Exploring the best-selling stock photos of all times

December 17, 2023 / by Taras Kushnir


In the realm of stock photography certain images rise to the top as best-sellers, becoming the go-to choices for marketers, bloggers, and publishers around the globe. It’s not always obvious why these pictures resonate with their audience, for example a Shutterstock’s best-seller couple of years ago was an image of an isolated garden hose. However, witnessing the commercial success of others can serve as a powerful motivational boost, maybe leading to creating best-seller content of your own production. Therefore we’re going to take a look at best-sellers in a couple of different contexts and scale.

What sells most on Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock nowadays is the top-earning agency for majority of contributors (since Shutterstock changed earnings scheme). This makes it the most interesting with regards to what sells best.

Top-5 most downloadable pictures on Adobe Stock

Note: data for these results is coming from Adobe Stock directly and is current for December 2023. Images are sorted by the total number of downloads on Adobe Stock. This may or may not correspond to the largest amount of earnings, but it’s the closest proxy to that.

Top-5 by downloads
Top-5 images from Adobe Stock by downloads

You can see collage of the top-5 images from Adobe Stock above. Here are the links to them: first, second, third, forth and fifth. Just take a moment to notice these pictures. Maybe with the exception of yellow 3D render, there’s absolutely nothing technically astounding about them, yet they had the largest number of assets downloads since the beginning of times on Adobe Stock.

Others in the top-100 from Adobe Stock

It will be hard to show all the best-seller pictures in this blogpost, but you can download the first 100 best-sellers on Adobe Stock here.

Here we will show few next batches grouped by 5 pictures.

Top-10 by downloads
Images 5-9 from Adobe Stock by downloads

Top-15 by downloads
Images 10-14 from Adobe Stock by downloads

Top-20 by downloads
Images 15-19 from Adobe Stock by downloads

Note that majority of these pictures are very simple, some even being basic backgrounds (e.g. picture number 6 is the “paper texture” background). Probably also the person who shot the artistic hole in the plastic film (image 14) has had a good laugh over the years, seeing this bringing tons of cash. Let this not misguide you: by now the agencies are full of these kinds of “simple” backgrounds and the chance that you might hit a best-seller like this are extremely slim.

What kinds of photos sell best

Now we’ll grab 1000 best sellers instead of top 5 and group them by category to see where this is going. Note that we’re using a parent category for each asset on Adobe Stock, which makes it possible to aggregate.

Top-1000 by downloads
Categories of top 1000 images by downloads

Here are top-5 overall best-selling categories:

Category Size (% of total)
Graphic Resources 25.4%
Business 12.9%
People 11.5%
Landscapes 8.9%
Animals 5.3%

Only 4 categories are close to 10% mark: Graphic Resources, Business, People and Landscapes. Easy to notice the “ultimate” best-seller category Graphic Resources which accounts for staggering 25% of most downloadable assets. It contains subcategories such as “Abstract”, “Backgrounds”, “Calendars”, “Greeting Cards”, “Signs and Symbols” and “Textures” - many of which are content that is was “easy” to create.

If you’re interested for a deep dive into earnings for best-selling categories of one of the large microstock portfolios, take a look at this blogpost. There we see which categories were bringing most income over the years.

What customers are looking for the most

Not so long ago we run a customer search study of the most searched content. It turns out, the queries with the highest search volume were about these topics:

  • color and non-color backgrounds (glitter, anime, blue, solid black etc.)
  • logos (nike, camera, whatsapp etc.)
  • holidays (diwali, eid mubarak etc.)
  • people (cute baby, ugly man, kiss etc.)
  • creatures and gods (pink dino, unicorn, hindu god etc.)
  • signs (large question mark, _red arrow _etc.)

If you match this with the categories of the best-selling images above, you can see that this truly covers the Graphic Resources category and it’s subcategories (and lightly tapping into People category too).

Best-sellers of select microstock contributors

In this section we’re going to examine best sellers of few microstock contributors. Of course, individual contributor’s data is not representative of the whole industry, but it’s anecdotal importance is in it’s authenticity. These are the people who you can find online and learn stories behind the best-sellers, which is hard to do for generic agency statistical data. You may find that most photos became best-sellers in the hindsight - it was almost impossible to create them on purpose.

Steve Heap’s best-sellers

Note: these are best-sellers on Shutterstock, previous chapter was about Adobe Stock

We collaborated with Steve Heap to run a couple of studies on his earnings data since 2007 in this blog (for example, this one). If one thing was clear in terms of best-sellers, is that his cat is the ultimate winner, bringing him over $3.6K (at the time of writing). Sadly name of the fluffy star is still unknown, but if you follow Steve, you know that he has a couple of them.

Top-5 by earnings
Steve Heap's top-5 images by earnings on Shutterstock

Taras’ best-seller

We have discussed in this blog a story of the single photo that brought $6,314 (and counting) on Shutterstock:

Climbers on their way to the summit

The picture itself is a quite a small (by today’s standards) square picture - not something you would consider uploading. However, this did not stand in the way, as there were few concepts that could be illustrated by it - and this what made it successful. Oh, and some luck too.

Alexandre Rotenberg’s best-sellers

Alex was also reporting his best-sellers a couple of times over at his blog. Here are his top-5 (updated for last year).

Top-5 by earnings
Alexandre Rotenberg's top-5 images by earnings on Shutterstock

Alex mentioned couple of times that he was doing a small post-processing, like in the case with airport picture, adding the drone that wasn’t there before. The maximum earnings, brought by the best-sellers were in the range of $200-300 in total. Check out his blogpost to see exact earnings data for each of these pictures.

Jamo Images’ best-sellers

Jarmo discusses over at his blog the stories behind his 5 best sellers, that you can see below:

Top-5 by earnings
Jamo Images' top-5 images by earnings on Shutterstock

In this particular case images were more technically complex than some of the others, mentioned here. For example, skyline picture with epic sky (rightmost picture) was made possible by merging 3 separate pictures in Photoshop. These 5 pictures brought him around $1.3K in total since uploaded. Check out his blogpost to know which one was the top-seller.

How much best-selling stock photos earn

It would have been interesting to learn how much you can actually earn from best-sellers. For that we would need a large portfolio with all kinds of images, monitored over many years in a row. And lucky enough, we have such data! It’s from the study we did together with Steve Heap.

On the chart below we plot his earnings, split into 2 buckets: best-sellers versus everything else over time.

Best sellers sales
Sales of the best sellers comparing with others

Although Steve has best-sellers that brought him each more than $1,000 (or $3,000 in the case of his cat), you can see that majority of the income was generated by the “boring”, non-best-seller assets. Best-sellers accounted for only 15-20% of the income (some years). If you head over to the study itself, you can also see how many best-sellers Steve was able to create per year and when.

In case of Jamo Images’ and Alexandre Rotenberg’s portfolios, each of the best-sellers were bringing them about $100-600 (over the lifetime) so this also isn’t something that can pay you a salary.

Can you make money fast from stock photos

By now it should have been made clear that the answer is NO. There’s a very little hope that you will create a best-seller and it will sustain the income for good 10 years. There was no get-rich-quick scheme, at least for the known contributors. It was the hard, consistent work that paid off. In the end, best-sellers are not what brings the lion share of the profits.

How to create best-sellers of your own

Production of best-sellers of the aforementioned contributors was mostly due to luck (we discuss “why” in detail in the study). Since you cannot “create” luck, you should not count on it. But what you can do, is you can increase your exposure to luck. Instead of dreaming to become an agency-level best-seller, you can target different niches where your images might have better chances to become best-sellers.


We hope that best-sellers from this blogpost have inspired you to create good content! Paraphrasing Led Zeppelin, “it’s a long way to the top, if you want to microstock”, there’s no get-rick-quick scheme where you create few best-sellers and they pay you for decades. Their existence is more of a bonus for your other hard work and persistence, than your goal.

See also

Best-selling microstock categories: let the numbers talk

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How passive is income from microstock photography

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How I earned 6,314 USD from a single photo on Shutterstock

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