iStock vs. Shutterstock – the Stock Photo Titan Battle [In-Depth Comparison]

iStock (previously known as iStockphoto vs. Shutterstock) and Shutterstock are microstock agencies that have been at the top of the stock photo industry consistently since their dawn in the early 2000s, leading the group of what was called the “Big 6” most important microstock companies.

Both stock photo websites launched with very different pricing models, each pioneering in their style, but fierce competition drove them to adjust their offers, and now they share more features than they originally did. Competition, expansion, and business strategies have led them to remain the best stock photo sites to date.

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As a buyer, it can be difficult to decide which of these two agencies would better meet your needs. But here, you will find a comprehensive comparison between the two different offers, their pricing points, and the core value of each of them.

Our iStock vs Shutterstock analysis is almost like a stock photography pricing guide… with wrestling mascots!

If you want to consider more stock agencies, you can look at the 5 Shutterstock Alternatives Compared or at our 7 cheapest stock photo subscriptions here. If you like comparative analysis like this one, check our next, Shutterstock vs Adobe Stock facedown!

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iStock vs Shutterstock: The Similarities

iStockphoto and Shutterstock Similarities
  • Free membership – Both agencies have free sign-up to access their service and explore their offer.
  • Free weekly photos – Both agencies offer weekly free stock photos released regularly to their members on the website. None of them has free photo galleries. Find the iStockphoto free photos here and the Shutterstock free photos here.
  • Free trials – These two image sites have a free trial for new customers and are very similar. The iStock free trial gives you 10 free Essential or Signature images for one month. The Shutterstock free trial gives you 10 free images for one month.
  • Royalty-free licenses – Both image banks sell images under a royalty-free license, cleared for commercial use. This makes the pictures much safer to use than other alternatives, like free images from the web, which can be troublesome and potentially cause legal problems with copyright infringement. Both Shutterstock and iStock have a standard license and an extended or enhanced license with extra usage rights. In all cases, it's a non exclusive license.
  • Editorial images – Both companies have selections of pictures for editorial-only use
  • Large image libraries – Both agencies have large image libraries and add new content regularly. They're a popular choice amongst photographer contributors, which helps in the constant feeding of new images.
  • Complimentary partner sites – They both highlight a partner site that widens their offer. Shutterstock's partner site is Bigstock (sometimes called Bigstockphoto), which has different pricing points and a more modest collection of images. iStock's parent company is the prestigious Getty Images which focuses on high-end, exclusive imagery –they used to have Thinkstock as a smaller collection with lower prices, but they closed it in 2019.
  • Multiple language support – Both agencies have platforms supporting multiple languages to better serve international customers.
  • Forerunners in stock photography – Both companies are pioneers in the industry. iStock is considered the very first microstock agency founded in 2000, the precursor of the microstock model.
    Shutterstock was the first company to introduce the stock photo subscription model when it launched in 2003, which was later adopted by most other agencies. Both agencies have been in the stock photography market for around two decades and are widely considered the leaders in the industry.

Shutterstock vs iStockphoto: The Differences

Now let's look at what these agencies do differently from one another. Comparing iStock vs Shutterstock's differences is what ultimately will help graphic designers and creatives define which one is the best for them.

Particularities in iStock's Offer

istocklogo300

iStock's buying model has evolved since it came to life in 2000, particularly in the past few years.

Their pricing system is based on “credits,” an independent pricing unit whose value has changed throughout the years (many stock agencies replicated this system, too – you can learn more about credits here). Originally, they only offered different sizes of on demand credit packs that buyers could buy upfront and then use credits to buy photos. Later, when Shutterstock came around, they introduced “subscriptions for credits,” a form of on demand plans where you could purchase monthly credit packs. In 2014 they introduced actual subscription plans. And one of their latest introductions was the single image purchase, a direct way to buy enough credits to cover just one image.

In the origins, they had several different collections. The main collection contained budget images for everyday needs, and other higher-priced collections had exclusive and high quality photos and videos. But in 2014, they redesigned their offer. Now, iStock divides its catalog into 2 collections called Essentials and Signature and new subscription plans that apply to them.

We have a whole iStock pricing breakdown post for you! But what is worth knowing is that iStock has a variety of buying options for all budgets and all creative needs: monthly and annual subscriptions of low and high volume for budget-friendly or exclusive content, as well as credit packs with great flexibility. And there are even more methods to download iStock images without a watermark.

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This is what iStock offers today: 

  • Photos, vector illustrations, and video content.
  • Essentials collection for lower-priced, everyday needs images.
  • Signature collection of higher quality videos and images exclusive to the agency (this collection englobes all former high-quality collections like Vetta, Signature+, etc.).
  • Credit packs for on demand purchases. The individual credit price is $12, but this price is reduced the larger the credit pack is. There are packs from 1 and up to 300 credits.
  • Credits are good to download images and videos from any collection. And as long as you log in to your account once a year, credits never expire. They're the most flexible buying option.
  • Individual image price is 1 credit for Essential photos and 3 credits for Signature images.
  • Subscriptions tailored for volume size and collection, with monthly download limits. Can be hired month by month or per year. A Signature subscription gives access to both Essentials and Signature libraries.
  • Their recommended subscription is $100 a month for 10 monthly images from Essentials and Signature.
  • Subscriptions have the lowest per-image rates of all buying options.
  • Possibility to roll unused downloads from one month over to the next.
  • Team subscriptions give access to multiple users to the same account.
  • Incredibly flexible iStock license with extensive coverage.
  • Extended licenses, only available for on demand credit purchases, are 18 credits each.
  • Each bonus right is sold as one Extended license
  • Great search tool and a highly searchable library that makes it easy for buyers to find the photos they want.
iStock Subscription Pricing
Essentials

Signature (Essentials + Signature)

Monthly Subscriptions
Monthly Download Limit
Subscription Price ($ USD)Price per Image ($ USD)Subscription Price ($ USD)Price per Image ($ USD)
10
40.004.00100.0010.00
2565.002.60149.005.96
50
100.002.00230.004.60
100149.001.49299.002.99
250199.000.80399.001.60
Annual Subscriptions
Essentials
Signature (Essentials + Signature)
Monthly Download LimitSubscription Price ($ USD)Price per Image ($ USD)Subscription Price ($ USD)Price per Image ($ USD)
5089.001.78199.003.98
100129.001.29259.002.59
750
166.580.22333.250.44
iStock on Demand Pricing
Credit PackPack PricePrice per Credit ($ USD)Buys (Volume-Type of Images)Saves (from regular price)
112121 Essential
333113 Essential/1 Signature8%
6
60106 Essential/2 Signature17%
121159.5812 Essential/4 Signature20%
18
1709.4418 Essential/6 Signature21%
24
2209.1624 Essential/8 Signature24%
36
3259.0236 Essential/12 Signature25%
60
5208.6660 Essential/20 Signature28%
150
12508.33150 Essential/50 Signature31%
300
24008300 Essential/100 Signature33%

See iStock full Plans and Pricing here

Are you ready to buy photos from iStock? Then get your iStock Membership here, and don't forget to save up to 25% with our special iStock Promo Code!

iStock's Plans and Pricing
iStock's Plans and Pricing

Highlights in Shutterstock's Offer

shutterstock-logo

Shutterstock has also modified its original offer in the years since its launch.

They launched in the market introducing an innovative buying model, the stock photo subscription. Shutterstock was the first agency to offer a limited number of downloads for a flat, periodic fee. Many other companies, including iStock, adopted this model in their own offers. Their subscriptions have varied a bit, but right now, their plans have different monthly download limits.

We have even covered their pricing in a full Shutterstock pricing post here! You might want to look at our 5 Shutterstock alternative agencies compared. If what you want is to sell your work on Shutterstock, don't miss our Shutterstock Contributor review!

Sometime after launch, Shutterstock adopted the on-demand sales option in its own style, in the form of image packs that you can pay upfront. Their image packs are priced in USD, and there is one price for all image sizes and resolutions, meaning you can download an image in any size available, and it will always cost you one download. The larger the pack you buy, the lower the per-image price.

This agency doesn't have exclusive content in the sense that they don't make exclusive distribution deals with any contributor. They highlight the newest and best-selling images in their search results and website.

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UPDATE 2023: Offset, the agency's premium stock photo service, is now integrated into Shutterstock's main platform, and its entire collection with 1.2M+ premium images is available directly on the Shutterstock website, starting at $249 per image. Discover the Offset collection right here!

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This is what they offer today: 

  • Over 700 Million photos, vector illustrations, video content, and audio files. Other assets like 3D graphics are also available.
  • Millions more images are added weekly.
  • Image packs for on demand purchases, priced in USD, starting at 2 images and up to 25.
  • Individual image price depends on the pack bought, starting at $14.5 and as low as $9.16 each.
  • Subscriptions are tailored by volume size and also by the number of users. Can be hired monthly or annually. They include an option to pay an annual fee upfront, saving more money.
  • Their cheapest subscription is $199 a month for 750 images monthly, with an annual plan.
  • Team subscriptions grant access to multiple users to the same account.
  • Editorial stand-alone website with special editorial subscription plans.
  • Extended licenses are available only as separated image packs, starting at $99,50 per image and as low as $67,96 each with the largest 25-image pack.
  • They have only one Extended license (named “Enhanced”) that includes different bonus rights.
  • Recently improved search engine that uses computer vision to find and suggest the best images to fit your needs. Includes a reverse image search from any image you drag and drop on their search bar.
  • Shutterstock Creative Flow platform offers online tools for creatives and business owners that include image editing, content planning, content discovery, and more. Learn how to get Shutterstock Creative Flow for free!
Shutterstock Subscription Pricing
Monthly Subscriptions
Monthly Download Limit (N° of Images)Subscription Price ($ USD)Price per Image ($ USD)
10494.90
501252.50
3501990.56
7502490.33
Annual Subscriptions (Billed Monthly)
Monthly Download Limit (N° of Images)Subscription Price ($ USD)Price per Image ($ USD)
10292.90
50991.98
350
1690.48
7501990.27
Annual Subscriptions (Billed Upfront)
Monthly Download Limit (N° of Images)Subscription Price ($ USD)Price per Image ($ USD)
102992.49
509791.63
3501,6490.39
7501,9990.22
Shutterstock On Demand Pricing
Image PackPack Price ($ USD)Price per Image ($ USD)
22914.50
5
499.8
252299.16

See Shutterstock full Plans and Pricing here

Do you want to buy Shutterstock photos? Sign Up with Shutterstock here. And don't forget to grab our Shutterstock Coupon Code to save more on your stock images!

Shutterstock's Plans and Pricing
Shutterstock's Plans and Pricing

iStockphoto vs Shutterstock: Which One is Best for You?

iStockphoto vs. Shutterstock Pricing

As we said, these microstock agencies have strengths that put them under an umbrella of excellence as options to buy stock photos. They've millions of high quality images, simple buying systems, and affordable prices. Our Shutterstock vs iStock comparative analysis will now go more in-depth.

iStock and Shutterstock Price Comparison

750 Images a Month - High Quality
iStockShutterstock
Commitment1 Year1 Month
Monthly Price$333.25$249
Price per Image$0.44$0.33
750 Images a Month - Everyday Budget Images
iStockShutterstock
Commitment1 Year1 Month
Monthly Price$166.58$249
Price per Image$0.22$0.33
Just One Image - Everyday Budget Images
iStockShutterstock
Minimum Purchase$12 (1 Credit)$29 (2 Image Pack)
Price per Image$12$14.5

Note: Edited, June 9th, adding more comprehensive comparative observations on multiple buyer needs. 

Which one can give you the best value stock photos depends on your particular needs.

  • Quality Images? If quality in resolution and content is important to you, you must remember that iStock prices the highest quality images higher, and Shutterstock doesn't. However, iStock's lower-priced images from the Essentials collection are very good quality and great for everyday stock photo needs.
  • Only a couple of photos? If you're only looking to buy a couple of images, the decision depends on what quality you're after. If everyday, budget photos would do for you, then iStock could be a good choice: You can buy 3 Essential images with a 3 credit pack for $33, paying $11 per photo. At Shutterstock, 5 images cost $49, and that's the minimum investment.
  • More control and flexibility in on-demand purchases? If you want to control exactly how much you spend on stock images and avoid time limitations, iStock's credits are convenient. With credit packs, you can decide exactly how much you want to pay how many, and what kind of images you want. And you can buy videos too! A big plus is that credits never expire: as long as you log in to your iStock account once a year, all your credits remain usable. Shutterstock sells video (and audio) separately, their image packs are pre-made, so they aren't as flexible and expire one year after the purchase date.
  • Some images with better quality but not exclusive? If you want a higher quality but don't mind whether the pictures are exclusive, then Shutterstock could be for you: you get 5 images for $49 versus 4 Signature images for $115 at iStock.
  • Images regularly? If you need to buy stock photos regularly, the best option is to get a stock photo subscription. At both agencies, hiring an annual plan (with monthly download limits) is cheaper than getting a month-to-month renewable subscription.
  • If you only need a few images per month, iStock has you covered. They have plans for 10, 25, and 50 photos per month at $40, $65, and $100, respectively. Keep in mind these prices are for Essential images only. They also have subscriptions granting access to Essential everyday images and Signature high-quality, exclusive images. Signature subscriptions have a higher price point but are affordable for the quality of images you get.
  • If you will need lots of stock photos every day, you need larger volume subscriptions. In this case, Shutterstock has one of the best stock photo subscriptions. Their plans give you 350 images a month for $199 (or $169 if you hire the annual option) and 750 images for $249 (or $199 with the annual plan). This means you're getting 750 photos for as little as $0.33 per image, with just a one-month commitment, and for even less with an annual subscription.
    iStock also offers 750 images a month plans. And if you are willing to take a one-year commitment, they have the cheapest stock photo subscription with Essentials: 750 images a month for $159, where every image costs $0.21 each.
  • You need lots of images, but you don't want an annual commitment? Then Shutterstock is for you. This agency offers large volume subscriptions that can be renewed on a month-to-month basis, so you don't need to commit for longer than a month.
  • You need lots of images constantly but without losing unused downloads? iStock subscriptions come with an additional benefit. With an annual plan (or if you renew your monthly plan), all the downloads you didn't use are rolled over to the next month, so you never lose the downloads you pay for. At Shutterstock, the download limit expires and gets restarted month to month, so if you don't use up all of your downloads, these are lost at the end of the month.
  • High quality production images? Shutterstock has a larger library than iStock. For this reason, they have more variety in content. But Shutterstock doesn't curate higher valuable content from everyday stock photos, at least not for their main service. iStock has the Signature collection of photos from their exclusive contributors. Signature images have a higher production value and a higher quality in content overall than Essential images. For this reason, they are priced higher. However, Signature subscriptions give you access to both Essentials and Signature images. If you can use higher quality images, then a Signature subscription is worth the extra cost. A Signature subscription for 750 images a month costs $399 (or $0.53 per image) monthly and $319 (just $0.42 per image) with an annual plan. For only a few more cents per image, you are getting the value that you can't get at Shutterstock.
  • Team Access? If you need to have your team or clients access the account and see the downloaded images, the most convenient agency depends on how many users you need to add. For 2 users, both agencies are even with a $ 300-a-month subscription.
    But for larger than 3-member teams, if everyday budget images are ok for you, then iStock is cheaper: for 4 users, for example, iStock costs $433 a month vs Shutterstock's $499. Keep in mind this refers to iStock's Essential non-exclusive collection.
    Shutterstock's subscriptions give you access to their entire library.
  • What about Extended licenses? Here too, depends on your needs, but overall Shutterstock offers a better deal. You can get 2 Enhanced licensed images for $199 ($99,5 each), and this license includes rights to use photos in unlimited copies, in products for resale, and in large TV or media productions. At iStock, these different rights are bought separately, and each Extended license costs 18 credits (from $144 to $170 depending on the credit pack you have).

iStock vs. Shutterstock Price Comparison Condensed:

  • iStock has cheaper price points for budget images
  • Shutterstock has a larger library and more variety in content
  • iStock credits are more flexible
  • Shutterstock has a simpler subscription structure
  • iStock subscriptions have more benefits like rollovers of unused downloads
  • iStock's Team accounts are cheaper for large teams with budget images
  • Shutterstock's Team accounts give access to their entire library

iStock's Exclusive Images

istock-exclusive-images2

If you look for exclusive photos, then this will be the decisive factor.

iStock is the only one of the two agencies that offer content that is unique to their site, and can't be found in any other microstock agency.

iStock Signature not only englobes several exclusive collections that were previously much more expensive but also offers images with a higher production cost and overall higher quality in terms of content. For many buyers, this is an added value in iStock's offer.

Shutterstock doesn't provide exclusive content, so it's likely that you can find the same images from their collections in a different agency.

If you think that the bonus of using photos that are less widely available (and so less common) is worth paying a higher price for the photos, then you must go with iStock.

If exclusivity is not a concern for you, then your particular buying needs and the comparisons you read above will guide you to choose the best option.

iStock vs. Shutterstock Exclusive content:

iStock provides exclusive, high-value content in a higher-priced collection.

iStockphoto vs. Shutterstock FAQ

These are some common questions about these two agencies and their answers.

Which is better iStock or Shutterstock?

It depends on what you need. Shutterstock is best if you want great variety in content, as their catalog has more images. It has the best deals in subscriptions with a large volume of downloads, too.
iStock is best if you are after premium images, as their exclusive collection is very low priced. Their subscriptions let you roll over non-used downloads, so it's a plus if you like flexibility.

Is there a better alternative to Shutterstock?

iStock is a great alternative to Shutterstock, but not the only one. Other options include Stockphotos.com and Adobe Stock.

What are the disadvantages of Shutterstock?

A negative of Shutterstock is that its on-demand packs are media-specific (you can't download videos with an image pack and vice versa). Also, they usually don't have single image purchase enabled. And their subscriptions don't allow to roll over downloads from one month to the next.

Is Shutterstock worth it for photographers?

Photographers have higher chances of selling their photos on Shutterstock as they're exposed to millions of buyers. However, the competition is fierce –there are millions of contributors, and hundreds of millions of images–, and the royalties are between 15% and 40% of the sale price. With those odds, each individual artist can decide if it's worth it for them.

Which stock photo site pays the most?

The best stock photo sites all have similar royalty rates for photographers, ranging between 15% and 45% (usually, the % you get is tied to your historic sales record on the agency). But you get bigger payouts at sites like Getty Images (iStock's parent company), where one individual sale can report you tens and up to hundreds of dollars.
At Shutterstock, in contrast, you may make many more sales but earn in the single digits and even only cents per sale.

Explore iStockphoto and Shutterstock for Free Before Committing

Sign up as a member is free of charge on both agencies. This means you can set up an account and browse their offer without committing to any kind of purchase.

It's clever to seize this benefit to look at the different options and decide which buying model and agency works best for your needs.

Plus, by registering, you'll have access to each agency's weekly free photos, another good opportunity to explore the quality and utility their images have for your projects without paying anything.

Which One to Pick? iStock vs. Shutterstock?

The truth is both agencies are parring in almost every aspect, they have some of the best stock photos out there and they both serve the creative community very well. Only you can decide. The convenience of one over the other will always be bound to your individual needs as a buyer.

As for us, Shutterstock is the winner for clients who need many photos consistently, a huge library with lots of variety and new photos every week. But if you need exclusive content and a more thoughtfully organized selectioniStock is the winner in that case.

Remember you can also contact Shutterstock and iStock directly to iron out any inquiries about their services, before committing to any of them.

istock-vs-shutterstock-final2
istocklogo300shutterstock-logo
Sign Up for iStock for free right here

 

Read our iStock Review

Save with our iStock Promo Code

Sign Up for Shutterstock for free

 

Read our Shutterstock Review

Save with Shutterstock Coupon Code

iStock vs. Shutterstock

Who wins?

You decide!

Tell us your verdict in the comments!

Ivanna Attié
Ivanna Attié

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in StockPhotoSecrets.com and Stock Photo Press and its many stock media-oriented publications. I am a passionate communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Lucky enough to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, I am happy to share my research, insights, and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers, and the stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

  1. Hi,

    I am a semi-pro who wants to get income from my photos – streets, places, scenary,etc. I also have a friend whose iphone photos are popular on social media and is advised to sell those photos.

    Could you advise what’s the best site for us, and how much we will be charged roughly, please?

    Thank you,

    John

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