Earnings and Payments in Microstock


After determining which images can be sent to the microstock agencies and what legal issues you need to keep in mind while doing this, let’s see how earnings are calculated by the agencies when an image is actually downloaded by a customer and what to do when we reach the minimum threshold in order to get finally paid.

Fee Calculation

Each agency has its own system of prices for the purchase of pictures: therefore the fee paid to the authors generally depends on which buying mode the file is downloaded by the customer and also on the price and the type of the license acquired (i.e. standard or extended). Depending on the case, the fees are increased also according to other factors such as the level reached by the contributor in the community of the agency, the previous sale performances of the file, or the fact that the author is an exclusive contributor to that agency or not.


  • Basic fee (mode of purchasing, price and type of license)

    Almost all the major agencies offer different ways to purchase the images to their customers. You can check details about each agency in the single reviews. Roughly, there are 3 ways for buying images:

  1. Instant download. It’s the easiest and most expensive way for buyers. Great for occasional customers who visit the website, search for the images they need and simply buy them by credit card or paypal, without registering or purchasing a subscription plan. The purchase price in this case depends on the size of the downloaded file. For example, on Canstockphoto downloading an instant image has a price ranging from $ 2.50 (small JPG) to $ 6 (XL JPG) up to $ 10 (Vector and XXL Tiff).
  2. Prepaid download or through the credit system. These are cheaper offers for regular customers, who need to buy pictures quite frequently. The customer buys a prepaid “package”, which gives him the right to make a certain number of downloads depending on the amount of the purchased credit. For example, Shutterstock sells packages from € 39 with 12 downloads available of JPEGs at medium-low resolution or with 5 downloads available of JPEGs at any resolution or vector. Something similar happens with the credit system, such as the one proposed by Fotolia: the customer purchases a certain number of credits, which can be spent at will on the site for downloading images. The cost of the images in terms of credits depends on the size of the downloaded file and on the type of license acquired. Again on Fotolia, the same image can be therefore purchased for 1 credit (standard license, size extra-small), to grow in size to 12 credits (standard license, size XXL), or up to 60 credits (extended license, size XXL ).
  3. Subscription plan. It’s the system introduced by Shutterstock back in 2004 and followed by almost all the agencies in the following years. A subscription plan is the most convenient system for customers who need many images on a daily (or very frequent) basis, such as advertising agencies, editors of newspapers, bloggers, etc. On Shutterstock there are subscriptions on a monthly, quarterly, semi-annual or annual basis, with increasing convenience for longer durations. The monthly subscription costs € 199 and allows for up to 25 downloads a day with standard license, regardless of the size or the type of the files (including vector files).

Regarding the purchasing methods mentioned above, author commissions are generally calculated as a percentage of the purchase price for direct downloads or made through the credit system. For example on 123RF, for a downloaded image with standard license and small format through the credit system (which costs 1 credit, circa equal to $ 1.20) the author is expecting to earn $ 0.35, corresponding to 30% of the purchase price image. Instead Shutterstock for downloads-on-demand offers authors a fixed $ 0.81 for small and medium sizes and $ 1.88 for large formats. For purchases made by subscription generally commissions paid to authors are lower and they usually do not exceed the $ 0.25 – $ 0.30 per download.

You can check the different fees paid by the various agencies in the comparison table.

  • Increased commission based on the performance of the author or of the file

    In addition to the basic commission, calculated as explained in the previous point, some agencies offer some extra earnings to their contributors in specified circumstances related to the performance of the author and in some cases even of the file on sale. For example Shutterstock provides an increase in commissions when the authors reach certain thresholds of total gain: the basic commission for a download on subscription is $ 0.25, but when the author reaches a total gain of $ 500 then the commission for the same type of download passes to $ 0.33. Upon reaching a total gain of $ 3000 the commission increases to $ 0.36 and so on, according to a predetermined schedule. More or less the same thing happens with Fotolia when the status of the author grows, according to his total downloads. In other cases, the increase in earnings is tied to the performance of the single file, as it happens with Dreamstime: old files with few downloads have a lower price for the buyer (and a lower commission for the author) while recent files with many downloads tend to have a higher price and consequent higher commissions for the author. The mechanism is thought to promote, through a cheaper price, even those files with bad performances.

  • Increased commission according to the status of exclusive contributor

    Another circumstance under which the agencies offer extra commissions is related to exclusive contributors, though not all agencies offer this option to their authors (check this comparison chart).


Thresholds and Payment Methods

For obvious reasons, generally payments are sent to contributors only when they reach specific thresholds, which may vary from agency to agency. In some cases, payments are sent automatically at the end of the month after reaching the minimum threshold, in others the payment must be specifically requested by the contributor. Among the major agencies, payment thresholds via Paypal start from a minimum of $ 25 regarding Pond5 to a maximum of $ 100 with iStockphoto and Dreamstime. To see the differences between the various agencies, check out the comparison chart.

Among the accepted payment methods, the most common (and frankly the most comfortable) is certainly Paypal. Skrill is also widespread, while recently some other tools are growing, such as Payoneer prepaid cards. In some cases you can also get paid by check, but this mode usually requires much higher payment threshold. Even more rare is the chance to bank transfers via SWIFT code.

More about the world of Microstock at the following pages:

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Expert in Marketing and Communication in a major company of the Italian FMCG market, traveler by vocation, passionate photographer, contributor at all major international microstock agencies, founder of Marcor$tock, a blog focused on Microstock Market and Digital Photography.