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iStockphoto LP
Type Private
Genre microstock photography
Founded May 2000
Founder(s) Bruce Livingstone
Headquarters Canada Calgary, Canada
Key people Bruce Livingstone (Founder and CEO)
Parent Getty Images

iStockphoto is an online, royalty free, international microstock photography provider operating with the micropayment business model. Images cost between 1 and 20 credits, depending on size (with credits ranging from $.95 to $1.50 USD [1] each). General consensus attributes the pioneering of the microstock photography industry to iStockphoto, which claims to be "internet’s original member-generated image and design community."

The online photo library contains (as of January 2009) over 4 million images (up from 760,000 in April, 2006) contributed by over 50,000 photographers at the rate of 27,000+ images per week[2]. is currently (25 March 2009) ranked 561 on Alexa[3].



Screenshot of home page.

The company was founded by Bruce Livingstone in May, 2000. Originally iStockphoto was a free stock imagery website. Over the course of time, it transitioned into its current micropayment model. The website was originally supported by CEO Livingstone's web development firm, Evolvs Media, but began charging money in 2001. iStockphoto has been profitable since then.[4]

On February 9, 2006 iStockphoto was acquired by Getty Images for $50 million USD. Livingstone promised that the site would continue "functioning independently with the benefits of Getty Images, yet, very importantly for them and us, autonomy. They will nurture and encourage our pioneering spirit so that our entrepreneurial culture will continue to thrive."

On September 18, 2006 iStockphoto displayed the first results of the Getty Images ownership.[5] A new keywording taxonomy called a “Controlled vocabulary” was borrowed from Getty Images and implemented on iStockphoto to control and manage keywords and searches, and to provide multilingual searching abilities. The system allows a contributor to keyword in any language, and because the controlled vocabulary is pre-translated, an image is searchable in any of the supported languages. Support for several languages was also added and the website can now be viewed in English, French, Spanish, and German. Keyword searches can also be performed in British English or American English, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Greek and even in Japanese and Cyrillic characters. Furthermore, the system provides disambiguation for terms with multiple meanings. For instance, when searching for “ball” on the site, it requests clarification: Ball (Sports Equipment), Sphere (Three-dimensional Shape) or Evening Ball (Celebration Event).

As of March 31, 2007, iStockpro closed. iStockpro was a more expensive version of iStockphoto that was never as popular as iStockphoto, and became redundant after the acquisition by Getty Images.

The company also accepts business in the following currencies: US dollar, Canadian dollar, Australian dollar, Euro, Yen, Chinese RMB and British pound.

On April 1 2008 Getty Images disclosed, as part of its agreement to be sold to a private equity firm, that iStockphoto's revenue in 2007 was $71.9 million USD of which $20.9 million (29%) was paid to contributors.[6]


Contributing photographers apply (via a short quiz regarding policies, requirements, basic photographic knowledge, and legal issues) before they are eligible to upload their images. The applicant's sample images are screened for quality and suitability before being approved. Photographers must be over 18 years of age to join (or have a parental consent form).

Once approved, photographers can begin uploading their work through the website. They supply keywords, categorize the images, and submit them to the "inspection queue", where each image is examined to ensure that it meets the standards of quality, usefulness and copyright and trademark laws.

iStockphoto also sells vector graphics made in programs like Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia Freehand; Macromedia Flash elements and raster illustrations created in 3d graphics programs or bitmap editors like Adobe Photoshop.

Contributors receive a commission of between 20% and 40% of each sale, depending on whether or not they are "exclusive", and on their current "canister level." New canisters are awarded for various milestones such as 250 sales, 2,500 sales, 10,000 sales, 25,000 sales, and 200,000 sales. Only five photographers have passed the 200,000 point, while 209[7] members have passed the 25,000 level as of 2008-03-13 and received the coveted "diamond canister."

Contributing photographers who reach a minimum of 250 sales are offered the option of becoming exclusive to the company. If they do so, a bonus is added to their commission and they must not sell royalty-free stock images anywhere else. Rights managed sales are allowed off site even under the exclusivity contract.

In an address to its community entitled “2008: A Year in Review and a Look Ahead″[8], iStockphoto's COO laid out price increases for 2009 while also mentioning that the company was paying out ‘almost’ $1.1 million dollars per week in royalty payments to contributors.

Purchasing and use

Each approved image is added to the searchable online database, where it can be found by purchasers. Depending on the original size of an image, it can be bought in XSmall, Small, Medium, Large, XLarge, XXLarge and XXXLarge sizes. These cost 1, 3, 6, 12, 18, 22 or 28 credits. Vector and Flash files also cost 1 to 25 credits, based on complexity. iStockphoto offers discounts for buyers who purchase in bulk; bulk purchase gives up to 20% bonus credits.

Files can be downloaded immediately, and used in almost anything. The basic license agreement prohibits only a few uses, such as web templates, print on demand, adult materials, etc. Any print runs over 500,000 must pay additional royalties. Extended licenses are available for purchase to cover certain needs not met by the basic license agreement. [9]


iStockphoto's online community of more than 3,127,864 registered members (as of February 2008) includes internet forums, a creative-network for keeping track of friends, and peer review/rating system.

iStockphoto has a reputation for interacting with their member-base and discussing changes and new ideas openly before and after implementation, but also has a reputation for censorship among some photographers.

The forums are a good place to get to know the rules and procedures, and to seek help understanding the site or improving one's skills. The forums have also spawned a number of iStockphoto colloquialisms, such as "F5" (referring to the F5 key on a keyboard which refreshes the page in most browsers) which is used in conjunction with the announcement of a secret upgrade that will take place soon, leading users to refresh their browsers repeatedly in hopes that the change has occurred, and to post in lengthy "F5" threads devoted to the wait. Another colloquialism is the word "Wooyay", used to celebrate a personal victory, milestone, or public achievement, and often found in the seasonal "Wooyay threads."

iStockphoto get-togethers are occasionally held in various cities around the world, and are sponsored by the company. They are referred to as iStockalypses. Smaller, photographer organized events are put on in many cities around the world, and are called Minilypses.

These iStockalypses provide photographers of every stripe the opportunity to meet like-minded enthusiasts from all over the world, near and far, and connect in the spirit of sharing. Members often take major steps in their photographic development as a result of the support and experience to be gained at such events. Members share their knowledge and tricks and take away more than just technical info: friendships and connections are cemented through the common interest that is photography and creativity.

The Steel Cage

In 2005 iStockPhoto re-launched an old site feature, the Steel Cage.[10] The Steel Cage is essentially an organized game of Photoshop tennis, in which contestants battle against their opponents in a 5-round game. The players trade a Photoshop Document, containing an artful, weird, or crazy photo collage, back and forth, each time preserving at least one element and changing the rest to their heart's content. The battles are scored by judges appointed within iStockPhoto, and download credits are awarded in values of up to 50 credits.


To critics of the micropayment stock photography market, iStockphoto represents a threat to an old and well established precedent. Stock photography has long been an expensive and elite market. Critics contend that the extremely low prices are undercutting and devaluing the stock photography market, by offering images vastly below accepted price standards. The commissions at iStockphoto (on the low end of the spectrum, and ranging between 20% and 45%) are below the industry norm of 50% and are based on much lower purchase fees (compared to typical fees in the hundreds of dollars) to begin with.

Critics also cite low earnings in comparison to expenses, if equipment costs, image processing, and contribution process are taken into account. With roughly 45 cents per download on a standard image, members could expect only a couple of dollars per image over a years time, they say.

An informal poll conducted on iStockphoto's forums[11] found an average royalty of $11.01 USD per image per year. However, such data may reflect the self-selected nature of the respondents as heavily involved contributors. No official data about average royalties is released by Getty which owns the company.

An article in The Seattle Times [4] confirmed that at least one talented photographer is earning around $70,000 per year, though also including work for hire. Curious number-crunchers may be able to extrapolate from the data available in the article.

Supporters of the iStockphoto system contend that a large portfolio, due to the vastly reduced prices, and equally increased sales numbers, yields the same, or higher, earnings as a traditional stock service would. Hard evidence to prove this is not available, and number-crunchers must content themselves with a handful of personal success stories. Additionally, many contributors are not professionals, but a new generation of skilled in-betweeners who find themselves above the skill level of a casual amateur, and not as serious as a professional.


Rising prices

Since iStockphoto's launch in 2000, purchase prices have slowly increased, from initially bartered (based on accumulated contributions),[12] to $.25 and then $.50,[13] and more recently tiered at $1, $2 and $3,[14] to a higher-cost tiered pricing of $1, $3, $5 and $10 or more for extra high resolution,[15] to today's current pricing scheme where images cost between 1 and 15 credits, and credits sell for between $1.20 each and $.95 each in bundles of 12 to 2000.[16] On August 19, 2007, iStockphoto adjusted the pricing structure in the Illustration and Video categories and raised the base price of credits. The vector pricing is $1, $3, $7, $12, and $25, and video pricing is $10, $20, $30, $40, and $50.

For designers, what was once an inexpensive alternative to purchasing more expensive stock photos has slowly become less so. Despite raises, the site's popularity continues to grow.


On July 31, 2006 iStockphoto announced the development of a new branch, iStockvideo, which will sell stock video clips in a variety of formats from web-size, through NTSC and PAL up to HDV and HD sizes. The collection is slated to open on September 5, 2006, and clips (between 5 and 30 seconds) will range in cost from $5 USD to $50 USD, based on resolution.

This new branch of iStockphoto competes with motion stock collections already available from companies such as Getty Images, Artbeats, and Veer.


  1. ^ Buy Pay-as-you-go Credit Packages – Company pricing page
  2. ^ – stats released in forums
  3. ^ – Alexa ranking
  4. ^ a b Kim Peterson, "Microstock photography represents a new business model", Seattle Times, May 28, 2007
  5. ^ – Language features announcement
  6. ^ "iStock contributors make $21 million in 2007". iStockphoto Forums. 2008-04-01. Retrieved 2008-04-01.  
  7. ^ – Diamonds list
  8. ^ 2008: A Year in Review and a Look Ahead – Executive Forum Post
  9. ^ Extended License Options
  10. ^ – The Steel Cage
  11. ^ – informal earnings poll
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^

External links


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