The Tyranny of the Microstock Lifecycle

You’ve probably heard that diamonds are forever. Right! But all else is subjected to the unforgiving laws of nature. Unfortunately for us, our stock assets are no exception.

Everything you upload to a stock marketplace will have it’s prime selling days and eventually fade out to never again be bought by buyers. This strict rule applies even to the most successful contributors.

What can we deduce from this? It means that if you do not upload regularly, replacing older files with newer ones, eventually your portfolio will stop making money.

That begs the following questions:

  • Is is possible to increase revenue as your older files fade out?
  • How much do you have to upload just to keep your revenue constant?

At Stock Performer we often talk to our users about this issue. We enjoy analytics and wanted to tackle this issue with maths. In this blog post we explore how the image lifecycle works against you and what you can do to protect yourself.

Every image has a lifecycle

Let us start with some basics: images do not sell forever. I’m pretty sure that hasn’t gone unnoticed!

There are various reasons why an image will eventually stop selling:

  • It is outdated and does not represent current image trends
  • A competitor has produced a better and more successful version of your image
  • Your agency’s search algorithm is not prioritizing your image anymore

Images tend to have their strongest phase within their first 6 to 9 months. That is when they make the most money. Afterward they  continue selling slowly for another year before weakening considerably.

Modeling the typical image lifecycle

The following chart displays an estimate revenue lifecycle of a typical image from my portfolio. Please note, that this estimate has been produced with my Stock Performer data (user alvarez on iStockphoto) and represents the most likely (average) lifecycle of any one of the images in my portfolio. Other photographers and other agencies will have different average lifecycle curves, but in most cases, the lifecycle of an image will start with a surge followed by a decline. That surge/decline pattern will serve as basis for our following discussion, which will be illustrated with my particular lifecycle curve.

For instance, in the chart you’ll see that on the fifth month, an image makes the most revenue, with $6. From there onwards it fades out. After 18 months it only produces about $0.30 per month. This lifecycle chart will look different for other photographers and agencies. But in all cases, the lifecycle has an upwards phase followed by a downwards phase.

typical microstock revenue

If I upload 100 images, you can estimate from the lifecycle chart how my revenue will evolve:

  • The 100 images will make $100 on the first month …
  • … $300 on the second …
  • … $400 on the third …
  • and so forth…

How much money can I make from one year’s uploads?

Thanks to the typical image lifecycle model, we can now estimate how much money I will make for all the images I produce in a year.

Suppose I uploaded 100 images per month, every month of a year. That’s 1200 images spread throughout the year.

Using our  mathematical model based on the above typical image lifecycle, the revenue of those 1200 images for the next 3 years would total $60,060 and look as follows:

revenue forecast of 1200 images

The chart clearly shows that if you upload only for one year and then stop, your revenue will slow down considerably. After the 13month it actually drops steeply.

Should I upload regularly every month?

Uploading regularly is the only way to defend your revenue! Obviously, quality is important, but if we ignore the evolution of your creative skills, you must upload every month the same amount or more! Never less.

If you don’t then eventually you will have more images in your portfolio dying than images producing fresh revenue. Your sales will inevitably drop every month.

Let us continue with our sample charts to prove that uploading constantly is necessary.

If I upload 100 images every month, during 3 years, constantly, this is how my revenue will evolve during those 3 years:

Revenue evolution

You see the pattern? The first 12 months are great, time to party! But from there onwards, despite the constant 100 uploads a month, revenue increases frustratingly slow.

In the first 12 months you go from $0 to $4000 per month! Wow! It then takes 20 months to go from $4000 to $5000…

But that’s ok! Because at least revenue continues growing, and that is most important, rewarding the hard work uploading constantly every month.


Our simple mathematical model is a good way to put things into perspective.. The reality of microstock can be more complex. The typical image lifecycle can change, due to factors out of your control, thus influencing positively or negatively on your total revenue.

Nevertheless, what our model does state quite clearly is that uploading constantly is the best pro-active strategy you can have at protecting your revenue. Not doing so, your portfolio revenue will always fade away.

Going forward in 2013, sit down and decide how many files you can produce a month, and then stick to that number religiously for the next years. If during that time you increase your creative quality, then consider the extra income a bonus!

About the Authors

Luis Alvarez and Oliver Rivo are founders of Stock Performer. They want to offer you the best microstock analytics around and invest a lot of time giving users great advice on understanding their numbers.

Oliver Rivo, M.Sc. Computer Science, has more than a decade of professional experience in software development. His major projects include mission critical software for airlines and numerous web services – and a few-year stint as a full-time touring musician in Germany. While not a microstock contributor, Oliver Rivo enjoys photography. It was therefore a natural fit to team up with his long-time friend Luis Alvarez to create Stock Performer, the market leader in analytics for microstock photographers.

Luis Alvarez, M.Sc. Computer Science, spent many years working at a large German IT company before discovering the joys of stock photography. After many years contributing as a diamond exclusive for iStockphoto he teamed up with Oliver Rivo with the aim to produce the best analytics solution for microstock, giving birth to Stock Perfomer. Without analytics it is impossible to manage your stock business efficiently.

If you haven’t tried Stock Performer yet, sign up now for the one month free trial and see it for yourself!

About The Author:

This post was written by a MicrostockGroup Guest blogger. The bio can be seen in the blog post. If you wish to write a microstock blog post, contact us and pitch us your idea.
Posted on January 7th, 2013 in Editorial, Tips / Tutorials | tags: ,
  • bill day

    First and foremost, Happy New Year and thank you for your very informative post, the first of its kind that I have found.

    I have a two part question on the development of this mathematical model. (I am not a mathematician or statistician, but I have tried to gain insight into how my collection will perform to see if I continue or not).

    While I have seen that an average selling image will perform according to the Typical Revenue Lifecycle curve, not all images in an upload of images (be it 100 or any other amount within reasonable parameters) perform equally. If you look at a good portfolio in Istock listed by downloads, you will see that the first few pages will show that performance from their highest sellers tails off, quite quickly, to quite a few pages of 1 or 2 sales, to many, many pages of 0 sales.

    So, both from my own experience and the observation of other contributors and across different image banks, portfolios seem to conform to a sort of 20/80 rule, with only 20% of any given portfolio actually producing sales.

    Question 1: Is this Typical Revenue Lifecycle curve based on some sort of real figures of just images that are sellers?

    Question 2: If Question 1 is positive, is the accumulated Revenue forecast of 1200 images curve based on 1200 sellers or does it take into account that a significant proportion of these 1200 images will not sell at all (20/80 observations)?

    I feel that this is an important clarification because, if all of my images were sellers, my income situation would be very different.

    Thanks / bill day

    • Hi Bill, thanks for your interest in the article and the underlying model!

      The average lifecycle included in the article corresponds to the average of all images in my portfolio in 2012. I have 3500 images. The data was summarized using Stock Performer.

      That means that the most likely lifecycle for any one of my image is as displayed. Some images will have no sales, others will have many. But when taken as a whole, uploads will tend to have an initial phase of sales followed by a phase of declining sales, exactly as described in my first chart.

      For example, if I upload 100 files today. I can expect that these 100 files will sell well in the first months, up to $6 for each image, and then they will earn less and less until eventually they will just gather some cents.

      This is true for all portfolios. I have never heard of a collection of images where all images sold forever. In some cases a portfolio might have a longer shelf life, for instance in the case of Niche contributors, in other cases the portfolio might have a very short shelf life, in the case of trendy commercial imagery.

      Once we accept that your portfolio will not sell forever, we can start doing some forecasting. The idea is: at what point will you have more images in their downward cycle than images in their upward cycle? Once that moment occurs, it means you are not recycling your portfolio fast enough.

      That is what this model can forecast. In my particular example, if I upload 100 images every month, during 3 years, constantly, then I will have a good first 12 months, with lots of growth, and then afterwards, my growth will level out and my revenue will increase slowly.

      I hope that answer your questions. Let me know if not!


  • Krzysztof Nahlik

    Hi Bill,

    Though I’m new to microstock (less than 2 years) with only about 160 images in my
    portfolio, I have already noticed this phenomenon. As a late scientist, I’ve found your study very interesting, but I’m also trying to understand the reason of such a typical cycle and I see it elsewhere, at least in my case.

    Why my clients prefer to buy my new images and not the old ones?
    – Because they ALREADY HAVE THEM.

    And now some arguments. A great part of my portfolio are landmarks and places of interest in Poland (where I live) and winter sports and vacations in the Alps (where I go for skiing every year). Having some free time last autumn and not having any new shots, I browsed through the images shot the previous year, which I didn’t submit then, as I had found them not good enough. I worked with some of them in Photoshop and submitted. And what happened? They started to sell very well while the old ones fade. No of your reasons apply, because:

    1. The old ones are not outdated as they are from the same sessions as new ones
    2. No one submitted better versions of the same subjects
    3. Old ones are still high in search results or even higher than new ones
    4. As initially rejected by me as not worth submitting, the new ones are (in my opinion) worse than the old ones

    Now, who are my clients? Most of the images are bought by subscriptions. So I guess they are big travel agencies organizing trips to Poland or winter vacations for skiers
    in the Alps. After buying subscriptions they download everything that can be
    potentially used in their folders, websites or catalogues. Travel agencies usually specialize in certain directions, so every year they search for new images to their images base, to have a big choice for their designers, who will use only some of them.

    So I bet, that most of the sales of new images where generated by the same clients that a year before, who happened to like my style, so they willingly bought also my
    new images to extend the collection of my old images they ALREADY HAVE.

    BTW, being also a designer – I do exactly the same.

    Perhaps it’s not the main reason in all cases, but it also explains why the prime selling period lasts about one year.

    All the best for a New Year


  • ShadySue

    That was the case a year, or even six months back.
    Nowadays on iStock, even if uploading new files heavily, many people are reporting falls in sales and income.