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.
“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
|Headquarters||New York City, USA|
|Parent||Shutterstock Images LLC|
|Images||> 13 million|
|Application||Upload 10 images,|
7 must get approved
|Pays||$0.25 per download|
$0.33 when > $500 earned
$28 max for Enhanced license
|Payout||Automatic monthly >$100|
|Payment via||PayPal, Moneybookers, Check|
|Photos||4 MegaPixels or larger|
|Submit via||FTP, Browser, Webpage|
|Free to join||Yes|
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 licensesthan other microstock agencies, and pays you — the contributing photographer — higher 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.”
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.
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.
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.
for the basic 25-A-Day plan
|Earnings per Download||Lifetime Earnings|
|$0.25||Less than $500|
|$0.33||$500 to $3,000|
|$0.36||$3,000 to $10,000|
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
- Sign up for a free account ( here).
- Provide a copy of your passport, drivers license or credit card (to prevent fraud).
- Submit an IRS tax ID form.
- Agree to the terms of service.
- 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.
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.
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.