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Why iStockphoto Sucks

I've never been a big fan of iStockphoto and I've often heard bad stories and been chastised by other photographers for having anything to do with them. However, over the years, I've had an account and added the odd image that I had no other use for. My thinking was that it was better to have these files out in the wild, potentially doing something rather than sitting in my archive as digital compost.

I've become increasingly frustrated with iStockphoto and today I'm giving up on them and accepting that those photographers who warned me off iStock are 100% right. In simple terms iStockphoto is an utter waste of time and effort with virtually no reward. Those facts aside, their submission process is both a total joke and completely arbitrary. Generally they're awful and I feel motivated to state it publicly.

On registering with iStockphoto you are asked to read some literature about what constitutes valid submissions. It covers everything from the technical facets of images they're looking for, the sort of pictures they need and don't need, the legal issues with submissions and a number of other areas. I read this thoroughly and passed the required test.

Given their strict submission process I decided from the get-go to only submit the best images and build a collection over time rather than hurrying the process. As a professional photographer I pore over images on a daily basis and my standards are pretty high. Despite this, iStockphoto have continuously rejected images that clearly fit well within the confines of their submission guidelines.

The straw that broke the camels back was the image below which I have had rejected at least 3 times. Each time I have fixed the issue they raised as cause for concern only for the image to be rejected again. The left hand image below is how the original shot looked. Initially I removed the obvious logo's such as the Nike Swoosh and the H4H Medallion on the sleeve. iStockphoto's initial complaint was fairly legitimate, stating that the image still include a logo on the boot and the ball. As a resubmit was allowed I did this and also removed any other relevant typography just to be on the safe side. This resulted in the image on the right hand side. They then contested that the remaining design on the ball made the ball identifiable, an issue which, at best, I was extremely skeptical of.



Then, in the last month, iStockphoto launched an editorial section which allowed for the submission of images for editorial use only. This allows for logos and faces to be present without the need for model releases or further complications. Noting this, I remembered this image and thought that it'd be both an ideal photo and the perfect testbed for the arbitrary and contradictory rules they seem to be applying with greater and greater frequency. I searched high and low for a good FAQ on the 'do's and dont's' of the editorial collection with little luck besides a short article detailing the need for "Who, What, Why, When, Where, How" info and an explicit statement that logos and recognisable faces were acceptable within the collection. Armed with the knowledge of this admittedly short document I again submitted the original image to the archive. A few weeks passed as their painfully slow review process did it's thing. I returned today to find the below:



The first issue raised regards the caption information. Having read both the caption information I submitted and the reason for rejection I am thoroughly perplexed. I can only assume that the person reviewing the submission failed to read the caption. The caption was given accurately and in full faith. It answers the questions of "Who, What, Why, When, Where, How" and does in a reasonably succinct manner.

The second point they raise I find both strange and hilarious, though if that is a requirement they wish to impose, then that's their business. They suggest that as a 'known' person his image may be protected. This is simply not the case here in the UK. The player in question is not even identifiable beyond the scope of the caption, is far from being a world famous name in his chosen sport and yet they never raised this concern when the image was submitted as part of their regular collection. Furthermore, as an editorial collection surely the useful images would be those that are of noteworthy and relevant individuals and events? Finally if it was illegal to use images of known people in this manner, every newspaper and magazine in the land would be royally screwed. All this said however, if this is a requirement they choose to impose, then strange as it seems I'd have considered it prior to submitting. Yet despite searching their site extensively prior to adding this file I didn't read anything that suggested this was a reason for rejection.

For me though, where iStockphoto's credibility falls apart entirely is on the discussion of the photographic merits of the image. Don't get me wrong, it's unlikely this shot would win any competitions and this is not meant to be an exercise in self-congratulation, but it's well made, sharp, correctly exposed and it's WB and colours are spot on. Despite this, they question the quality of the light in the image and then proceed to list a frankly ridiculous list of 'technical aspects that can all limit the usefulness of a file', none of which are even remotely applicable to the above image. Let's take them in turn:

  • Flat/Dull Colours - Quite the opposite. Colours are punchy and well saturated.
  • Direct on camera flash and/or flash fall-off (bright subject dark background) - As no flash was used, this is inapplicable.
  • Harsh lighting with blown-out highlights or distracting shadows - Shot in direct sun, but both highlight & shadow controlled.
  • Distracting lens flare - None present.
  • Incorrect WB - WB is as close to spot on as you could ask for. The shirt is the pale pink it appears to be.

From a technical standpoint then, this image is sound. Not only that, but they failed to mention any of these perceived issues during any of the previous rejections they've imposed. This is entirely indicative of the kind of arbitrary submission rules they've been applying to images.

Now, if you've got this far you may be thinking these are simply the rantings of a someone who has drunk sour milk. Yes, this is undoubtedly a rant. As to whether my argument is founded purely on being cheesed off with their failure to accept my images, I'll let you be the judge of that.

It comes down to this. iStockphoto submissions take quite a while to do. For all the images I've uploaded I've meticulously chosen, edited, captioned and keyworded. Despite this, even for files that I think are very sound, both technically and in terms of content, I have been regularly rejected with no rhyme or reason and a suitcase full of ever changing reasons. I simply do not have the time to submit images when so much of it ends up being wasted in the process. I am a professional photographer and simply can't validate investing effort (even for otherwise on-monetized images) on a stock site that has such a cavalier and pigheaded attitude. I was warned off iStockphoto by a number of friends. I hold up my hands and admit that I should have listened to their advice. From now on I will be submitting no further images to iStock and will be withdrawing my account balance forthwith. I have written this piece, largely to publicise the downright crappy approach iStockphoto takes towards its contributors. I'm not impressed and I'd give the same advice that was given to me. Steer well clear.

In related news, I have recently started contributing to Pixstel a fairly new agency that opened it's doors with a focus on Aviation and Maritime collections. Pixstel operates with a great ethos that promotes it's contributors professionalism as chief guardian of the collections quality and content. New contributors are chosen based on the strength of their work and the input of current contributors, not on the results of a 'cram and jam' online quiz. The distinction couldn't be more stark. If you're interested in my work, do take a look at my submissions over on the Pixstel website. My additions so far tend towards aviation and rugby, but Pixstel is currently working to broaden it's scope and as such are working on a number of more generalised collections. I'm hoping to add an increasingly wide variety of images in the coming months. It's a really impressive cooperative-like structure that ought to be proud of it's responsible attitude both to it's customers and it's contributors. It's certainly my photographic website find of the year.

For the time being the takeaway is this. iStockphoto sucks balls. Come check out Pixstel.

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