By Andrew Hudson Published: June 17, 2011 Updated: January 31, 2017

Shutterstock is the biggest-earning agency for ¾ of the microstock photographers I’ve researched ( see this comparison), and is always in the top three agencies. So if you’re going to submit photos, Shutterstock should definitely be on your list.

Visit Shutterstock

“Shutterstock is the world’s most popular microstock agency, and is considered the most profitable and easiest to join by all the photographers I’ve reviewed.”
— Royce Bair, The Stock Solution


  • Biggest earner for most microstockers
  • Easy photo submission
  • Good forum
  • Great statistics


  • Hard to get accepted
  • Must upload often else earnings drop


  • Subscription sales only
  • Buyers always get the full-size image
  • You can move the watermark on the image


Shutterstock is the largest subscription-based stock photo agency in the world. Started in 2003 as a personal stock site by photographer Jon Oringer, the site began taking off in 2005, when the work of other photographers was added and Adam Riggs joined as president. By 2010, over 13 million images were available, more than any other microstock agency.

Shutterstock at a Glance
FounderJon Oringer
HeadquartersNew York City, USA
ParentShutterstock Images LLC
Images> 13 million
Photographers> 258,000
ApplicationUpload 10 images,
7 must get approved
Pays$0.25 per download
$0.33 when > $500 earned
$28 max for Enhanced license
earnings schedule
PayoutAutomatic monthly >$100
Payment viaPayPal, Moneybookers, Check
Photos4 MegaPixels or larger
Best images
Submit viaFTP, Browser, Webpage
Free to joinYes
ExclusivityNot available

The Subscription Model

Shutterstock is unique in that it offers downloads only via subscriptions. Customers can’t license individual images; instead they buy an amount of time in which to download an almost unlimited number of images.

“Shutterstock are arguably the highest performing microstock agency. They certainly have the highest number of sales for the majority of microstockers.”
— Lee Torrens, MicrostockDiaries

Due to this “all-you-can-eat” approach, Shutterstock’s customers tend to be high-volume and frequent users, such as graphic designers that are in regular need of pictures. And those customers tend to license many photos when only one is needed, as there’s no additional cost for quantity — they can try out different layouts and show a client a choice of images for approval.

This emphasis on quantity means that Shutterstock licenses far more downloads than other microstock agencies, and pays you — the contributing photographer — higher earnings.

High Earnings

The revenue per download (“RPD”) that Shutterstock provides is small (at around $0.25–$0.33; $28 max), but that is more than made up for by the high quantity of downloads.

“On which site did you generate the most income last year? [#1 answer:] Shutterstock.”
— From “Microstock Survey 2009” compiled by Tyler Olson at MicrostockGroup

Enhanced Licenses

The standard license does not permit usage in quantities higher than 250,000; for display in public areas; or on resale, print-on-demand products. For that, a commercial “Enhanced” license is required, which pays the photographer a lot more — $28. With the occasional enhanced license, your return-per-image is quite high.

Shutterstock License Comparison

Highest RPI

With this combination of quantity and the occassional enhanced license, Shutterstock provides most photographers with the highest RPI (Return Per Image):

  • $14 average per year Royce Bair at The Stock Solution
  • $10.53 average per year Paulus Rusyanto at DPhotoJournal (July 2010)
  • Laryn Kragt Bakker has earned $16,229 on microstock sites as of 8/26/10, mainly on Shutterstock.

Photographer Friendly

Many photographers consider Shutterstock to be the easiest company to work with, as images can be uploaded in bulk via FTP. Additionally, their online forum is well-regarded.

“…many of their contributors have proven that money can be made, lots of money.”
Damien Richard at Brighthub

Feed The Beast

There’s one important issue for submitters to be aware of. Perhaps because Shutterstock is appealing to regular users, their search engine significantly favors the work of recent contributors. So you need to be committed to shooting and uploading regularly.

This is good if you’re envisaging yourself becoming a full-time photographer, as your new work will also promote your old work. But if you’re more of a sporadic photographer, this “need to feed the beast” as it’s often called, will work against you, as your work will fall lower in the search rankings over time and your earnings will consequently taper off quickly.

So it’s worth considering your approach to photography before jumping on board.

Money Over Time

The longer you work with Shutterstock, the more you can earn, as they pay more per download as your total earnings increase.

Earnings Schedule
for the basic 25-A-Day plan
Earnings per DownloadLifetime Earnings
$0.25Less than $500
$0.33$500 to $3,000
$0.36$3,000 to $10,000
$0.38Over $10,000

Traffic Ranking

In terms of web traffic, Shutterstock is the third-most popular microstock site (according to Alexa Oct 2010).

Getting Started: How To Sign Up

“The Best Micro-payment agency? In my experience, Shutterstock produced the most income, and with the best online interface for both submission uploads and the monitoring of statistics.”
— Royce Bair, The Stock Solution

  1. Sign up for a free account ( here).
  2. Provide a copy of your passport, drivers license or credit card (to prevent fraud).
  3. Submit an IRS tax ID form.
  4. Agree to the terms of service.
  5. Submit ten images for review. Seven must pass the review process. If three or more are not accepted, you have to wait 30 days before trying again.

Initial Review

Once you get accepted, it’s plain sailing. But getting past the initial review is a challenge. Most people fail on the first attempt, so plan ahead and have fortitude.

Here are some tips for your first batch of ten photos:


For approval, Shutterstock requires that you “vary the subject matter of your initial 10 images.” Don’t send ten photos of flowers or different angles of the same subject. Submit a diverse range of photos, such as a portrait; landscape; wildlife; dusk shot; cityscape; action; product, etc. Demonstrate the breadth of your skills.


Images should be easy to sell, not just easy to take. Your images must have impact and be simple depictions of a product, item, concept or idea. Have a clean and pleasing background, composition, and color scheme. Make sure your images have a clear topic and focus. Look at photos in magazine ads (which are often stock shots) and review Shutterstock’s most popular images for ideas.


Only submit professional-quality images. They must be the best of your portfolio — edited tightly — commercially viable and noise-free. Shutterstock is very particular about noise — there must not be even one stray pixel from JPEG compression, dust, dirt, low-light, high-ISO, etc. The image must be sharp and the focusing exact, so use a tripod and clean your lens whenever possible. There must not be any dark shadows from the sun or on-camera flash. Don’t upsize or downsize your images, and don’t include a watermark or date stamp. For more info, read the guidelines.

Get Feedback

Ask your friends for their input. Upload the photos to other microstock sites which don’t have review processes, such as Dreamstime, 123RF and DepositPhotos, and see which shots get accepted. Ask existing Shutterstock photographers for their opinions at the Critique Forum. If three or more of your images are not accepted, you’ll get locked out for 30 days, so let’s avoid that.

Be patient and persevere, and you’ll eventually be rewarded.

“Shutterstock is the ultimate goal for a microstock photogragher, as they produce the fastest sales turnaround of all the agencies.”
— Microstock Information & Help


Once approved, you are free to submit more photos. And uploading is easier at Shutterstock than most other sites. You can submit up to 100 photos at a time, via FTP, and the system will read your IPTC data in each file, so you don’t spend time adding custom titles, descriptions and keywords. Submitting model releases is quick too.


Photos of celebrity visits and local events often can’t be submitted to microstock agencies as they can’t be licensed for commercial use. However, Shutterstock also licenses for “editorial” use, so you can upload newsworthy pictures that are captioned like newspaper photos.


There’s money to be made! So sign up!

Let’s learn about a typical microstock photographer.


Reply by Anonymous

March 14, 2015

If you were not successful in getting 7 approved in your first 10 but 3 could have been approved, can you include those 3 in your next 10 for approval?

Reply by Anonymous

September 12, 2014

How much does this image cost?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

October 8, 2014



Or 26¢.

Shutterstock charges $29 for two images. Or you can pay $2,388 for a year’s subscription, which gets you up to 25 images per day. That’s a maximum of 9,125 images per year, which is $0.26 per image.

Reply by Loretta Kennedy

September 2, 2013

How much does it cost for the time of downloading?

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

September 23, 2013

Hi Loretta:

One you had paid to license the photo, the download process is free, so there is no additional cost for the time of downloading.


Reply by Akis

August 27, 2013

We were try to purchase photos at and nowhere writing the real price of photo, only at small place situated on the right displays a small phrase it said ‘Additional taxes may apply’. Anywhere the Shutterstock has wrote the price without the additional taxes for each country. The taxes are required, It is NOT may or maybe ! It writes only number of cost and NOT with some explanation, right symbol, the reliable this may also be possible

for example 39 euros payable for 12 downloads on consumer displayed the total cost, 39euros+taxes of the country of the buyer. This is professional and correct without hidden costs.

It’s very hit and miss, the cunning behavior is ridiculous and fraud for someone who sells photos online. But can it be done by the average person, company and philosophy of sales.

We were asked for cancel our account by email the support department of but without a replay email or explanation for them, in this case we find unacceptable the fact of this way to display a fake cost and after the fulfilled absent that of support dprt whose do not contribute anything to the reliability of the social media.

When people abuse our money I think we have every right to get upset.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

September 23, 2013

Hi Akis:

This is a popular complaint of American companies. Prices in the U.S. are typically displayed without sales tax (valued-added tax) included, unlike in Europe where VAT is often required to be included. This is because, unlike in Europe, there is no federal sales tax in the U.S.

It would be nice if Shutterstock could display the local taxes. I have a similar issue with airline and hotel sites, where they only display the final cost at the last stage of ordering. You are free to cancel your account and work with a european microstock agency, which might included country taxes. See Microstock Top 40 for competing sites.


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