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March 2011

iStockphoto, the royalty-free online photo and video resource, has helped to revolutionise stock photography for customers and photographers. The company's Chief Operating Officer, Kelly Thompson, spoke to CPN to explain the ethos, attitude and planning behind iStockphoto's success. Robert Hull reports.

© iStockphoto/Casarsa/Valentin Casarsa

Thirsty widow.

iStockphoto COO Kelly Thompson makes two defining statements during his interview with CPN that show how far the royalty-free photo, illustration, video and Flash resource has come in 11 years. “There was nothing else like us at the time,” is the first. The second: “We sell an image every second.”

The comments help to chart a remarkable journey for the company; a journey that has paved an equally dynamic path for amateur, ‘prosumer' and professional photographers – as well as for media outlets and designers. was launched in 2000, by Bruce Livingstone, with the intention of selling digital photography. The initial idea involved a tit-for-tat approach: you could download an image to use if you uploaded one. This ultimately proved unworkable and, as Kelly Thompson says, they quickly changed tack and started to: “work out how much it was costing us, per image, to host, store and backup – we calculated charges and photographers' rates from that.”

Getty Images buys iStockphoto

In 2006 Getty Images acquired iStockphoto for around $50m (US). Although part of a larger organisation iStockphoto remains “fairly separate”, according to Thompson, and is still run from an office in Calgary, Canada.

For Thompson there is virtually no overlap between Getty and iStock, though he's quick to thank Getty's Chief Executive Officer, Jonathan Klein, for providing useful advice. “One of the great things he told us when he bought us was to ‘slow down and focus on quality'. Once you have more than five million images on a site that's more than anyone can see in a lifetime, so we could step back and focus on how good the images are,” reveals Thompson.

That image total now hovers at around eight million – with contributors uploading between 65,000 to 70,000 new photographs a week.

The acquisition by Getty Images hasn't altered Thompson's beliefs that iStockphoto changed who was buying a stock photo and that it continues to provide a service for those who can't always afford to pay big bucks for images. He states: “iStock opened up the market to a new group of buyers. The interesting thing about those buyers is that, while they spend less money than a traditional stock buyer, there's a thousand times as many of them around the world.”

Opportunities for all photographers

Not only does iStock put royalty-free imagery into the hands of “Mom-and-Pop businesses” the world over but also it represents an opportunity for all photographers to make money from their work – a commission is paid to a photographer when a client purchases their work.

Thompson is keen to stress that even with such a high number of images on the site it's not a closed shop: “There are still opportunities for photographers; it's not a saturated market. For people coming in, it's going to take a bit of time for you to get there, because of the number of images on the site. You're going to need 100 images in your portfolio before you start to get any ‘traction'. That said, a good photographer, if they get a best-selling image, could make $10,000 on that image in a few months.”

© iStockphoto/Kangah/Joey Boylan

Vintage woman with stroller.

Thompson is as proud of the fact that 60% of the submitted images are accepted onto the site as he is by its rigorous inspection procedures, which are driven by a global team of 160. But with the site offering advice articles – for contributors and customers – and a forum, it also manages to generate a sense of community. This ensures that photographers receive feedback on why an image wasn't accepted, or how it can be improved.

Editorial agenda

iStock is also currently introducing its own Editorial collection. These shots cannot be sold as royalty-free stock, often because of the logos they feature, but can be used in an editorial context. The collection will include architecture, landmarks – Times Square in New York is popular and in-demand – travel and lifestyle-related images, plus shots of products.

However, Thompson stresses that the images aren't the same as the “breaking-news” photographs that Getty Images supplies to media organisations. The Editorial collection is not about time-sensitive imagery.

The concerns of professional photographers may come from fears about a “commoditisation of the market”, about iStock driving down the price of an image, and its impact on commission rates. But Thompson rebuts this idea, and suggests that rates have risen at iStock: “We started paying 25 cents an image!” He adds that commission levels stretch from 15% to 45%. “iStock was successful because we were standing at this perfect intersection at the right time. Technology and price points were converging and there was obviously a massive demand for imagery.”

He adds: “I think we've done a damn good job because this industry could have been like the music industry, that fought that digital transition tooth and nail. We took the approach of making it all available, and make it inexpensive, and to work on volumes – which I think was the right thing.”

The future is… video … and search

A successful business is always looking to evolve, to move with trends and, where possible, develop them. Indeed Thompson is fully aware of the role video will play in iStock's future: “Video is the fastest growing part of our business. We're excited about that, especially with 2K and 4K video coming.”

The company has previously seen videographers supplying most of its video footage but the advent of DSLRs that can shoot Full High Definition footage has created a sea change. Thompson reveals: “Our photographers started seeing how much money the videographers were making – because you get almost 10 times more money for a video as you do an image. A lot of our photographers jumped in, especially as they upgrade their cameras quite often.”

© iStockphoto/Xaviarnau/Xavier Arnau

Come and see New York.

If it's video you're interested in then it appears that the brevity of clips is the answer. The limit on clip duration is 30 seconds, and Thompson maintains clients interested in buying video from iStock: “are looking for very short pieces for use within a bigger composition.”

Thompson also clearly has an eye on the long-term benefits of the site's search engine – which has recently been overhauled. He describes it as “awesome” in delivering results based on a customer/client's location. “We can watch how the customers interact with the files after they do a search. If they search for a wristwatch we can rank the keywords in each file and it's this that makes our search results really accurate.”

Expert advice - Kelly Thompson's top tips

Words of wisdom from iStockphoto's COO Kelly Thompson on how to make the most of your photography and video on the iStockphoto website:

  • Keep your content fresh.
  • Think like a designer: don't crop if you don't have to.
  • Keyword your images – and do it sensibly.
  • Be aware of legal issues.
  • Capture locally relevant content.
  • Ethnically diverse images are important in countries like the UK and the USA.

Biografía: Kelly Thompson

Kelly  Thompson

Kelly Thompson obtained a computer science degree from the University of Calgary and became Senior Brand Manager at the enterprise search company Verity Inc. He joined iStockphoto in 2004 and fulfilled a number of roles, including Executive Vice President, before being appointed as the company’s Chief Operating Officer in September 2008. Thompson oversees iStockphoto’s global strategy and operational leadership of the company’s products, services, technology and sales. He has also been the driving force behind many iStockphoto innovations, such as CopySpace TM.


Skier close-up in action.