email so i can save it but it comes over in pdf format. i cannot seem to get it right..help.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 13:12h, 23 February Reply

      Hi Jeanne, you don’t upload “licenses” to iStockphoto, but assuming you mean a “release”, you need to scan it directly to a JPG file rather than via your email program. Once you have the file it’s straight forward to submit it to iStock via the form on the submission page.

  • Mauro Rodrigues
    Posted at 11:40h, 15 February Reply

    it’s sad that this website is so hard to upload. and the acceptance is pretty strict because they have a good client list. with the small portfolio i have i make more sales than on other microstock websites like yaymicro or bigstockphoto.

  • Mike Taylor
    Posted at 13:23h, 01 March Reply

    I hate keywording on Istock. That is all

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