Which Microstock Agency has the Best Subscription Plan?

Updated 25.Nov.09 with corrections to a Shutterstock and Fotolia’s package prices

Subscriptions always bring heated debate amongst photographers.  Even though microstock photographers are selling their images for pennies a piece (even if it is 100 or more pennies) many photographers get very upset, and perhaps rightly so, when the images are sold for even fewer pennies in the form of subscriptions.  I have compared seven microstock agencies and their respective subscription plans.  Who is giving the most back to the photographer may surprise you!

Where they came from and how they work.

Shutterstock was the first microstock agency to offer subscriptions with many (read every) other agency trying to mimic their large success.  The idea is similar to images on a CD which traditional agencies used to sell.  The buyer pays for a subscription plan up front, and then is allowed to download X number of images each day (or month, or year – depending on the agency).  If they do not download any images on a given day, those download spots are lost.

So what is the problem?

The problem that many photographers have with subscriptions, is the agencies are selling the images very cheaply.  As seen in the graph below, the cost per image for the buyer can be as low as $0.18, while the average return per download for credit based microstock sales are somewhere around $1.00.

Are subscriptions really cutting into earnings?

The one saving grace in regards to subscription sales, is that there can be a lot of them.  It is not uncommon for a photographer with a large (read several thousand images) portfolio to have over 100 sales on any given day with Shutterstock.  Because the buyers download quota expires each day (or month), the buyer ends up downloading many more images than they need.  This gives the photographer sales they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten and spreads the sales out amongst more photographers / images.  That is Shutterstock however.  Other agencies have subscription plans, but the volume isn’t there to justify their price.  What really matters for any photographer is the return ($$) per image.  If an agency is going to offer subscription sales, there had better be lots of them.

Getting your head around the various subscriptions plans.

Subscriptions can be confusing to understand.  Some agencies have 15 or more different plans they sell to buyers.  Depending on the agency, photographers are rewarded with everything from a fixed commission per sale, graduated commission based on image size downloaded, to a fixed percentage of the gross income a commission plan generate.  Confused yet?

The Table!

In the table below I have tried to compare the various subscription offerings of 7 popular microstock agencies.  I have chosen a subscription plan of 12 months which offers around 25 images / day.  This is one of the cheaper plans the agencies offer in regards to image cost to the buyer.  I acted as if I was a buyer looking for ~4MP images.  This plays into the results a bit as some agencies have varied pricing depending on the download size.

SS = Shutterstock, PM = PantherMedia, iS = iStock, CrS = Crestock, FT = Fotolia, DT = Dreamstime, 123RF = 123RoyaltyFree

12 month package price $2,559 $1,548 $24,288 *2 $1,799 $1,649 $2,400 $1,960
Max Resolution with package chosen Unlimited 8.7 MP Unlimited (used 5MP in calculations) Unlimited 3.8MP Unlimited Unlimited
Yearly # of images at ~5MP 9,125 9,000 7,300 *4 7,300 9,125 9,125 9,490
Cost/Day (Yearly package / 365) $7.01 $4.24 $66.54 $4.93 $4.52 $6.58 $5.34
Daily Download Limit 25 750/month 20 20 25 25 26
$/image cost for the buyer $0.28 $0.17 $3.33 $0.25 $0.18 $0.26-$0.78 $0.21
Photographer’s Share $0.25-$0.38 50% *3 20%  *5 $0.25 $0.30-$0.37 $0.35-$1.05 $0.36
EPCP*1 (higher is better) 89%-136% n/a 69%-137% 100% 167%-206% 135% 171%
Photographers Share with Hypothetical package use. *6 22%-34% 50% 17% 25% 41%-51% 33%-32% 44%
Image size or level based comission structure No Yes Yes No Yes Yes No
Optional “Opt-Out” No Yes No No No No No

*1: Entire Package Commission Percentage – (Photographers Share / per image cost for buyer * 100 = EPCP)  This is a simple calculation to compare the amount of the subscription package the agency would be giving back to the photographer assuming the buyer used the entire package.  Of course, very few (if any) buyers use their entire package, which is how agencies make money, but this figure is useful however because it gives us a metric to compare the agencies to one another.

*2: 1 year plan, 240 credits/day

*4: iStock’s download limits are per credit as apposed to per file.  This number is based on a package with 240 credits/day.  Downloading large images at 4.9mp we get 20 images /day *365 days = 7300 images.

*3: PantherMedia always transfers to the contributor 50% of the consumed subscription credits (of his images) to his “subscription account”.  At the end of each month, the actual monthly value of a credit is calculated. This means: calculated is the complete revenue from the subscription model compared to all downloaded subscription images per month. This is the “monthly value” of a credit.

*5: If a subscriber with a daily credit limit of 240 uses 12 credits that day, all on one of your files, you’d income from all 240 credits, so (240/240) × 20% × $66.54 (the daily value of the yearly package price) = $13.30.  If a subscriber with a daily credit limit of 240 uses all 240 credits that day, and purchases only one of your files for 12 credits :  (12/240) × 20% × $66.54 = $0.67.  There is a minimum payout of $0.19/credit download.  iStock keeps all revenue on days the package is not used.

*6: Based on a the average buyer using 50% of the package on 15 days in a month.  I believe these amount to be approximately correct based on how much of the PantherMedia packages are used and the commission levels the agencies give out for credit sales.  If there is any error in the assumed average amount of a package used, I believe it to be on the liberal side.  That is to say, if anything, less of the package is used – reducing the photographers share even more.

What have I learned!
Well, a couple of things.  First, looking at the price the agencies charge the buyers.  PantherMedia, Crestock, and Fotolia are the cheapest with PantherMedia undercutting the others by a few hundred dollars – but with the packages chosen, Fotolia also has the lowest resolution.  If you want higher resolution at Fotolia you need the Premium subscription plan.  Looking at the EPCP and hypothetical photographers percentage for these three agencies we can see that Crestock is giving the least back to photographers, while Fotolia and Panther are actually giving back a quite fair share.  Even if the agencies are giving a fair share however, it is important that they still charge a fair sum to the buyers – something which some people could argue, they are not doing.

On the other side of the scale, we have iStock charging an extremely high sum to the buyers but giving the photographers very little.  iStock has been applauded by photographers for their subscription program, suggesting it is the most fair.  One of the best points about iStock’s subscription plan is it is size based.  A buyer has X amount of credits per day.  If he uses them on large images he will be able to purchase fewer images than if he spent them on small images.  Photographers like this and feel they get paid accordingly.  iStock has a minimum payout per downloaded credit which is currently your share of 96 cents – which would be $0.19 for a non exclusive. That means that if you had a file large file downloaded (12 credits worth) on a day the buyer used their entire subscription on your image and other images – you would receive (12*0.19) $2.28.  This looks like a fair number, and indeed is significantly larger than any other microstock agency offers – but iStock’s average payout is still the lowest.   That said, iStock charges a lot for their subscriptions so the photographer’s share in terms of dollars is still well above any other agency.  If iStock does one thing right, it is charging a decent price for their imagery.  That in addition to their large customer base – keeps the photographers coming back.

Despite Shutterstock being many photographer’s top earning agency, they also give out a very low photographer’s commissions.  They have a very large customer base, charge more for their packages and thus can give the photographers a smaller percentage and still keep the photographers happy.  I don’t want to be an advocate of low commissions but it is interesting to note that the two agencies giving the lowest commissions are generating the highest income for photographers.  Perhaps this lets them advertise more than their competitors who are giving a higher commission percentage to photographers.

Panthermedia gives out the highest commissions rate, while Fotolia and 123RF fight for second place depending on the photographers ranking at Fotolia.  Kudos to these guys!

[Discuss on Microstockgroup Forum]

About The Author:

Tyler Olson works as a microstock photographer who also runs the MicrostockGroup forum and blog. Being so closely involved in the microstock community as a submitter, forum moderator and blogger, Tyler is able to keep updated in the constantly changing microstock marketplace.
Posted on November 17th, 2009 in Editorial | tags: , , ,
  • Makes Crestocks package look particularly bad, particularly seeing as the main strategy seems to be undercutting other agency’s prices, offering photographers a very low percentage as well as a low $ figure, and really low volumes.

    Who recommended these guys in the first place??

    Thanks for putting this together – very informative!

  • Yeah, unfortunately it does. I still have a soft spot for Crestock for some reason. I think they have a great site. But their subscriptions have always been a sore spot for photographers.

  • Great informative post, thanks Tyler!

  • Billly Mankin

    Thanks for sharing this great table! this really shows people how “not so great” Istock is and how very well are doing business the others. Now is the time not to offer applause to everything, some times really unfair things that Istock does with photographers, and start promoting the other great websites, such as Fotolia, with their impressive huge grow, and Shutterstock.!

  • photo

    Fotolia has a record of continuously lowering commission for photographers and changing tos without notice – so they are actually among the most unfair to photographers and I wouldn’t recomment them

    Shutterstock is OK