iStock vs Shutterstock: The REAL Difference

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If you either need cheap images for your project or design, or you want to sell your images and make a bit of money, where do you turn? To microstock.

Two of the biggest microstock agencies around right now are iStock and Shutterstock, both offering very similar libraries and licenses, but as you are likely to want a long-term, ongoing relationship with your image library, it pays to do a little research first to discover which is best for you.

This article goes in-depth to look at the benefits and drawbacks of both Shutterstock vs iStock, for image buyers and contributors. We’ll look at the image library quality, ease of use, pricing and licensing options, and the potential payments available to contributors towards the end of the article.

In general, when comparing iStock vs Shutterstock for image buyers:

  • iStock is suited for those who prefer to license their images using one-off credit packs, which have more options than Shutterstock.
  • Shutterstock is best for those who want a monthly subscription, with prices substantially lower than iStock.

For contributors:

  • iStock gives a higher percentage of each image sale if you are willing to make images exclusive with them.
  • Shutterstock pays more on average to contributors, and allows you to place your images with other libraries.

istock vs shutterstock

Shutterstock vs iStock Comparison at a Glance

These are the main differences and similarities that matter between Shutterstock and iStock for image buyers. You can get a free trial of Shutterstock below, but not for iStock at the moment.

Comparison Shutterstock iStock
Offers Royalty-Free Images?
Offers Extended / Enhanced License?
Offers Annual / Monthly Subscriptions?
Offers On-Demand Images?
No. of Downloads per Month (Subscription) 10; 50; 350; 750 10; 25; 50; 750
No. of Downloads per On-Demand Pack 2; 5; 25 1; 3; 6; 12; 18; 24; 36; 60; 150; 300
Subscription Cost per Image $0.22 – $4.90 $0.22 – $9.90
On Demand Cost per Image $9.16 – $14.50 $8.00 – $12.00
Ease of Use Easy – basic integrations with Adobe Easy – integrates with Adobe Creative Cloud, Dropbox or Sketch, but isn’t much different from Shutterstock in practice
Major Pros Browser-based editor; cheap images for lower volume users; wide range of images; simple licensing Browser-based editor; organizational boards; simple licensing structure; plenty of options for on-demand image packs
Major Cons Smaller selection; more expensive for on-demand images More expensive for smaller subscriptions; two libraries of images – Essentials and Signature – with different pricing
Ideal for Freelancers and individuals looking for small (or large) numbers of images regularly in a monthly subscription Freelancers and individuals who prefer to buy their images using on-demand image packs
Free Trial 10 Free Images None currently – but 15% off with code 15ISTOCK

iStock vs Shutterstock Pros and Cons

Both services are very similar, but there are a few key differences to be aware of, which are listed below.

istock homepage
(Image Credit: iStock)
iStock logo



  • Wide variety of images
  • Some integration plug-ins available
  • Browser-based editor
  • Can pull images from other royalty-free libraries
  • Lower per-image price for lower volumes of images bought with an on-demand credit pack
  • Monthly credits roll-over forever if you log in at least once a year


  • No medium-volume monthly subscription package
  • Subscription cost is high for lower volumes of premium imagery
  • Two separate collections – Essentials and Signature – with their own prices
  • Integration is less good with Adobe programs
shutterstock homepage
(Image Credit: Shutterstock)
shutterstock logo



  • High quality images
  • Plenty of plugins and extensions for integrations
  • Browser-based editor
  • Very high total number of images
  • Cheaper for lower volumes of images
  • Good monthly subscription packs and prices
  • No confusing licenses or multiple collections


  • On-demand pack sizes are very small
  • Subscription credits expire at the end of the month
  • Cannot download more images than your subscription plan

Price Comparison

Both iStock and Shutterstock offer royalty-free imagery, meaning that images are not licensed for exclusive use, but can continue to be licensed by other customers.

The pricing models are fairly comparable between the two services, with subscription packages divided into monthly and annual subscriptions, and on-demand credit packs available for licensing images on an ad-hoc basis.

Annual subscriptions give the cheapest per-image price, while on-demand credits are the most expensive.

Note that iStock divides their images into two collections – Essentials and Signature – with two separate pricing structures, while Shutterstock contain all of their images within one price plan that is more comparable to the cheaper iStock plan.

Annual Subscriptions

Annual subscriptions give you the cheapest price pre-image, although they do require you to keep paying for the service for one year. These subscriptions are ideal if you know that you will need a regular supply of images and want to save some money, with photos available for $0.22 on the best plans from both providers.

You must choose the numbers of images that you want to download per month, but are charged an annual fee, which saves you around two or three months of subscription cost per year, when compared to the same plans following a rolling monthly contract.

iStock offers a lower number of downloads per month, with options of 10, 25, 50 and 750 image downloads per month, while Shutterstock aims for those more between these figures, with 10, 50, 350 and 750 downloads per month possible.

The iStock cost per image ranges from $0.22 to $2.90 on the annual plan for basic (Essentials) images, and between $0.44 to $7.00 for premium, Signature images.

The Shutterstock cost per image ranges from $0.22 to $2.90 for all of their images.

Monthly Subscriptions

Monthly subscriptions offer the same packages as the annual subscriptions, but with the flexibility to break the contract every month, and at the cost of a higher monthly price.

Image download numbers are the same as for the annual subscriptions above.

iStock per image price on the monthly plan for Essentials images is between $0.27 to $4.00, while for Signature images it is $0.53 to $9.90.

Shutterstock per image price is between $0.33 to $4.90 for all images.

Subscription Comparison Shutterstock iStock
Annual Subscriptions
No. of Image Downloads per Month 10; 50; 350; 750 10; 25; 50; 750
Rollover Unused Images?
Cost per Image $0.22 – $2.90 $0.22 – $2.90
Total Cost (Annual) $299 – $2,388 $348 – $1,992
Monthly Subscriptions
No. of Image Downloads per Month 10; 50; 350; 750 10; 25; 50; 750
Rollover Unused Images?
Cost per Image $0.33 – $4.90 $0.27 – $9.90
Total Cost (Monthly) $49 – $249 $40 – $399
Free Trial 10 Images None

On-Demand Credit Packs

If you don’t want to commit to a regular monthly cost, then on-demand credit packs are an ideal way to access images on your own timetable. You will pay more per image, but gain the most flexibility possible.

For iStock, Essentials images require 1 credit to license, while Signature images require 3 credits. Shutterstock allows you to download all images with 1 credit.

Note that credit packs can last indefinitely for iStock, provided that you log in to your account at least once per year, while Shutterstock on-demand credits will always expire one year after purchase, if unused.

On-Demand Comparison Shutterstock iStock
No. of Image Downloads per Pack 2; 5; 25 1; 3; 6; 12; 18; 24; 36; 60; 150; 300
Credit Expiry One Year Never – provided you log in once per year
Cost per Image $9.16 – $14.50 $8.00 – $12.00
Total Cost (Per Pack) $29 – $229 $12 – $2,400

License Comparison

By default, any images downloaded have a standard license for both iStock and Shutterstock, but it is possible to add an extended or enhanced license for an extra cost. These are really only needed for very specific cases, which we will explore below.

Standard Licenses

Standard licenses come with $10,000 of legal indemnity for both Shutterstock and iStock. They give you royalty-free usage of an image for all web uses, and most physical product uses, although there are restrictions when it comes to merchandise where the image itself is a key part of the selling point of the product. For this you would need an extended or enhanced license.

The standard license allows for the image to be used on up to 500,000 physical printed material and product packaging, and unlimited web use.

Standard Licenses Shutterstock iStock
Can be used in: Print use up to 500,000 copies, or unlimited on the web Print use up to 500,000 copies, or unlimited on the web
Can be used on merchandise?
Legal Indemnity per image $10,000 $10,000
Available in: Subscriptions & On-Demand Packs Subscriptions & On-Demand Packs
Cost per Image $0.22 – $14.50 $0.22 – $12.00

Extended / Enhanced Licenses

iStock calls it the extended license, while Shutterstock uses the term enhanced license, but both are essentially the same in practice.

They let you print the image on over 500,000 physical products, or use it on merchandise (like t-shirts) where the image itself is a major selling point.

You also increase your legal indemnity to $250,000 per image.

istock extended license
iStock’s extended license uses
(Image Credit: iStock)

Cost tends to be very high for this license type, and it is also only available with on-demand packs, making it less convenient to use.

iStock’s extended license costs 18 credits in addition to the image price, putting the cost of the license at around $150, while Shutterstock tends to offer the enhanced license for below $100. This of course depends on the credit pack size that you buy.

Extended / Enhanced Licenses Shutterstock iStock
Can be used in: All media, with no view limits All media, with no view limits
Can be used on merchandise?
Legal Indemnity per image $250,000 $250,000
Available in: On-Demand Packs only On-Demand Packs only
Cost per Image $67.96 – $99.50 $144.00 – $170.00

Videos, Vectors & Music

You can license videos, vectors and music from Shutterstock and iStock, although neither are available with the standard image subscriptions – you either need credit packs or the specific subscription that allows you to download from any collection. The subscriptions offer far cheaper prices.

Quality tends to be pretty similar from both services.

Videos Shutterstock iStock
Available in: Subscriptions & On-Demand Packs Subscriptions & On-Demand Packs
Cost per Video $8.33 – $119.80 $6.66 – $60.00

Ease of Use & Image Quality

One of the most important factors in choosing a photo library is the overall quality of its images, and how easy it is to get them into your designs.

iStock takes the lead with its signature collection in the latter case, as these images are exclusively available on iStock, unlike most other royalty-free images that are spread over all the various platforms.

If you wanted images that seem more ‘exclusive’, but are still royalty-free, then iStock is your best bet.


istock search
iStock’s search interface
(Image Credit: iStock)

iStock has an easy to use interface, with searching conducted in your browser. You can easily switch between Essentials and the more premium Signature images, although you don’t always see much of a difference in practice.

One real advantage of iStock is that you can search through many related collections of Getty-owned libraries, licensing them from within iStock, at an iStock price point, which can save you money over using those other libraries directly.

istock search filters
iStock search filters
(Image Credit: iStock)

The search filters are tailored to find images of people, with lots of person-focused search functionality like age and ethnicity, which works well enough.

Also, included is a browser-based editor that lets you perform basic edits on an image before downloading it, which is useful if you do not have access to dedicated design software like the Adobe Creative Suite.

istock editor
iStock browser-based editor
(Image Credit: iStock)


shutterstock search
Shutterstock’s search screen
(Image Credit: Shutterstock)

Shutterstock looks very similar to iStock, with many images replicated between both iStock’s Essentials collection and Shutterstock, as you would expect. There are tens of millions of images, as befits one of the oldest microstock sites, and image quality is generally high.

shutterstock search filters
Shutterstock’s search filters
(Image Credit: Shutterstock)

Search filters again focus on person-centric characteristics, helping you to wade through the vast range of images at Shutterstock. In general, searching tends to be quick and easy to find images that meet your criteria, as long as you can define exactly what it is you are looking for.

There is a browser-based editor that seems a little more advanced than iStock’s, although both are fairly basic and no match for Photoshop or Illustrator.

shutterstock editor
Shutterstock’s browser-based editor
(Image Credit: Shutterstock)

Final Thoughts: Which is Better for Image Buyers?

Both Shutterstock and iStock are aiming at the same market, and both offer very similar services, with very little to choose between them, in truth.

iStock does offer exclusive images (that are still royalty-free) in their Signature collection, although the price, at around three times higher than standard images, makes them a little hard to recommend.

Shutterstock offers better pricing for monthly subscriptions, while iStock has a vast range of options for on-demand packs.

Overall then:

  • iStock is better for those wanting on-demand credit packs, and is perfectly good for lower numbers of the monthly subscriptions.
  • Shutterstock is ideal for heavy monthly users, who will be regularly downloading hundreds of images every month, with their well-priced high volume subscriptions.

iStock vs Shutterstock Contributors

shutterstock vs istock contributors

Taking a quick comparison of which program can earn you the most, then it is in general Shutterstock. This is because it offers a higher commission percentage unless you are willing to go exclusive with iStock.

Shutterstock also has a much clearer interface for stock contributors, with plenty of information on your sales shown.

>> Sign Up as a Shutterstock Contributor Here!

iStock Contributors

The amount that you can make from contributing to iStock really depends on whether you are an exclusive contributor or not. When first joining, you will only be non-exclusive. If the quality of your submitted work is deemed high enough, then you will be invited to apply for exclusivity, although it’s not clear what iStock’s requirements are.

Their flat non-exclusive photo rate is 15% of each download, which compares poorly with Shutterstock’s graded scale.

istock contributor
iStock contributor rates
(Image Credit: iStock)

Shutterstock Contributors

Shutterstock are one of the most used agencies by photo buyers, and as such becoming a Shutterstock contributor gives you access to a very large market for your images.

Their basic royalty rate is 15%, but this increases with the number of images of yours that are downloaded each year. Note that your level resets to one after every year, and you must re-earn your higher percentages again.

Level Number of image licenses this calendar year You earn
1 Up to 100 15%
2 101 to 250 20%
3 251 to 500 25%
4 501 to 2,500 30%
5 2,501 to 25,000 35%
6 Over 25,000 40%

Read More:

How much can you make selling stock photos?

Adobe Stock vs iStock

Shutterstock vs Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock Review

Getty Images vs Shutterstock

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Hi, I'm Tim Daniels, photographer and photo trainer, founder of Lapse of the Shutter and creator of the totally free Lightroom Develop System. I've travelled to (probably) 30 countries over the last few years, taking photos and licensing them around the world, and creating lots of free photography learning resources. Read More ...

One Response

  1. E P
    | Reply

    Had a poor customer service experience with iStock. Very inflexible.

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