18 Sep 2007 Which Microstock Websites Pay the Most Per Photo?

This is an update of the original post published on May 1. This has been my most popular post so I see value in updating it with current figures and including the additional agencies where I currently contribute.

Dividing my monthly income by the total number of images I have on each website I’ve come up with my per-image revenue. I plan to start collecting my portfolio numbers each month so I can chart this and monitor trends. It’s also an interesting insight into the performance of the microstock websites.

Agency Revenue per photo Portfolio Size
iStockphoto 0.30 625
LuckyOliver 0.28 148
ShutterStock 0.24 594
StockXpert* 0.17 105
Dreamstime 0.15 539
123rf 0.13 108
Crestock 0.08 63
Fotolia 0.07 441
BigStockPhoto 0.07 212
CanStockPhoto 0.01 363

USD. All figures averaged over preceding 5 or 6 months, except StockXpert.

*StockXpert was an unusually high 0.56 because I have had only by best selling photos there for four months. I have uploaded additional images this month, so the figure in the table is based on extrapolated figures for September.

Number Crunching, Stratesigns, Inc.My newer agencies (LuckyOliver, StockXpert, 123rf, Crestock) are advantaged in this comparison due to the order in which I contribute. I first upload my best selling images and work my way down through my portfolio.

Looking at the figures I can immediately see why iStockphoto is my biggest earning agency. I can also see that CanStockPhoto have a long way to go if they’re going to remain in the market. Interestingly, BigStockPhoto is where we have by far the least number of images in our portfolio, so this information tells me I could likely raise my income with them to the same level of Fotolia by uploading the rest of my images. That’s information I can use!

How can LuckyOliver be higher than Shutterstock? They simply sold three extended licenses from my portfolio over the past four months.

But it goes further. If you add up all of these totals you’ll see we earned $1.51 per image on average over the last six months(94 cents for April 2007 in the original post). With this information I can also tell, more or less, how much my income will grow as I grow my portfolio. If I want to reach a particular milestone of income, for example $1,000 per month, then I know I need to have 666 images in each portfolio.

This enables us to plan. We can look at each photo opportunity and decide if it’s worth the income of $1.50 per month per suitable photo. If setting up the environment to take good photos will cost money or take a long time, we can reconsider. If we’re buying tickets to the zoo to take photos of animals and the tickets cost $30 each (total $60 for the two of us), we know we need to create between three and four images that sell well to reach return on investment within a year. (3.3 photos at $1.50 per month = $5, multiplied by 12 months of the year = $60)

Yet another insight this data can provide into our portfolio is a measure of quality. As I wrote in my rejected by StockXpert post, I’m now committed to increasing the quality of my portfolio. By charting over time the changes in my per-image revenue, especially totalled across all microstock websites, I can guage the sales performance of my images as an indicator of image quality. It’s not a perfect measure, but it’s definately an indicator.

This is such a simple measure and provides so many useful insights into a microstock portfolio.

  • Mike
    Posted at 23:58h, 02 May Reply

    “If we’re buying tickets to the zoo to take photos of animals and the tickets cost $30 each (total $60 for the two of us), we know we need to take five images that sell to have return on investment within a year. (5 photos at $1 per month = $5, multiplied by 12 months of the year = $60)”

    So… your equipment is free and your time is worthless?

    • Rob
      Posted at 18:32h, 30 September Reply

      “If we’re buying tickets to the zoo to take photos of animals and the tickets cost $30 each (total $60 for the two of us), we know we need to create between three and four images that sell well to reach return on investment within a year. (3.3 photos at $1.50 per month = $5, multiplied by 12 months of the year = $60)”

      Reaching break even is not a “return on investment”. It is merely recouping what you’ve spent on the tickets and in real accounting terms is almost certainly a loss. As Mike points out you have not realistically costed equipment or time and a year has gone by and you need new software, a faster computer, your camera is a generation back from the leading edge, not to mention your travel costs, internet usage, electricity etc etc. This type of erroneous accounting is used by most microstock shooters to sustain their fantasies.

      If I spend $60 to shoot pictures at a zoo or anywhere else, I expect to make at least several hundred dollars in the ensuing 12 months, using mainstream stock agencies, and hopefully each year for some years to come.

  • Lee Torrens
    Posted at 23:59h, 02 May Reply

    Fair comment Mike. Yes, overheads, cost of equipment and hourly rates all go into the equation when doing it properly.

  • Antonio Rosado
    Posted at 21:34h, 18 June Reply

    Gimmestock.com pays 0.50 cents per download. Although not a big microstock company but they do pay 50% to the photographer.

  • Laurent
    Posted at 09:09h, 20 September Reply

    Hello Lee,
    Nice to read an update on your numbers. FT performs poorly as well for me (0.05 on average the previous 2 months) I am starting to wonder if I should pause my uploads there..
    By the way do you have an estimation of the % of your unsold pictures on SS and FT? I have 20 % on SS, 82 % on FT…

  • Alex
    Posted at 02:50h, 01 December Reply

    hi Lee,

    I’d like to invite you to upload all your photos to 123RF.

    With a larger portfolio, you may fave more of your photos and hence, will increase your exposure when a search is made, it’s a bit disappointing to note that you only have 108 of your photos with us.

    Do drop me an email when you get around to uploading. I’ll get the reviewers to expedite things a little for ya. alex(at)123rf.com. Interested to see your figures then 🙂


  • Paulo Simon
    Posted at 12:54h, 29 December Reply

    This article just seems to confirm my idea about microstock; undervalues the photographer role and what he/she should be getting for his/her images! How many images do we need to upload to one of those sites get a reasonable profit? (One million probably…). What about the time, effort and costs that a contributor/photographer takes to produce images?! Believe that hardly will be paid by those agencies…
    Just incentive me more to concentrate my energy to built up a strong portfolio to get a representation by a “proper” agency. Where pictures will be paid in a correct way!
    Unless your doing it just for the satisfaction of having your work displayed in the web…


  • Christelle
    Posted at 08:48h, 18 January Reply

    Comment about revenue per photo.
    these calculations are a good indication for YOUR individual portfolio, but say I am with fotolia, and all my photos are exclusive to them, you can increase the revenue by quite a bit. if you have sold at least say 100 photos with them you can sell your pics at 2 credit each for the smallest size.. same for the other microstock, it depends on which options you ticked. Quite complicated to work out.

    i am not a professional photographer. it is a passion, and I am not taking photos for microstock, but rather for my own pleasure. I take the photos anyway, I have fun submitting my pics watching the sales and talking to the community and improve the way I take pictures.

    that’s why i’m not taking into account the cost of my equipment. I am not buying or spending more than i would otherwise. So the money I get is a bonus that I use to fund my buying more equipment for my pleasure.

    and if you are a pro, you have many ways to sell your photos: microstock is just an extra option (very lucrative for an extra too).

    You don’t have to submit your best pics, but the most illustrative….

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:35h, 18 January Reply

      Thanks Christelle, that’s one of the great things about microstock – that anyone can participate for any reason, financial or otherwise. In other photography markets it’s difficult, and impossible in some, unless you’re a professional.

      And yes, there are many complications with calculating a return per image, but if I keep it simple and show the earnings divided by the quantity of photos online it results in a fair comparison. I do all that I can to earn the maximum (such as raising prices for high selling photos at Fotolia).


  • Christelle
    Posted at 08:52h, 18 January Reply

    ah something else.

    Microstock is a long term time investment. Your photos might not sell straight away, but once submitted, you can just sit comfortably on your growing portfolio, or forget it and relax if you can’t be bothered uploading more.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:39h, 18 January Reply


      I have a lot of evidence to indicate this isn’t the case. Some agencies use the quantity of recent contributions as a factor in the search engine rankings. This means that if you just “forget it and relax”, your earnings will decline. There’s also the additional competition coming in at around 40,000 images per month!

      It’s more passive than many other ways of earning money, but it’s not a free ride. 🙁


  • Christelle
    Posted at 12:09h, 21 January Reply

    You are right Lee, I am adding photos regularly.. I said that because photos I posted ages ago sold months and months after. And it is more and more difficult to satisfy the microsites since some subjects already are overtreated… I find thet simple photos or niche photos sell the best…

  • Jeff
    Posted at 10:13h, 19 March Reply

    More fascinating factoids and insights, Lee.

    Thanks for updating this regularly…..gives us a good benchmark to compare.

  • lucian
    Posted at 18:49h, 31 March Reply

    Hi Guys,
    I do not know why you make all this worthless calculations, except the few top microstockers the only people what make money are the agencies.
    I submit now for 2 years I think and I still can not make a living out of microstock.
    Regular $1500, if I am lucky that month maybe $2000 this is really crap.
    I recently sold a single photo for 150 pounds this is in some cases more like I do with the whole portfolio in a month on an medium agency.
    Good light to everybody.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 19:42h, 31 March Reply

      Hi Lucian,

      Lucky for us we’re not all trying to make a living. However, many full time microstockers don’t have a problem making a comfortable living. Microstock isn’t suitable for everyone or every style of photography. If you can sell photos for 150 pounds it sounds like that’s a better way for you to go.


    • Mel
      Posted at 22:26h, 11 April Reply

      Just FYI, I could live quite happily on $1500-2000 US/month. If you’re talking CAN or AUS or something else, that might be a different matter.

  • Tony
    Posted at 18:03h, 01 May Reply

    I’ve been on Istock for 3 years now, and i’m making a pretty good living of it. And, I don’t even consider myself a professionnal photographer. Find niches and use them….

  • Matt
    Posted at 20:59h, 19 July Reply

    This is such a good post and I liked seeing the royalties listed out like that. It amazes me that photographers are willing to spend the time to add their collections to some of those sites that pay a few pennies per sale.

    It’s a common complaint and one that we (those of us here at The3dStudio.com) have answered. We are changing the way stock imagery is bought and sold…no joke, no marketing BS.

    First, upload and adding your photos with us is easy and takes just seconds per photo. Our entire process is designed around what photographers told us they wanted. No more waiting for images to be approved (which can take weeks with some of those sites).

    As for the money, which is what really matters, you get 60% of every sale with us and our average photo price is $12. You can set your prices higher as well if you prefer but the lowest image price we have (for our smallest sizes) is $4.

    Not trying to spam here or self promote too much, but I see this issues coming up everywhere and I think it’s important to know that there are alternatives. Take a look at what we have and consider adding your photos…



    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 02:19h, 20 July Reply

      Hi Mat, you’ve mis-interpreted the figures. They’re not showing commission per sale. They show what I earn (at the time – this post was last updated in 2007) per agency, per month and per photo. The3dstudio may pay 60% on $4 – $12 sales, but if you only sell one license from a portfolio of 600 or so, you’ll be scoring “pennies” by this calculation too.

      I like a lot of what you’re doing with the3dstudio, but all that you’re doing well is easy compared to delivering a high rate of sales. I wrote about this in this post where I tried to explain why contributors put up with laborious upload processes and low commissions. The only measure that determines success is how much money each agency sends to the contributors account at the end of the month. At 60% – 80% commission and nothing revolutionary about your business model, you will not catch the entrenched leaders nor “change the way photos are bought and sold”. But I still wish you luck and will monitor your progress closely.


  • Matt
    Posted at 03:39h, 20 July Reply

    Thanks Lee, I appreciate the reply, I don’t think I misinterpreted anything though. The numbers in your chart are listed as “revenue per photo” and that’s how I interpreted them. You show istock as 30 cents per sale so even with 1000 sales we’re only talking about $300 in your pocket. Not exactly what I’d call making a living for most people…and that’s the point I am making. On a normal $12 sale from us you’d make $7.20 vs pennies at some other sites.

    I agree with your other point, there is no point in worrying about the money if the sales aren’t there which is how it is with many of the newer and smaller stock sites. But, that can and will be changed by us. We’ve been in the general stock business (model, textures, and more) for 13+ years now so this isn’t new to us even though stock photography is.

    Of course, we have to start somewhere and I don’t intend on matching the sales iStock is providing you right away (that takes time, but we have a plan to get there). Fortunately, we pay SO MUCH more than they do that you’d really only need 42 sales to match their 1000 sales to have the same money in your pocket. We have a bunch of big name photogs already backing us and several others that are signing on now (along with tons of smaller collections being added).

    I guess the bottom line is this: We are stepping up to answer the #1 complaint amongst photogs (which is making pennies per sale) with a solution to change that. By adding your collections to The3dStudio.com you have the power to help make this change. As we get more and more collections added we will have more and more customers buying.

    So, instead of just sitting back and settling for crappy pay rates and terrible upload and approval systems why not give us a try? You have nothing to lose but some time, and not even much of that with our fast uploader and creation tools.

    And again, we WILL change the way this business work regardless of what you might believe. I’m sure you’ve seen others make similar claims and then run themselves out of business. We’ve been around a long time and we know what we’re doing. I guarantee that we will surprise you!

    PS – Love your site, you have some excellent information here.


    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:45h, 20 July Reply

      Matt, no, you’re still misinterpreting the figures. This post is actually about Return per Image (RPI) though at the time of writing I wasn’t yet aware of that term. You’re interpreting it as return per sale. RPI is total revenue divided by portfolio size. My return per sale for iStock in September 2007 was $0.75, so if I sold 1000 images I would receive $750, not $300.

      The reason I won’t be giving you a try yet is because you’re too kind to photographers and not kind enough to buyers. You won’t change the industry by charging higher prices, paying higher commissions, refusing subscriptions and making uploads easier. Those who have already changed the industry did exactly the opposite. Those who continue to dominate the market still do the opposite, to varying degrees. As a photographer I think it’s great that your offer is so contributor friendly, but I also think these will be the reasons you fail.

      We photographers are in massive oversupply. Buyers are spoiled for choice and can easily compare offers. Selling an oversupplied product at a premium price in an open market is not a business model to change an industry.

      I also don’t see the fact that you’ve been around for a long time as a positive aspect of your business. You’ve done less than your competitors with much more time. If your business is running at a profit, I can respect that, but I “guarantee” you won’t change the industry with your current business model. I’d be interested to hear what about the industry you expect to change. How will the industry look different when you succeed?

      …always happy to be surprised.


      • Matt
        Posted at 16:13h, 20 July Reply

        I see Lee, thanks for clearing that up…confusing, and I don’t know if that really helps explain why photogs are still willing to accept pennies per sale though. I guess it’s more of a mindset they have because they’ve just gotten used to being…I don’t know…screwed over…by the company selling their images.

        Of course, nobody is twisting their arm to accept a few cents on a sale but at the same time they really haven’t had much choice in the past. Now they will.

        I think the fact that we have been around so long shows that we aren’t in this for a quick buck and we aren’t about selling millions of products for pennies. I’d much rather sell less for more money per sale. In the end, our model puts more money in your pocket. As we build up our stock photo sales those numbers will increase by huge margins over those other sites.

        Yes, we have been running in profit for years now, have no debt as a company, own our own data center and server equipment. Everybody that works here is family and has a true interest in making sure we succeed.

        I am okay with you not believing that we will change this industry, I’ve seen many jaded folks like yourself who just think that change is impossible and things have to remain the way they are. It’s okay, at one point people thought the world was flat, human flight was impossible, and that landing on the moon was crazy talk 🙂

        We’ll get there Lee. It’s not an overnight change, but we are in this for the long haul. Those that want change will give us a try and add their photos, those that just want to accept pennies per sale (and complain about getting pennies per sale) will continue to do so. I guess it’s easier to complain that actually stand up and make a change!

        NOTE: That comment at the end is NOT directed at you Lee (I realize your post here is not a complaint), just pointing out what I have seen on many blogs and forums.


        • Lee Torrens
          Posted at 17:35h, 20 July Reply


          I think your first point highlights the fundamental concept which produces our difference in opinion on whether you’ll succeed or not. Agencies are not “screwing over” photographers. Again, I reference my post on why it’s easier to create photos than sell them. Stock photos are in oversupply, so there’s little value and no scarcity. *Successful* agencies which can produce a high level of sales for their contributing photographers are scarce and subsequently they provide a lot of value.

          You can’t “screw someone over” with an offer. If the recipient has no choice but to accept the offer (like taxes and other laws, or in cases of blackmail) then that statement would be accurate. If I offer to buy your car for $20, you wouldn’t say I’m screwing you over. I’m just making you an offer that’s not attractive to you.

          This is a key concept to understand as it highlights that power follows value. Agencies are only “screwing over” photographers if the photographer have no option to refuse their offer. If all the agencies with a strong buyer base pay low commissions, then perhaps that why you see them as forcing photographers to accept – their monopoly on buyers forces photographers to contribute if they want to sell their photos. But these agencies built these buyers bases, so they’re providing more value. As money follows value, the agencies get more money (pay lower commissions). If you want your agency to be successful for both yourself and photographers, stop doing everything that photographers want and start doing what the buyers want. Buyers are the scarce resource, not photographers.

          Your assertion that photographers haven’t had much choice in the past is incorrect. Alamy has been open to public submissions and with traditionally priced stock photos for longer than all microstock agencies. Photographers have always had the option to sell photos directly via their own websites (agencies don’t have a monopoly on the Internet) and there are now a large number of ‘midstock’ agencies which sell above microstock pricing levels. Photographers have always been spoiled for choice in selling photos online.

          I’m glad to hear you’re not in it for a quick buck and that you’re profitable and debt free. This is obviously not an insignificant advantage!

          Here’s another thought. I’m not jaded at all. You are. Let me explain why. I’m content with the current market conditions and with the service that the agencies who sell my photos provide. I understand that things are the way they are for logical reasons. I’m also excited by all the changes that are going on in the market – if I wasn’t I wouldn’t have this blog which focuses on just that. I also know that changes both big and small will continue, I just don’t think they’ll come from you or your current business model. Your statements about agencies “screwing over” photographers reflect that it is you who is jaded, though I totally respect that you’re doing something about it.

          Cutcaster have an original business model where prices are dynamic, based on supply and demand. That ‘could’ change the industry.
          Vivozoom have a business model that removes the crowdsourcing aspect from microstock and they guarantee their images. That ‘could’ change the industry.

          From what I’ve seen of your business model, it’s higher prices, higher commissions, no subscriptions and easy uploads. None of these are new nor common among successful agencies. So I repeat my question: How do you see your business model changing the industry?

          FInally, as you say you don’t know, I’ll explain to you why photographers are more keen to submit images to agencies that pay “pennies per sale” than to your agency: Return per Image. I put my little and not-so-great portfolio on iStockphoto and they send me $200 – $300 each month. Shutterstock, Dreamstime and Fotolia usually send me $100 – $200 (you can see the exact figures each month in my earnings reports). Your agency might pay me $7 per sale, but you couldn’t currently pay me the same as any of those agencies I’ve just named because you don’t produce enough sales. And the only assurance that you will be able to do so in the future is your word and a totally unconvincing business model.


  • Mel
    Posted at 22:28h, 11 April Reply

    I know my local zoo requires a minimum of $500 per image for commercial photo licensing…so does your zoo actually not care about stock photographers wandering around, or do you just assume they won’t catch you selling images of their animals, so it’s okay?

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