If you have been following my work for the past several years, you are probably already aware that I have been very involved with microstock photography. In fact, getting started with microstock is what jump-started my career in photography and photo-education. Back in 2006 I started shooting stock to motivate myself and focus on learning more about digital photography, lighting, and post-processing. I joined a handful of sites to start, but quickly realized that iStock was my best bet. It didn’t take long before shooting stock would become my full-time job, resulting in it also being a significant (if not entire) portion of my income.
In those days, iStock was a good place to be. The community was thriving, the site was improving, and we even had get-togethers called “iStockalypses” where we would have elaborate stock concepts and situations for each of us to photograph. I met some amazing people, made great friends, and seriously improved my photography. But then, just a few years ago, all of that started to change.
It Started Going Downhill
Getty bought iStock in 2006, but it took a few years before we really started to see negative “big corporation” changes that affected contributors immensely. The most impactful change was when they rolled out their “Redeemed Credit” (RC) system. The way it works is that a contributor needs to maintain a certain amount of sales every year in order to maintain a certain royalty percentage. Before this new policy, our royalties were determined based on our total number of all-time sales, but with this roll-out, if you had a bad year then you were penalized the following year.
There were/are a LOT of flaws to the system, one of the big ones being the giant gap in sales numbers between the top two tiers for exclusive photographers (35% and 40% royalties). You can see the info in the 2014 chart below (or click here to view it on their website). iStock still has this RC system in effect, but each year they grandfather everyone in at their existing credit rate, which means that (so far) most of us have never dropped below our existing level. Sure, this is a good thing, but how long will it last?
What is “Exclusivity” on iStock?
To realize why this is all a big deal, it’s important to understand what exclusivity is with iStock. First of all, being exclusive has perks. Your images cost more, they can make their way into special collections on iStock, and even be licensable over on Getty Images. We get higher search priority, and more protection if our images are used illegally. In my early days, it was definitely the right move to make.
But exclusivity has its downside, too. When you are an exclusive artist with iStock, they do not allow you to license any photographs (or whichever media you create) as royalty-free (RF) through any other company (with the exception of Getty, in some cases). This is not limited to photos that are in my iStock portfolio. Basically, if I have a photograph that will never be in my iStock portfolio and I want to license it to someone as RF, give it away for free, or enter it in a contest that has some type of “Royalty Free” clause in their terms, I am out of luck. The exclusivity agreement prevents me from having full control with all of of my photographs, not just those inside of my portfolio on iStock. I am also not allowed to license anything as Creative Commons, and have had to get special permission to do things like sell texture files in my online store. I am so very tired of having these limitations. They’re my photos, and especially if they are not on iStock, what gives them the right to hold them hostage?
Is Exclusivity Worth It?
My opinion is that iStock is just getting too big and diluted to make exclusive a “good deal”. The benefits of exclusivity in the past used to be worth it, but now, with a catalog of millions of files, including several million exclusive files, plus collections of images brought in from other sources (usually Getty-owned or acquired libraries) that keep getting dumped into the pool of images.
The problem is, once you’re in, you feel stuck. I make 100% of my stock income through iStock and Getty, and once my non-exclusive status goes into effect I expect my sales to drop a LOT. At one point I relied on iStock for 100% of my entire income. If I were still in that position, quitting exclusivity would be impossible. Thankfully, I now have several other streams of income and don’t expect a significant drop in my stock income to affect me too much, and I also hope to balance that out and bring those sales back over time in other ways.
The bottom line is that I have lost my passion for iStock. For me, it no longer feels like a place to grow, but rather a place to survive. I have been uploading less and less to my portfolio, and rarely shoot just for stock any longer. My sales had gone down and I just had no drive to upload photos. It felt like I was getting the short end of the stick being exclusive to iStock, and I needed a change.
Thankfully, I have other streams of income. My online store does well, and has already taken over the majority of the slack that expect to lose from canceling exclusivity. I will keep writing and creating content here on my blog, continue creating eBooks and preset for my store, and also plan to do a lot of traveling.
As for stock photography, I am currently considering other options for licensing my work. I’m really excited at the possibility of a clean, fresh start; a chance to build something from the ground up. Long gone are my days of photographing white-background, super-cheesy stock images. In fact, over the past few years I have been focusing my efforts on food photography, particularly for my stock portfolio. I also have succumbed to the allure of travel and landscape photography as well. I want to produce beautiful images that don’t just look good, but that inspire me to travel, explore, and create even more.
As of writing this post I still have a portfolio on iStock and my exclusivity will not be “officially” canceled until late January, and I will decide down the road if I want to keep my portfolio there. The less income it brings in, the less likely I will keep the images up. All in all, I’m glad I made the decision to cancel exclusivity. It’s such a good feeling knowing that my photos are mine, that I have 100% control on how they are used, and that I no longer have to deal with any more drama from iStock’s ever-changing contributor agreement.