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[This review was originally published June 2, 2007 and updated December 13, 2011]

As the pioneer of the microstock subscription model, Shutterstock still dominates that part of the market, selling more photos than any other microstock agency and earning their place among most microstockers’ top earning agencies.

The nature of the search function means photos sell well when they’re new.   Those that sell particularly well in the early weeks maintain high search positions and continue selling well. Those that don’t fare so well quickly fall to the back of the search results where they generate fewer and fewer sales.

New uploads also boost sales of your entire portfolio, encouraging contributors to upload consistently and creating the situation known in microstock as ‘feeding the beast’.

Shutterstock was the second microstock agency I joined and is consistently the second highest earning agency for me, behind iStockphoto. For many other microstockers, it’s their most lucrative agency.

Shutterstock logo

Shutterstock Background

Shutterstock launched in 2003 but according to Alexa stats didn’t start getting popular until 2005.

Founder, Jon Oringer, in a story very similar to the founding of iStockphoto, launched the site by offering his own photos for sale.   The genius strategy he used to differentiate himself from iStockphoto – already well established in the market by that time – was to combine the crowdsourced microstock business model with the subscription payment method that was available at many non-microstock (traditional) stock photo agencies.

Being the only microstock subscription agency for many years helped propel Shutterstock into the top tier of microstock agencies where it remains a strong performer today.

The company has always maintained a graceful simplicity, outright rejecting exclusivity opportunities, avoiding personalization functionality (member profiles, ratings, etc), and maintaining straight-forward subscription plans.

Shutterstock Details

Web address
Google Pagerank 7
Alexa Rank 374
Image Stats 17,000,000+ in Dec 2011 (Original review June 2007: 1,890,477)
Minimum Size 4.0 Megapixels
Vectors Yes
Video Footage Yes
Licenses Standard and “Enhanced” (extended), plus editorial
Compensation $0.25 per download, up to $0.38 depending on your lifetime earnings total
Pricing Subscription, from 1 month ($249) to 1 year ($2,559). Limit 25 images/day.
Payment Methods PayPal, MoneyBookers, or Check
Payout Automatic monthly payout when your balance is above $75
Referral Program 20% of first purchases up to $200, $0.03 for referred contributor images & 10% for video
Application Process Upload 10 images for review, 7 must be accepted to pass
Exclusivity Not offered
Upload Methods HTML Form, ActiveX and FTP
IPTC Data Yes
Delete images? Yes, immediately and individually, or reversibly opt-out all files at once
Currencies US Dollar
Languages English, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish
Headquarters New York, USA
Founder Jon Oringer

The Subscription Business Model

From the contributor perspective, the defining factor about Shutterstock is that it highly favors new images. The resulting strategy of contributors is to then continue producing and uploading. This works well for Shutterstock and has resulted in their building the largest collection of content among all microstock agencies.

This strategy also works well for buyers. With the subscription model buyers have already downloaded more of the images they’ll need from the existing portfolio, so they can then concentrate on the fresh images coming through. However, the subscription contract does limit ‘stockpiling’ by prohibiting use of images the buyer hasn’t already used six months after downloading them.

Almost all microstock agencies now offer subscriptions, but none can match the sheer volume of downloads that Shutterstock achieves. An important factor in Shutterstock’s continued subscription dominance – and one that’s not so contributor friendly – is that subscribers can download images at the highest resolution without paying any more. Other microstock subscriptions put limits here to protect the income of both the agency and contributor, but to the disadvantage of the buyer.

Cool Features

  • Ultra-convenient stats – Shutterstock provide all sales (photos and footage) and referral earnings on a single convenient page with a row for each day of the month (also see updated keywords tool and lightbox stats)
  • Move the Watermark – when the subject of your image is on one site of the frame you can move the watermark position so it better protects the image
  • Lucrative referral program – Shutterstock’s referral program performs extremely well when referring contributors and has full data reporting.

Earning Performance

Many contributors cite Shutterstock as their highest earning agency. Others are quick to point out that the per-sale / per-download earnings are very low.   Regardless of how you look at it, Shutterstock is the most consistent earning agency in microstock.

Earnings really kick in after you pass the various pay-rise milestones of earnings, where your per-download royalty rises from 25 cents, to 33 cents with $500 in earnings, to 36 cents with $3000 in earnings, up to 38 cents with $10,000 in earnings. (earnings are calculated on all income, including referrals)


Whether or not to contribute to Shutterstock is perhaps the easiest decision for microstock contributors to make.   Shutterstock is a consistent performer with high earnings, particularly for consistent producers.   Their system is straight-forward and the team are smart, friendly, and considerate of the plight of contributors.

What to do Next?

If you want to sell photos at Shutterstock, the first step is to register and then submit your application. I have advice on passing the acceptance test and more general advice on getting started. If you have any questions or problems just shoot me a message through my contact page and I’ll do my best to help you.

Posted December 13th, 2011 by


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