iStock’s 2cent Royalties – What’s Going On?

I’ve just taken a good look at my latest sales report (March 2018) from iStockphoto / Getty and am painstakingly trying to make sense of some of the licenses. I noticed that some royalties were ridiculously low…with some as low as 2 whole American cents.

Just what the fuck is going on? Well, I’m going to try to get to the bottom of this nonsense.

Heed the warnings

I had a two-year boycott on submitting to iStock, precisely due to their ever-reducing fees (to put it nicely). On a more brutally honest way, their management has been devaluing contributors’ work by driving down royalties to the dirt (including offering steep discounts), to the point that from a contributors’ point of view, it has become almost unsustainable.

It’s no secret that iStock offers an industry-low flat 15% commission for non-exclusive images. It is, however, a more respectful 25% starting rate for exclusive work, rising to a maximum of 45%. but then you miss out on earnings from other agencies.

I was warned by Michael Jay on his blog post about iStock cutting contributor royalties as far back as Oct 2016 as well as on the Microstockgroup Forum.

Ending my Getty Boycott

In December 2017, I decided to give iStock another go, even if my expectations were incredibly humble. The deciding factor was that since I started submitting on mass with StockSubmitter to a dozen+ agencies, I figured it wasn’t that much extra work to add them onto the list. iStock’s controlled vocabulary just makes it a little bit more tricky.

In addition, I was positively encouraged by Master Steve’s iStock earnings at $350+ every month, where he publishes his stock results every month.

Screenshot of StockSubmitter

Rebuilding my iStock Portfolio

The beauty of “passive income” is that even if I didn’t submit to them for two-years, I was still earning some $15-$30 a month on 1,000 images over that period. Nothing to retire on but was nice to receive an unexpected $100 payout every 5 months or so!

So, since December I’ve injected some new life into that beast and despite some dubious rejections, I have got my portfolio on there to a respectful 2650 images. That two-year gap means that the portfolio is way behind Shutterstock’s 6435 (last I checked). I have no intentions to crawl through my archives to catch-up as I have better things to do with my time and energy.

Sales Report Analysis

So onto the meat of this post…that sales report.

Still in portfolio rebuilding mode and keeping in mind that it can take up to six months for images to become fully searchable, Those 2650 images have earned me a net income of $52.56.

Therefore, the following will be the podium finishes for the most pathetic license royalties under the infamous category of “iStock Essentials Sub-Total”:

Bronze Medal

4cents for this moody long-exposure of the Millennium Bridge in London, which a wrote a blog

Silver Medal

I also feel trapped in this industry, especially when earning 3cents for this image, which I wrote a  blog post about the unusual circumstances on this blog post

Gold Medal

Gold medal goes to this surreal palm-tree with blue-sky background captured in Minas Gerais, Brazil, which earned me a whole two cents…

Taking the bad with the good

I wish to present a well-balanced article so I must discuss the more profitable royalties…I mean after earning 2cents for an image it can only get better, right? 😀

The largest license value was a relatively respectful net $6.10 for the following image:

The tasty Dutch croquet snack, Bitterballen

In March, I licensed 93 images on iStock, which divided by net $52.56 gives me 57cents per download. I won’t get into details about my earnings with other agencies, just yet, but I can say it’s considerably lower, both in terms of volumes and Return Per Image downloaded.

I’ll go as far and say that I don’t expect to earn anywhere close to the $112 I earned recently with Shutterstock as the extended license. To earn that much, a client would have to fork out $750 (15% of that) for one microstock RF image. Not gonna happen!

How low can it go?

One cent royalties and then what…

What particularly worries me (and should worry you too) were the abundance of sub-10cent licenses in my sales report. I mean how on Earth can an agency license an RF image with wide usages until perpetuity to a client for only 14 cents?! Is this some sort of sick joke?

I mean, look at those three image in the podium above, are they worth sub-4 cents? To be honest, I rather give them away for free in return for non-existent “exposure”, which is pretty much the same thing anyway. Rant over.

When royalty-worth of notes turn into coins…

Getty’s Premium Access Clients

Thanks ShadySue from the MicrostockGroupForum (where I created a thread on the subject) for providing insight. According to Sue:

“Premium Access [exists], whereby buyers pay a premium to access a much wider selection of files across Getty then get each file for a lower price. Getty pockets the premium, we get a percentage of the reduced sale, and we don’t know how much the buyer actually paid.”

Everything is connected

Since Getty is a major player in the stock photography industry, their decisions have a direct impact on their competitors. These low commissions help drive down earnings at other agencies since clients can just as easily shop around, in theory.

Alternatively, an agency may loosen licensing restrictions to clients, such as Dreamstime’s announcement six months ago to ditch their Extended Licenses altogether (“Royalty Free Limit Free”).

Avoid being this dude (Castello Sforzesco, Milan)

I only have myself to blame

Like a battered wife repeatedly going back to an abusive husband, you must think why should I keep on enduring this type of punishment? It’s a fair question and the answer is that I feel that sometimes you have to make friends with the devil if you want to make it in this business. The truth is that Getty are the biggest and have a huge client base, which translates in more sales, at least.

There’s a lot of shady deals going on behind the scenes and sometimes it’s difficult to know who to trust. Unfortunately, we need agencies since they bring in the clients…truth be told, selling directly to clients is extremely difficult.

Same to you!

A Giant Jigsaw Puzzle

At the end of the day, iStock are just one piece of a giant earnings puzzle. If you’ve been following me for a while you’ll know that I’m trying to make multiple income streams, including:

So you see, I got too much going on to lose energy about some silly 2cent licenses….onto the next earnings report somewhere.

Even though, I only earned $50 with them last month, I expect to earn much more in the future as I’m increasing my portfolio, both in terms of quantity and quality. Even by a conservative estimate I’m earning $100 a month with them in a few months’ time, that’s still over $1k a year which I can put towards the business. By boycotting them, I’m just shooting myself in the foot in terms of potential lost revenue.

But I’ll say this much…I have to keep a pulse on the industry since if I start to see 2cent royalties at Shutterstock, then I’ll be really really worried!

Is there another way?

Is there another way?


I’ve recently signed up to PicFair (referral link), whose aim is to revolutionize the stock photography industry. Here’s what they have to say about themselves:


This really shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. Across the world, image agencies take the vast majority of image royalties away from the photographers – the average middleman cut is 74%. This isn’t fair. We add 20% to the price of your image, and that’s it. We believe in rewarding creativity, not exploiting it.”

50% commission, ok cool!


They’re your images, so you can charge what you want for them. When you upload an image to Picfair, you name your price, and that’s what you’ll get when somebody licenses them. We also don’t ask for any exclusivity – again, they’re yours, not ours, you can do whatever you like with them.”

Set your own prices, cool! You’ve convinced me!


Early days and no sales yet, but will keep you updated on my progress with PicFair. I like what I hear but will I get sales…time will tell. I will draft a full review of that agency soon.

About Alex

I’m an eccentric guy on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images. I’m determined not to waste my life away as a corporate drone and have devoted my five years to making it as a travel photographer and freelance writer. I hope to inspire others before it’s too late.

I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography



  1. Ouch Alex, just say no, don’t do it. You are reinforcing the cheap bastards. I am begrudgingly now on Snapwire but it is not a typical stock format, more like Image Brief but pays less but still more than the other sites. Sales are very slow on there though, at least for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Alex,

    your article seems to me brutally honest, as you say.

    I think that the microstock market is not designed to benefit the contributor. Nothing new under the sky. The customer wins, and the owners of the agencies also. They always win. The second, 75%, the first, quality images at prices of laughter. The customers have gotten used badly. They believe that images are worthless and that asking a reasonable price for them is an insult. Do you need an image? You have 10,000 options, for 3 or 4 dollars. When has something like this been seen in any business? I’m sorry to say, but our eagerness to earn a few pennies, for the shine of shit cents, we have sunk the business and the profession. Swimming in the mud is what we have left.

    I wonder how these agencies get this from us. It must be the promise of easy money and the addiction to earn daily dollars. Could you hire someone promising that you will only pay him 25% of the business, only if by chance he is lucky in doing his job well? But if you actually analyze time and income, most of contributors lose strongly, surprisingly. But there we continue. There we continue accepting the unacceptable.

    When I look back at history, at the beginning of the industrial revolution (a parallel can be made with the digital revolution), with the workers working in the factories for wages of misery, I think, at least they fought to dignify what was unfair . Today we think that we should only accept and swallow. Businesses are like that, if you want to accept them and swallow them, or if you do not, go out and leave. So, why do not we work in normal jobs 15 or 20 hours or reduce wages by half? Why do not we accept these things in reality, but do we do it digitally? I feel sorry that we exploit ourselves so brutally and dishonestly to earn so little. Because you earn little. Even if you win a million dollars!. If you win a million dollars it means that you could have won at least one more, but they have taken advantage of you and they have won twice as much doing a lot less.

    Because they depend entirely on us. Of our work. And they treat us as if it were the other way around, as if we were worthless. And therefore, it is not fair the abusively low royalties that are paid. I firmly and sincerely believe that, as others did, just as cruel battles were won to dignify life and work, it is time for the digital economy to do the same. Because, there is no other way out. All customers know the dirty secret of getting content at bargain prices on the internet. Nothing will pay you a reasonable price directly, unless you appreciate what you do, because they know that through these agencies they will find it dozens of times cheaper and much more variety of alternatives.

    I think the shot in the foot we gave the contributors when we entered this game cruel and meaningless. And I think we must fight to get the wound does not go further. What will be next? Half a cent of royalty?

    Best regards!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon on a daily basis. It’s always exciting to read through articles from other writers and practice something from their sites.


  4. You want brutal honesty? Here it is: You take really awful, generic photos of random stuff and expect to earn a living doing it. Most of your images look like the ones my 10-year-old nephew snaps with his iPhone. I suspect the reason you’re a “stock” photographer is because you can’t earn a living as a real photographer.You have a choice: Either keep scraping the bottom of the barrel with the other bottom-feeding stock photo hacks, or devote time to learning some real photography skills.


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