Why I Canceled Exclusivity with iStock

|||Why I Canceled Exclusivity with iStock

Why I Canceled Exclusivity with iStock

By |2018-08-01T14:39:08+00:00December 19th, 2014|Categories: Business|Tags: |20 Comments

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?


The Redeemed Credit Rates for iStock in 2014.

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.

What’s Next?

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 10.41.43 AM

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.

About the Author:

Nicole S. Young is a professional photographer and published author whose love of photography and teaching has grown into an online business where she creates training materials and resources for other photographers. Nicole is best known for her books on food photography, but is widely versed in a variety of photographic genres, including landscape, travel, lifestyle, and even underwater photography. You can learn more about Nicole's work on her website, nicolesy.com.


  1. Michael Long December 19, 2014 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the article… I too have been playing in the stock pic. field. Fotolia and it’s been ok, but the payback is my biggest complaint…. it’s hard to get motivated when your only getting a few pennies on the dollar. So what does one do??? I’m an older guy and retired, and was hoping that selling a few pictures on stock would help my income…. but I’m almost better off shooting on the side locally…. Again thank you for your thoughts and your wonderful blog mike

  2. wtownrowWendy December 19, 2014 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    Best wishes for the future Nicole … I am sure you will do well whatever you undertake :-)

  3. Mohamed Elkhamisy December 19, 2014 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    Good luck

  4. 1morecreative December 19, 2014 at 6:35 pm - Reply

    Good luck, Nicole! I’ll be interested to see where your new path takes you! I’m sure you’ll do fine!

  5. Bruce Weber December 19, 2014 at 8:03 pm - Reply

    There’s a lot of that going around. You should check out a local (Seattle) start-up agency. Stockafe. I like their philosophy and emphasis on building a community.

  6. Randy December 19, 2014 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    Great news :) Please keep us posted on how well you start doing once you are able to start licensing your images with more reputable organizations.

  7. vamapaull December 20, 2014 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    I think I will cancel my exclusivity with iStock too. Thank you for the great article!

  8. Dave December 20, 2014 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    Really – you think Getty Images was the beginning of the end for stock photography? The whole micro stock industry undermined the stock image market in the first place. One of the biggest contributors was iStock and fledgling photographers that didn’t know any better. So you, in all your glory contributed to the whole problem in the first place.

    • Randy December 20, 2014 at 9:33 pm - Reply

      I don’t recall her mentioning that GI was the “beginning of the end of stock photography.” Sounds like someone (Dave) doesn’t know much about the industry at all. iStock was finding market share in the midstock segment and had great management that were at the cutting edge. Many iStockphoto contributors were doing exceptionally well bringing in high value, high quality content that would put these traditional whiners that couldn’t find there way around PS to shame. I still have friends that are dead set on the idea that a shitty cloudscape image should fetch a $3000 RM sale. Time to get over it.

    • Stephen Cupp December 22, 2014 at 10:26 am - Reply

      She never said it was the end for stock photography. She said she didn’t have the passion for it like she once had and wants more control over her other images.

  9. Melli December 21, 2014 at 10:05 am - Reply

    My best wishes to you! I am sure with your wonderful stock portfolio (and your other types of work) you will be doing well.

  10. Maurice Thomas December 21, 2014 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    Best of luck, great insight. Happy Christmas. I’m sure 2015 will be good for you.

  11. Don Bromberg December 22, 2014 at 8:16 am - Reply

    Good luck!!!

  12. Jerry Deutsch December 23, 2014 at 6:03 am - Reply

    I am in the exact same situation. Istock has not been a lot of income but, it was all I’ve done as far as stock. The thought of re-posting images to other sites and going through key wording (I was foolish and didn’t use metadata) and going through the approval process all over again-multiple times, is turning my stomach. So, I’ve decided to give it a few more months and see what Getty does. In the mean time, I will be exploring other stock providers and start preparing my images.

  13. Greg December 28, 2014 at 7:52 pm - Reply

    Really enjoyed this, Nocole – thanks for disclosing… I particularly enjoy watching how you model adaptation. I know many other iStockers who gave up, or just complain… Best to you~

  14. Michael Courtney December 30, 2014 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your informative blog Nicole. I’ve been thinking about giving up my crown for a while and today decided to bite the bullet. Best of luck to you.

  15. denise beverly db visual arts January 15, 2015 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    After being a part of several microstock agencies, I decided a few years back to go exclusive with dreamstime. At the time I was part of 7 agencies and sold my work locally as well as a couple of other venues. I closed all of my online sites except dreamstime. It was nice at first to think i was exclusive and didn’t have to submit all over the place but then reality hit. I had to pull my local work as well. I had worked to get established and they were local scenery, NOTHING was on any stock agency that was downtown. Still I was told I would have to put them. Several discussions later I returned my bonus money to dreamstime and realized all the work I had done to build up the other agencies was lost. I ended up making far more with my local work than my microstock but such a waste of energy and time from which I still have not recovered completely. I am still with dreamstime, with some exclusive images but never did get the others up and running again. Lesson learned, I suppose. I will have long discussions with the powers that be before i do anything like that again.

  16. Johannes February 19, 2015 at 2:38 am - Reply

    Thank you Nicole, for your nice article that only made it even easier for me, and for sure many others to come, to cancel exclusivity at istock.
    Congrats on your work!

  17. Bruce Aspley July 31, 2016 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    Hi Nicole, I wonder if you could give your latest thoughts on selling stock images. I notice that you are on iStockphoto again. Are you exclusive to iStock again? I would really appreciate your advice. I am a contributor to iStock and just about to reach the 250 downloads required to go exclusive. Would you recommend going exclusive?

    • Nicole S. Young August 1, 2016 at 8:15 am - Reply

      Hi Bruce, I never left iStock, I only canceled my exclusivity. All of my photos are still in my portfolio for now, and they still sell. I don’t upload to iStock, but instead upload to Stocksy.

      I can’t really say whether or not going exclusive is right for one person; I’m glad I did when I started iStock several years ago, but right now it’s not the best for me. Plus, I’m not sure how the program has changed. The biggest thing to keep in mid is if exclusivity will affect how you use your own photos in other ways; when I was still exclusive I had to get “special permission” to sell textures in my own online store (photos that were never in my iStock portfolio, and I was not selling them as stock, just as overlays for photos). I got tired of feeling like ALL of my photos were under lock and key in some ways (not just those in my iStock portfolio), and wanted the flexibility back on what I could do with them. Now, with Stocksy, the images I upload are exclusive, but ALL of my photos are not.

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