Michael Jay Fotograf Berlin

Selling photos across agencies

How many images do you need to make x dollars on Shutterstock, iStock, Fotolia?


I’m seeing the question “How many images do I need to make $ xxx?” in different variations being asked over and over again by stock beginners. I think, it is an important and good question because it shows that the contributor does not see stock as “just uploading my vacation snap shots and get rich” but the causality between his efforts and the results. So I’d think we shouldn’t bash people for asking this question, even though it has been asked thousands of time in the past.

The biggest problem with the question is that it no really be answered by someone else because there are too many factors involved.

Connection between portfolio size and earned money

So, some simple ideas from my observations:

  • 10 good images will make more than 10 average images
  • But: 10 good images will likely earn less money than 100 average images
  • 100 similars will likely not make much more than 10 similars
  • 1,000 poor images shot in large series are unlikely to make any reasonable amount of money at all
  • Quality is not necessarily about technical issues but also about the content

The conclusions some people seem to draw from the data they are gathering by asking this question seems wrong: I see portfolios filled with hundreds of very similar images where I would question the value of the sheer size of the portfolio. A simple comparison: If you are shooting ten images of a tomato, a banana, an apple, an orange and some other fruits, you are potentially addressing ten different customers that might need one of your images; but if you are shooting ten images of the tomato alone, you will only address one customers, you just give them ten choices for the one image they might need.

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How many images do I have? How are my sales?

Honestly, I have lost track how many images exactly (or more or less) I actually have. Of my microstock sites, iStock still holds the largest portfolio with almost 3,500 images today. Since I shot a few hundred of those images exclusively for them on joint events, I can’t upload those images elsewhere. Then again, there is a few hundred images that I have on other sites but not on iStock. Neither videos nor vector illustrations made it to iStock either. So I must have maybe 4,000 images in total on microstock.

In addition, on my premium sites like Westend61 or Stocksy United, images are committed exclusively to those places. I have are around 1,000 images on these two platforms. But do I count them the same way I count my microstock images? In microstock, almost all of my images are being accepted at least at a few agencies – premium collections are much more selective, they care not only about technical quality (maybe they care even less about that) but also about content variety and similar images. I’d guess less than half of my images have been accepted on these, so I may have shot, processed and uploaded 2,000 images in total to get the 1,000 online.

I also have a set of images submitted to EyeEm and through that on Getty and some of them on Alamy. Initially, the EyeEm/Getty collection was exclusive but changed later to a non-exclusive collection. So some of these images can also be found at places like 500px or Twenty20, while others are only at the latter two.

Surely, I could track each and every image in a large spreadsheet but where would be the value in this? At the end, the amount of money a handful of images generates today has become negligible. It’s all about volume and keeping new uploads coming. Perfect tracking of all images may help a few contributors but I personally decided that keeping stats in most cases costs time and puts away energy and focus from the actual goals of shooting and editing new images.

Also, the relation between the number of images and my earnings to not correlate perfectly. Over time, we see a dilution of sales at most agencies with the growing number of images available; but also within my portfolio, I see sets of 100 images getting almost no sales at all while another set of 100 images takes off. Sometimes, the reason for this is quite clearly the type of content; at other times, it is just some apparently random shot from a set that takes off at one agency and with each download it strengthens its position on the top of a search and generates new downloads again and again.

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Conclusion: Size is not the only factor that matters

All in all, it is rather obvious that portfolio size does have an impact on the sales and revenues you can generate. However, the correlation is not strong enough to allow any direct conclusion from either what other people make with their images nor even from your past experiences towards the future.

My personal conclusion is that is takes at least two things to reach your targets: Acquire some skills to shoot better AND more because none of those two alone will help you alone.

Your own comments, ideas, approaches and insights are welcome.

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