22 May Microstock Exclusivity

Exclusivity, in the context of selling photos online in the microstock market, is where you agree not to contribute your photos to other microstock websites. This can be for all your photos, or for individual photos within your portfolio.

If you’ve read any of the post in this blog before you’ll know I’m not exclusive. Here’s why:Total Microstock Income Proportions by Website

This is a chart of my all-time totals. The data is skewed because we started with different microstock websites at different times, don’t have the same quantity of photos on each website, and I’ve left out my newbies. However, the point that it makes is that no single microstock website dominates my earnings enough to justify my being exclusive – assuming my motivation for being in the microstock market is to make money. Which it is.

Let’s take a look at the exclusivity options on offer.

Website Offer
iStockphoto Extra 5-20% (on top of 20%) depending on your canister level (total sales so far). Lots of extra benefits including priority inspection queue, higher upload limit, and greater onsite promotion. Exclusivity is “full artist exclusivity”, not per image.
ShutterStock No exclusivity
Dreamstime Exclusive images receive an extra 10% (on top of 50%) for exclusive images. If you’re an exclusive artist (i.e. your entire portfolio is exclusive) you recieve a $0.20 bonus for each image that’s accepted.
Fotolia “A higher commission (at least 50% for print and web use sales)”. Fotolia offered an exclusive buyout option, but it was discontinued in June 2007.
BigStockPhoto No exclusivity
CanStockPhoto No exclusivity
123rf Exclusivity “can be arranged” for a better commission on a per-image basis.
StockXpert No exclusivity
LuckyOliver Extra 5-20% (on top of 30%) depending on your member status (total sales so far). Potential for more than 20% if you’re at the highest level. Exclusivity is per-image.

Using the above chart and this table, it’s hard to see where exclusivity would be appealing if money is a concern. If not, you could choose to be exclusive for other reasons:

  • You enjoy the ‘status’ of being exclusive
  • You can’t be bothered uploading to more than one agency
  • You are so in love with one agency or their interface that you couldn’t bear defecting
  • Your sales are so high on a particular microstock website that the extra work contributing to the others is outweighed by the extra exclusivity bonus

For us, iStockphoto have made up 45% of our income since we started selling photos online. If we went exclusive with them at our current canister level (Silver) we would make an extra 10%. This wouldn’t come close to making up for the other 55% of income that we generate by using the other microstock websites.

There seems to be a lot of exclusive photographers over at iStockphoto, but perhaps that’s because they make it obvious with the indicative icon. The ones I’ve come across are all excellent portfolios, which leads me to conclude it’s likely status that’s the decisive factor, which I can understand for career photographers. Maybe some exclusive contributors can share their thoughts in the comments.

  • Brad Hidwin
    Posted at 04:23h, 23 May Reply


    Thanks for you article. I would like to add something that you might forget. Concerning Fotolia, there are big advantages for beeing exclusive since you can increase the price of your image up to 100$, it is how exclusive fotolia photographers can get very high revenue despite of lower sales.


  • pdtnc
    Posted at 15:43h, 30 May Reply


    I’m just about to try out LuckyOliver, and a couple of other sites… I like the look of the site but lets see how it compares :)
    Keep up the excellent posting here its all good stuff :)



  • Lee Torrens
    Posted at 17:20h, 30 May Reply

    Thanks pdtnc, I plan to keep it up. 😉

    Good luck with LuckyOliver. So far they’re performing well for me given how young they are.

    – Lee

  • lffile
    Posted at 05:02h, 26 December Reply

    Check out the Exclusivity bonus at LO. The rates shown on the Payout Page for Exclusive images have apparently been Overcome By Events according to the thread on Exclusivity in the Odditorium.

    Exclusivity will apparently now yield 60% Royalties on sales of exclusive imiages regardless of total sales!!

    Bryan said he would to get the info out on the site in the next push. fred

  • tuzen
    Posted at 15:22h, 22 May Reply

    Thanks for the great article. I think I understand the basic case against exclusive, but I also understand that exclusives recieve additional marketing, and improved search rankings that will further drives sales. I am very curious if anyone has tried to estimate how much of boost might be expected based on their experience.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 20:43h, 22 May Reply

      Tuzen, that’s exactly the question. The additional marketing and search placement boost you mention, together with a higher commission rate, need to make up for the absence of earnings from other agencies.

      There are people who believe they make more being exclusive, and there are people – like myself – who believe they earn more being non-exclusive. Both may be correct as it depends greatly on your subjects, style and how well your portfolio works with the algorithm of iStockphoto’s Best Match search.

      Yuri Arcurs did some research and came up with a figure which he believed was the earnings boost for being exclusive at iStockphoto. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was close to 40%. However, I wouldn’t rely too much on any insights obtained from a test with a single portfolio. Given the huge variations, I imagine you’d need a large quantity of portfolios to get any reasonably accurate estimation.

      I’m often asked whether it’s worthwhile, and with the current makeup of iStockphoto’s exclusivity program, I always recommend people make the decision for themselves, based on how well their portfolio performs at iStockphoto.

  • mahmoud mahdy
    Posted at 06:07h, 28 April Reply

    Thanks for your great posts here Lee
    You are helping a lot
    I would like to ask you about your opinion :
    After the latest IStockphoto price change for exclusive Artists;
    Do you recommend exclusivity for me ?
    My IS revenue percentage is 55% of all sites
    My IS port size is about 25 % of Others
    And I now I must make this decision for myself but I ask for your advice
    Thank you very much

  • Andre Hugo
    Posted at 09:54h, 02 October Reply

    I signed up on Photographer’s Direct, a Fair Trade site.

    I don’t see you mentioning anything about Fair Trade Sites. My interest is to compare potential earnings between those sites and the traditional ones that you subscribe to.

    Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 21:15h, 04 October Reply

      Hi Andre, I must declare I don’t have first hand experience with that site. Those I’ve spoken to who have worked with them reported to me that the sales were too slow and they earned much more when they switched to microstock. Presumably that’s not the case for everyone – the fact that those people got into microstock was the reason they were talking to me. I know they have a policy to not work with anyone who has, or ever had, content in the microstock market (at least that was their policy some years ago), so trying them first as you’re doing appears to be the only way to compare. If you’re happy with the earnings there and it isn’t too far from the very un-scientifically agreed average earnings of microstock, being $1 per photo per month / $12 per year, then stick with them.

      I have some issues with how the “Fair Trade” term has been used in this market. It’s unregulated, and without much central guidance (especially in microstock), so anyone can label themselves “Fair Trade”. They typically hang the Fair Trade distinction on high royalty rates, which make it very difficult for them to compete while the other agencies allocate huge marketing budgets (thanks to their lower royalties) to winning customers. The microstock agency that pushed Fair Trade the most with 70% royalty rates, Zymmetrical, went out of business quite quickly. Some agencies abuse the Fair Trade idea, making a case against their competitors and almost pretending that they themselves don’t have a profit motive. I’m very cautious of agencies using that term. I prefer an agency that takes a realistic portion of the license fee and allocates it to creating the best buying experience and bringing in a healthy supply of buyers. That way I earn more money, which is my priority in stock photography. In this business we’re the manufacturers, so “Fair Trade” is to protect us, not some sweatshop labourer or under-age bean picker. It’s not the same moral argument as in other industries.

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