I came across iStockphoto in April of 2008 while looking to buy images for a website I was planning to set up. The possibility of submitting images to the site renewed a long-held interest in photography and led me to buy my first DSLR, a Sony A350 and a couple of kit lenses. I had thought myself a fairly competent film photographer so it came as a bit of a shock to find how different digital photography was and just how much I had to learn.
I was accepted as a contributor on iStock at the second attempt in May 2008, began submitting images and was very pleased when they started selling. I also had plenty of submissions rejected and it was through this process that I began to slowly learn how to take technically competent digital images. I didn't qualify for exclusivity at the time, so I also applied to sell on Shutterstock, but became frustrated with them after my photographer application was rejected twice, the second time using images which had been accepted and were selling well on iStock. That was probably where my loyalty to iStock began - I also made a lot of friends on the forums and got a lot of help and advice there. On the basis of some of that advice I traded in the Sony for a Nikon D300 and began ploughing my iStock earnings into accumulating F2.8 Nikkor lenses.
I hit bronze (250 downloads) in December of 2008 and became exclusive with iStock. I was very glad to have reached that point, particularly for the 'best match' boost that exclusivity brings. Contributing elsewhere was pretty much unthinkable by then. I was very grateful for having been given the opportunity to learn 'on-the-job' and would bore any of my friends who would listen about the wonders of iStock.
For the next year I put a lot of effort into my portfolio and began to see some tangible results. One of my iStock friends called me 'the queen of useful' and it is fairly accurate to say that while I do not have access to models, a studio, etc I try to make the most of what I find around me. I think it is a great testament to the industry model created by iStock that I am able to make money from photography in this way. I was starting to see the potential for making iStock part of my regular reliable income so it was with great sadness that I had to sell my D300 and all my lenses for financial reasons in December of 2009.
Unfortunately this co-incided with iStock's announcement that canister threshold levels were to change. For those of you not familiar with iStock, commision level is dictated by amount of downloads each exclusive contributor has. The system that had been in place since the creation of the exclusivity programme in 2004 was bronze (250 downloads) 25% commision, silver (2500 downloads) 30%, gold (10,000 downloads)35% and diamond (25,000 downloads) 40% commision. With regular downloads, my arrival at silver level was reliably predictable at May 2010 but the proposal to move the silver goalpost from 2,500 to 5,000 in February 2010 meant that I would not get there in time.
While this seemed inherently unfair, the announcement was softened by the introduction of the E+ program, which brought with it a higher price point for exclusive content. So while I might have to wait for my extra 5% commision (an increase of 20% in real terms) I should be better off as a result of my files being more expensive. As it was, the canister changes were postponed (allowing me to reach silver in May 2010 after all) while the E+ changes went ahead in March 2010. If you look at my income figures you will see a fairly sharp decline at that point. I guess not everyone's images are worth the higher price point and mine don't seem to be.
It is fairly obvious that in order to make more money you need more images for sale. I uploaded some back-catalogue images for a while, but once those ran out I was stuck. A friend came to the rescue with a loan of money to buy a D5000 and with the addition of a couple of old manual focus Nikkor lenses sourced from eBay I was back in business. While this combo should produce perfectly good images I found it very difficult to get any accepted on iStock and quickly became despondent. I also had some fairly substantial personal life issues to deal with so photography went on the back burner for the summer of 2010. By September I felt ready to get back to submitting images again. While I find manual focus and exposure difficult in a travel-photography context (no split screen focus on a DSLR), I felt that I could control it far better in a studio setting. I found a small studio space to rent just round the corner and agreed to lease it on Monday 6th September. As many of you will know, on Tuesday 7th September Kelly Thompson, CEO of iStock dropped a bombshell on contributors: the planned canister threshold changes would not go ahead after all, instead they would be replaced by a whole new system of 'referred credits'. Under this system it will be the number of credits used to purchase an image that counts, not the number of downloads. The announcement was greeted with surprise and a great deal of understandable anger from contributors. While there is a lot of fairness in a system that rewards those who sell images in larger sizes, the thresholds which had been decided upon penalised most contributors of silver level or above and would see the majority of them take a cut of 5% in commision levels. It should be remembered that equates to a far greater cut in real terms and also that these are the very contributors on whose work the success of the site has been built. I checked my newly-published level of referred credits, did some calculations and worked out that the new system would see me take a 16.6% pay cut in 2011. This is not unsual and is not the worst I have heard of.
At the same time, plans for new content known as 'The Agency Collection' were announced. This would allow other agencies to place large quanties of images on iStock which would be sold at far higher prices than the existing content. I felt that the site was no longer a place where a hard-working amateur could make their way, but rather an extension of it's parent company Getty. Under the new system, taking time off from submitting images for whatever reason could result in the referred credit goal being missed. The old mantra of 'shoot, upload, repeat' would become a treadmill, penalising part-time contributors. Even worse - the required numbers of referred credits would be adjusted by the company every year in order to make sure their profits were as desired. Even if you did reach the goal, the goalposts may well be moved again, depriving you of what you had worked all year to attain.
It was at this point that I parted company with iStock.
I know that there will be a great number of other contributors who like me, have 'grown up' on iStock who will be curious to find out how I get on as an independent (particularly in dollar terms), which is the reason behind this blog. I will be transparent about my historic income from iStock and my future income from other agencies. My exclusivity at iStock falls on the 12th of October 2010. I will write about the different agencies I am applying to and the application/submission process. I hope also to deal with all the issues that concern contributors regarding dropping exclusivity ie upload times, keywording, agency selection, possible loss of income etc.
If I fall flat on my face, I will do it very publicly ;-)
You can find an up-to-date spreadsheet of my iStockphoto earnings here.