iStockphoto Angers Contributors, Confuses Buyers

iStockphoto has recently been dealing with several issues that have impacted both the buyer and contributor side of things.  I guess I can consider myself lucky that I don’t have to deal with these things, since they terminated my agreement back in April for no particularly good reason.  However, these issues are causing contributors and buyers consternation, so today we take a look at the recent collection changes, and “exclusive, not exclusive”.

A Look Back

Some history on the iStockphoto pricing tier/collection system.  Back in 2004, when I joined iStockphoto, there was one collection that all imagery was put into – the main collection.  At the time, this was sold in “web, medium and print” resolutions.  Pricing based on size, which is how royalty free licensing generally works.  At the beginning of 2005, artist exclusivity was introduced.  This did not change the pricing of images.  Just the royalty paid to the artist.

In June 2006, iStockphoto introduced the Dollar Bin where all images in that collection could be had for a dollar, at all sizes (or at least 1 credit, since cash purchases weren’t an option).

Our developers have designed a state-of-the-art custom search tool to allow our team of full-time Photography Editors to find specific images, then re-review them at 100%. (No, you can’t find out who the Photography Editors are. But they’re really, really good at their job.) They have the discretion to move images into the Dollar Bin, where everything sells for (wait for it) 1 Credit at all sizes. If they go for a month without a download, then they will be deactivated. That’s one month from the last sale, so if an image takes on new life in the Bin, it can stay there as long as it keeps selling.

In June, 2009, iStockphoto introduced the high concept, higher priced Vetta collection. The Vetta collection was meant to be a place where exclusives could place low sales potential, but high cost or high concept images.  The higher price would offset the possibility that the image would only sell occasionally.   It was a benefit of the exclusive program.

It’s not enough to want success. You have to take risks, develop ruthless standards and never, ever settle. Images in the Vetta Collection, Italian for peak, seized their own artistic destiny and created a whole new calibre of art.  Vetta images are hand-picked by a team of high-performance iStockphoto editors for their exquisite art direction and intelligently executed concepts.

In late 2009, the Dollar Bin was changed from one-price to based-on-size, like the rest of the collection:

The ‘Dollar Bin’ is getting remodeled (and probably a new name). First of all, there are going to be a lot more files in there: we’re envisioning 200,000 to start (up from about 5,000 right now). The images in this new value collection will now be priced by size, like everything else, but at much lower rates: 1 credit for an extra-small and topping out at 7 credits for a XXXL. These files will no longer be automatically deactivated after 30 days. The new Dollar Bin should be ready in early spring.

At the beginning of 2010, iStockphoto began to split the collection apart a bit more.  The main collection was now split into Main (independent artists) and Exclusive.  As well, Exclusive+ was introduced.  This was another benefit of being an exclusive artist.  Contributors could self nominate images into this higher priced collection.  Images that were perhaps shot with Vetta in mind, but weren’t accepted.  Or images the contributor felt had a certain value.  Being able to self-curate like that was a nice addition to the contributor side of things.

Files from iStock’s Exclusive photographers and illustrators will now all have a higher price level. While other stock companies focus on quantity, iStock will continue to focus on what matters – quality and exceptionality. iStock’s Exclusive collection is built on rich, unique imagery unlike anything else out there. We will be increasing the prices of our Exclusive files in order to further curate our collection and to reward and motivate our most loyal artists. We’re also hoping to encourage the strongest talents in stock today to consider bringing their best work to iStock exclusively.

In September 2010, the Agency collection was created.  Agency was meant to be a really high quality lifestyle collection.  Initially it was stocked with work from Getty Images and ported down to iStockphoto.  These images were tagged as “exclusive” images due to site deficiencies, though they were still available, for example, at the Getty contributor companies’ own sites for sale.  Soon after, iStockphoto contributors could find their images added to the Agency collection if the editors deemed fit.  I had quite a few in there, and was very happy I was able to make the standard.  These images were then ported back up to Getty Images for sale as well at similar premium pricing.

Later this month we will introduce a new collection here at iStock–it will be the first time we’ve allowed outside agencies on the site. The Agency Collection will feature some of the world’s best photographers and agencies, selected by Content teams at Getty Images and iStock. Later in the month, we’ll be inviting select iStock photographers to submit to the collection as well.  The Agency Collection will be priced at a premium to Vetta and will be available on iStock, Getty Images, Jupiter and PunchStock.

In May 2011, Photo+ was introduced, similar to Exclusive+.  A self-curated collection for independent contributors at a higher price than the main collection.

So, now buyers have 7 pricing levels to choose from, even though the interface didn’t really accommodate being able to filter based on price until 2011.

Pricing/Collection Tiers Today

In 2013, iStockphoto finally realized things were out of hand.  In May, changes to collection structuring were posted:

Over the last several months we have been gathering feedback from both customers and our exclusive contributors to get a better understanding of what we can do to improve the iStock experience. Our buyers want simplicity and quality—but over time we’ve accumulated 7 collections at iStock. At this point, the differences and advantages between them are murky at best, especially from the customer’s vantage point. Bottom line – to be successful we need to help different customers with different needs find the content they are looking for at the price that reflects the quality of the image…

 The solution was as follows:

  • Merge the Agency collection into the Vetta collection
  • Remove the self-curated E+ and P+ collections
  • Remove any distinction between exclusive artist and independent artist pricing
  • Keep the Main collections and create “Signature” and “Signature+” collections
  • Some of the Value collection (Dollar Bin) gets put into Main, but the Dollar Bin goes away

So now, there are 4 pricing tiers, down from 7 tiers. The short list of “why” for buyers was topped with “It’s not always easy for customers to see why one file is priced differently from another.”  For contributors, it was to:

move some files up and some down between collections based on quality and demonstrated performance history. If, after a reasonable amount of time a file is not selling at a given price, we’ll lower the price and see if that increases downloads. If a file is selling like crazy a given price, we’ll carefully move it up in price and see if it can perform even better there. All file moves will be made with care – no one wants to price a file out of the sweet spot – finding the sweet spot where a file performs best will always be the goal.

Why Are Contributors Angry?

Contributors now find themselves at the mercy of:

  • the automated process that shifted all of their images into these new collections based mostly on what appears to be past performance, without real regard to image “quality” or “uniqueness” or any other aesthetic factor.  Repeatedly, they have been told that there is no way for content to have its classification be reconsidered.  Posting obvious flaws in the forum thread seem to get results, but those posts are discouraged.
  • the import process from Getty Images that brings in thousands and thousands (25,000 from one Getty contributor company) of apparently un-inspected images into the Vetta collection.  This collection, which contributors used to be proud to be a part of and is currently almost being mocked in advertising as “Hand picked by our top photo editors for exquisite art direction, intelligently executed concepts and rarity.” and “When looking for unique images a cut above, the Vetta collection is your best bet. Vetta just got bigger and better:“, includes content that is uploaded in the wrong orientation, or content that wouldn’t have been accepted into the main collection in 2005, let alone the Vetta collection in 2013:
    Many of those files aren’t up to minimum standards for inclusion, period, let alone Vetta. Many are very poor quality photos, and many should be rejected as being duplicates. Why are you devaluing the collection like this, iStock? I have busted my butt in the past to get select files into Vetta, and you turn around and insult me by letting this stuff in? Then you inform the buyers who come to the site that this stuff is a cut above. It’s a lie. That’s so… well, it’s wrong. – a contributorcollections_1collections_2
  • a constant battle with the ever-changing and ethereal “Best Match” sort.  The default iStockphoto sort algorithm can change on a daily basis, sometimes favor old files, sometimes new, sometimes this or that collection.  New uploads invariably get lost in the mess, and contributors grow despondent and withhold new uploads until some undetermined future time.
    • Search “lifestyle” and the first images are not very representative.  Lots from 2004 and 2005 with less than 40 sales.  Go to the very last page and there are all the great wow iStock images.  What has happened? – a contributor
    • Even without the scientific approach as other did on the last 2 pages of this thread I can see that exclusive images are lost in the BM. I have images from 2003 to 2013 and I am exclusive and nothing is selling now. – a contributor
    • I just did a search for illustrations of “mobile phones” and found plenty of images of out-dated cellphones from 2004- 2008 on the first pages. Some of them strongly resemble old models from Nokia, Ericsson or Motorola. I wouldn’t call this fresh and I don’t think that customers are very happy with these results. – a contributor
  • the loss of the ability to self-curate high production cost content to a premium collection.  While content can still be nominated to Vetta, reports are that editors are putting the majority of new exclusive content into the Signature collection (all independent content goes into Main.)  One contributor posted that out of the last 25,000 exclusive images, the following was the collection distribution breakdown:
    • Main: 0
    • S: 21340
    • S+: 12
    • Vetta: 2224 (but 2130 was from one external contributor)

Contributors are right to be angry and disillusioned with a poorly thought out process that takes away their benefits and confuses the buyer.

Confusing the Buyer

As described above, the reason for the buyer was to to help different customers with different needs find the content they are looking for at the price that reflects the quality of the image“.  However, buyers are finding the exact opposite of that.

From the examples above, they are clearly finding substandard, overpriced content in the previously premiere Vetta collection.  Due to the Best Match sorting issues, the real gems are buried in the midst of now hundreds of pages of content, and studies show buyers don’t go past the first few pages.  They are not finding a correlation at all between the image “quality” and its price.  Contributors are pointing out images inappropriately placed in the Signature+ and Vetta collections that buyers are not likely to pay a premium for, with similar and even sister content at lower prices.  Contributors are losing sales to lower priced comparative images.  Buyers are now having to waste time trying to figure out if they are getting the best value for their money.

Buyers are also confused at (what appears to be) constant price increases due to these changes.  It has been said that these collections will be constantly re-evaluated.  Not just manually, but it appears that every so many months, images will be moved based on their sales performance to find the “sweet spot” as mentioned above.  From social media:

Additionally, the new pricing filter can be confusing to buyers:


The filter is not so much a price filter, as contributors have pointed out, but a collection filter.  $, $$, $$$, $$$$ = Main, Signature, Signature+, Vetta .  This can be an issue for contributors, and buyers as well, because, for example, a XL Signature+ image costs more than a S Vetta image.  Buyers who may not be so concerned about size could be missing out on upper collection images that meet their needs, because of the price slider workflow.   Also, some people are inferring that $ means $1-9, $$ means $10-$99, and so on, up to $1000, which is obviously not the case.

The buyer has to use the slider though, because as far as I can see, there is now no visual indication of pricing collection on the search return page, nor is there on the image details page (except for Vetta on the details page).


I don’t really have a conclusion today, except that pricing and collections will, for the foreseeable future, be in flux at iStockphoto.  It’s an FYI.  Something to watch out for.

I’ll cover “exclusive, not exclusive” another day.


15 thoughts on iStockphoto Angers Contributors, Confuses Buyers

    • Nice article. I am part of a team looking at developing a cyber market place for photographers and digital artists to set up their own galleries and link their selected works to the site shared commercial stock library, where the photographers and artist control their own media product offerings, prices and licencing. It is aimed at maximum convenience for buyers. One market place where many photographers/artists can trade. The current model that “stock image libraries” are based on are that of agencies, not market places. I wonder what would happen if all stock image libraries had to purchase their stock wholesale, like distributors, then resell it at trade and retail prices to make their profits! It would certainly sort our the suppliers (photography businesses), they would need to be good business operators to get the distributors interested in dealing with them and when they do, they are paid under the same concept model as all product producers selling through international distributors…food for thought!

  1. Great article Sean!
    One of the most comprehensive analysis on the fall of iStock.
    Yes, there’s always a place for premium microstock, but deceiving customers into paying a premium for non-exclusive, unfairly-priced images is not the way to go.

    Imagine apple re-releasing the iPhone 3g now and charging a high-end price for it.. the market would just go to “SamsunStock”.

  2. My Istock sales are horrible of late. I guess I’m wondering when it’s right to bail? From what I’ve been able to research, even though the bottom is falling out, Istock seems to still be the best answer. Am I missing something? Should I wait to see if it comes around, or try some place new? All my targets are being missed at this point.

    Very frustrating.

  3. I certainly wasn’t seeing any growth in my last months at IS last year, but I remember keeping steady. Of course, I was uploading more than a hundred images a month…

  4. When we started using istock many years ago, most small web ready photos were 1 credit. At the time 1 credit was less than $1. Fast forward to today…

    Having slowed down on general web development over the years I was out of the need for stock photos for a few years. I’ve been needing quite a few photos recently, and the price is astronomical. To say Getty wrecked it is a huge understatement. For that same photo that was roughly $1 about 6 years ago, it now costs me more than $25. These are tiny sub 900 pixel 72 dpi images. Absolutely unusable for print production.

    Now I can appreciate that maybe $1 is too low of a cost for many of the photos. But I’ve also seen contributors, especially for vector art and illustrations, in photos as well, deliberately increase the resolution or file sizes just so they can artificially pad the price. We’re talking almost 3000% appreciation for the same images that were previously available. Cost of producing and storing and delivering images has gone down by multiple factors, and the price goes up 30x… Seriously.

    Anyway, istock is a complete joke. I said it was the end when Getty initially purchased them, but I had no idea how bad it would really get.

  5. As a trainer, I found and starting using iStock in 2012 to find images for my curriuculum and avoid having to worry about the rights to using what I find searching google images. I just got an email from iStock saying my credits will now expire if I don’t use them within 30 days … so I went online to use up my 15 credits. In 2011 that would get me 5-10 images. Right now, the prices are so high that some “small” images are 25 points. Any alternatives out there within reason ?

    • If you email their support, they will extend the life of the credits. Weird, I know. The main collection has images in the 1-7 credit range. You can use the pricing slider on the side to find those.

    • @Keith did you try searching Flickr And Google images for the ‘commercial Creative Commons license’? You can set the Creative Commons license in your Search options, and with that license you are good to go.
      And yeah, There should be an app for that – and there is, but not in English yet, sorry 🙂

  6. Very good article. I could see why this change would anger contributors as it relates to the price but as far as consumers as concerned, you need to give them more credit. Most buyers on istock are designers/publishers and usually have a good eye. They don’t buy an image based on high price or collection thinking it “must” be good if istock says so.

  7. You hit the spot!

    My firm was a big a big spender at istock in the past, but now we have moved on to another service. The quality didn’t match our exspectations, the filter was flawed, the price skyrocketed, customer service was inaffective, and the general attitude of the staff = very poor, at times insulting.

    They claim the pricing supports various areas, artists, quality, storage and many other things. I get that artists needs compensation and money for their hard work, and outstanding creativity. But selling an image for 500 dollars, that I can have done by a photographer in real life for 200… is a joke.

    As I said, the firm has found new services. Infact we made an independent deal with an very creative artist instead. If they exspect companies to spend thusands HUNDREDS of thusands on their stock, we are going bankcrupt.

    I ofcourse confronted Istock with this in private, and on the boards. As exspected my fustration as a customer was met with resciliance and ignorance, and indicating our firm had to be “poor”. Yes…

    I personally spent over 10.000 dollars there, a supporting member since 2006, and after I spoke my mind – They basically shut down my account.

    Only one hour later I got this message, visiting the boards.

    “Note: Your account is not eligible for forum participation, but feel free to browse our forums until your posting privileges are activated.”

    Speak up, complain, and they mouthgag you.


  8. I’m a buyer only.

    My primary use of stock photography is in the reports I produce for clients. But I also use photos sometimes in focus groups as projective exercises. And I present at conferences a few times a year, using graphically heavy presentation slides.

    I’ve been proud of properly paying for photos, instead of just snagging things off Google image search. (And have chastised others for doing that!) I’ve been an iStock customer since the beginning, and have frequently recommended it to others.

    Today, I thought I would pick up some fresh images to illustrate a report. I thought this one would be perfect. But at $39 this is a non-starter.

    In the past, I have actually purchased images to illustrate my blog ( That would be prohibitively costly now.

    The price slider is gone. I tried finding something suitable from the Signature collection.

    The problem here is that there are two classes of buyer. Buying something for a web site or for advertising use is one thing. And then there are folks like me.

    I’m prepared to spend about $500 a year for photography. Pretty good for a small business. But I’m going to have to find an alternative to iStock.

    Thanks for listening.

  9. Great Article, I have just ranted to iStockphoto for their poor judgement call made on the pricing, iStockphoto is too expensive for my small business, as I don’t do monthly subscriptions, which again are outrageous, I used the buy credits, when I needed them, which before (I thought) worked well and the £ to credit was reasonable, depending on the purchase around £1.50 per credit, but now 1 credit costs £10.50 and then finding an image regardless of size costs a minimum 3 credits, as I use all my images for web pages alone, I can’t justify this price to my clients or even to myself. On that note, iStockphotos has lost a loyal customer, when my credits run out. Such a shame, as I have been using them for 10+ years.

  10. I agree with Lee. The hike in price means I have to spend £120 to get more than 3 credits! Also the Essential and Signature option is not obvious in the search area. Having been stung I will check the Essential box to see if I can find an image 1/3 the price of the Signature range.

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