iStock – what’s the point?

That’s a pretty depressing-sounding title. What’s the deal?

Over the past month and a half or so – after finally getting accepted – I’ve been uploading photos to iStock. It’s been an arduous process. I retouch each image within what I think are “reasonable” bounds: cropping, boost the contrast a little, lightweight sharpening. Then I generate a batch of keywords using Yuri Arcurs’ clever and helpful keywording service. The result is usually good but requires a bit more editing before being ready to upload. Then upload the image. Paste in the keywords and “disambiguate” – the keywords have to match words in iStock’s lexicon, and usually that means selecting something similar or related from their auto-generated suggestons. Then try to choose 2-3 categories from the extremely limited list. Then wait.

A week or two later comes the email. Sometimes it’s “congratulations, your photo has been accepted for sale on iStock”. More often though there is a problem. “Artifacting” seems to be the most common. In my case this is almost always noise – the grain that naturally occurs in dark and smooth-toned areas in digital images. Even though my D300 is set to the lowest ISO, this noise seems unavoidable. And while it never seems like a problem to my eyes (grain is part of what makes photos so interesting), iStock apparently does not agree. So I process the image using a Photoshop plug-in called Noise Ninja and re-submit. And wait again. Sometimes it’s a go, sometimes not. And sometimes images are rejected without the option to resubmit – I guess they figure no amount of repair is going to make the image serviceable.

At the end, it seems like each accepted photo requires a minimum of half an hour of work to make it so. And then comes wait number two…waiting for someone to buy.

As I write this, two months after my first uploaded image, I have sold exactly one download, for the princely sum of $3.60.

Where’s the money?

I started thinking “where is the money in this?” And then “who is making money at this?” So I started poking around. I did some random image searches and then looked at the sales history of some of the photographers. What I found is there seem to be quite a few contributors who have sold between 1/2 and 5 downloads per image – in other words, they may have 500 images on iStock, and they’ve sold somewhere between 250 and 2500 downloads. Of course there are exceptions – those with 100 images and 3 downloads, others with 100 images and 2000 downloads.

The average image sells for around $5, with the photographer getting 40% (if “exclusive” – meaning you aren’t selling royalty-free images at any other agencies) for a net of about $2. That works out to each image generating a total of $1-10. Assuming very optimistically that an image can be prepped and uploaded in 15 minutes, and that NO images are rejected or must be corrected and resubmitted, that works out to earning $4-40 an hour. So, not bad if you’re on the upper end, pretty crappy if you’re on the lower end.

I was pretty depressed about my lack of sales. For a while I would spend at least part of my morning exercise routine calculating how much I was going to make on iStock (“let’s see…if I sell an average of 1 of each image per month…and upload 10 images per week….that’s like $1200 the first year, and adding another $1200 each year…”) When my total downloads count refused to budge from zero, I eventually stopped this practice and instead calculated how little people were making. That got me just as depressed. All these poor deluded fools, thinking they were going to make money off iStock. It’s just sad…

The secret

The secret seems to be this: you have to shoot stuff people want to buy. Here’s where I encounter my own personal disconnect. I shoot what I like. I shoot what I shoot because I think it’s interesting or beautiful and I think others might find something of value in seeing something that I saw, the way I saw it. But just because it’s interesting or cool doesn’t mean it’s something people – no, DESIGNERS – want to buy. Because it’s designers who buy stock photography. Designers are looking for something to illustrate a concept, or convey a message, or perhaps suggest an idea to them. That may be “beautiful” or “interesting”, or it may just be a boring picture of a house with a “for sale” sign in front of it

iStock is not “art” – well, it’s more art than, say, cutting meat, but it’s not “I’m going to express what I see or feel – here it is world – like it or don’t”. The word “craft” is a much better fit. Think about a craft market, with a bunch of people making jewelry or those things you put at the bottom of your door to keep the draft out. They’re saying “Please, people, don’t you like my jewelry? Please buy it…please?” And if you make jewelry that people like, and want for themselves, it sells. And you make more of the same, because that’s what sells. You don’t make a pinkie ring with a 3-foot spike sticking out of the center, or a bracelet out of Barbie doll arms. You could, but it probably wouldn’t sell and you’d stop at 1 rather than spending all your energy on it. Same thing with iStock. Shoot pictures of Barbie doll arms or dog turds and you’ll be lucky to sell one. Shoot golden retrievers or happy business people in offices and you’ll sell 20 of each.

Now, if you’re lucky, your personal artistic vision IS to shoot dogs or suits all day long, and then you’ll make a mint at iStock. If you’re a little less lucky, but willing to say “this isn’t my art, it’s my craft”, then you’ll shoot the dogs and suits and make your mint and hell, it’s a better job than digging coal. But if you approach photography as an art and you think you can convert that into a gold mine at iStock, you’re probably going to end up disappointed. Like me.

Where to go from here

I was pretty much ready to sign off on iStock for good. But then…I SOLD AN IMAGE! The heavens opened, sunbeams shot down and skewered me with their optimism. All ready to jump back on the train – “this time ol’ Gil’s gonna hit it big” (for you Simpsons fans). But the fever abated and I realized that, even though I’m theoretically $3.60 richer (theoretically, because iStock won’t pay until you’e accumulated $100), I still don’t want to spend my time shooting golden retrievers or happy couples smiling with their picnic baskets and jogging strollers. Or at least not for just a few bucks an hour.

I suppose I’m a little spoiled. In my day job as web developer/designer/flash programmer I make a decent hourly rate. Over the past couple-three years I’ve done a dozen or so commercial photo shoots that netted out pretty well too. So the idea of shooting anything that isn’t “what I’d be shooting anyway” for chump change just seems like a bad use of time.

Considering all the above, I have formulated the following plan:

  1. Continue shooting what I want, when I want.
  2. In the course of (1), if I turn out images that I think would sell, and aren’t going to get dumped on for noise or something, upload them to iStock.
  3. If I get bored and don’t have something better to do, go ahead and shoot “for stock”. Hopefully I’ll at least learn something, and I may end up with a few bucks for my trouble.
  4. Try to stop obsessing about the whole thing :)

So we’ll see how that works out…

2 Responses to “iStock – what’s the point?”

  1. Oliver Nielsen Says:

    Good article. I’m somehow in the same boat as you. I’m still trying to get accepted though. They deem fine grain to be artifacts, even though it is an iso 100 shot… Go figure… Most pictures will have such fine grain in out-of-focus areas, and that grain makes it look better, imho, but not to stock inspectors…

  2. Arthur Einstein Says:

    This is perfectly fascinating Bob. I love your analysis. Unfortunately stuff we love often doesn’t pay. But what the… I think you’ve worked it out – especially the part about not obsessing.

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