13 Dec 2011 Shutterstock

[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 submit.shutterstock.com
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.

  • Dan
    Posted at 07:22h, 24 October Reply

    You have one fairly important error. To make 30 cents per DL, you need $500 in earnings. Not 500 downloads. I WISH it were 500 downloads however. 🙂

    Shutterstock is a strong performer for me. They are a clear #2 to iStockphoto in terms of earnings, but they do contribute significantly to the bottom line. Their tools are simple, and very good. The ease of upload is fantastic. I like their HTML upload so much that I actually use it more than FTP these days. Never thought I would say that! But then I am not a high volume producer and tend to upload in small batches. They also simplify categories by eliminating subcategories altogether.

    Cons –

    1. You need to stay active to keep sales high. I’ve heard this from several contributors. As soon as I went inactive last month, my sales were literally cut in half! Once I started uploading again, they perked back up. Apparently your activity affects your search position, including older images. I can’t prove it, but my sales highly suggest it.

    2. There is a high emphasis on new images. This is gratifying when uploading new images, but they quickly calm down after a few weeks. Good images continue to sell, but not nearly at the rate as when first uploaded.

    3. Difficult Reviewers. In my opinion, they are toughest of all I have encountered.

    Pros –

    1. Very high volume. You’ll need it with the low payout, but if your images are good you will definitely get high volume.

    2. Fast Review Times. Generally 2 days or less. I’ve had some approved in 4-5 hours! It is great to upload a concept, see it approved the same day, and have it selling by the next morning.
    Lately with iStock I am waiting 7-10 days to get reviewed.

    I like the SS model, although selling images for 25-30 cents makes me nervous. I’ve seen it argued that it devalues the photographers’ works. I tend to agree. But overall it is great for my bottom line earnings.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 00:48h, 25 October Reply

      Thanks for your comprehensive comments Dan. I’ve corrected the mistake about the 30 cents. Can’t believe I let that one slip by!


  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 17:11h, 11 February Reply

    Well, honestly said shutterstock really sells very good. Thoug there are some hidden problems not so obvious:

    – paying $0.25 is really killing photography business

    – some of the editors are not tough but ppl with no background in real photography – I saw several examples of very stupid refusals

    – very very strongly censoring their phorum, any just slightly critical notice against shutterstock or any note about other agencies and its deleted asap.

    – they do automatically interpolate pics up to incredibly large size and doesnt matter if you uploaded 4Mpix or 14Mpix image; that is very very dishonest to any buyer

    So I do sell some pics on Shutterstock but I do choose very carefully what am I willing to offer and what is going to be rights managed.

  • Bev
    Posted at 19:59h, 15 February Reply

    The application process requires 7 out of 10 uploaded photos to be accepted.

    • paul
      Posted at 09:24h, 10 March Reply

      yes indeed, and very demanding too. I came to a total of 5 accepted, in two attempts. All rejections are related to sale potential, not even technical issues.
      Later this week I am going to attempt my third try.

  • Erik Kolstad
    Posted at 03:46h, 04 April Reply

    One week at Shutterstock now. Started out with the 7 approved images, now up to 61 uploads. Number of downloads in the first 7 days:

    2 – 10 – 22 – 24 – 20 – 11 – 15

    This gives me a balance of $26 at this point, which is roughly two-thirds of my balance at iStockphoto after nearly three months. It remains to see whether I have to upload new material constantly to maintain the good numbers at Shutterstock.

    Useful information for beginners like myself: I found it very hard to get 7/10 images accepted, but it’s worth hanging in there. I feel I learned a lot in the process. My strategy was to re-upload the ones that were accepted last time (you can tell because the specific reason for rejection of those images is “7 out of 10 must be approved”) + upload images that had sold at iStockphoto. Good luck!


  • Marek
    Posted at 09:47h, 04 April Reply

    It took me 4 attempts to get accepted by Shutterstock. I don’t see that high download numbers like Erik, nevertheless, Shutterstock competes with my iStock earnings.

    My acceptance rate at SS after initial rejections stays around 86%. I resubmitted several pictures which were rejected in my initial submissions for technical reasons or low commercial value. There were all accepted and are selling OK.


    • Erik Kolstad
      Posted at 03:17h, 07 April Reply

      My acceptance rate is 85 % after I was accepted into the fold. It seems they are more lax once you’re in.


  • Richar
    Posted at 13:09h, 18 May Reply

    SS says to send full-sized images. Don’t upsize or downsize images. What does this mean exactly? I constantly read here and in other forums how peolple do just the opposite. I want to shoot in large full-size RAW and convert (downsize?) to 5 MP Jpeg to upload. Is this the way to do it or not?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 22:03h, 18 May Reply

      Yes, some people downsize their images before uploading to Shutterstock as they don’t like that the subscription model gives buyers full sized images for such a low per-sale commission. The contrary argument is that buyers will sometimes choose another image if yours isn’t available at full size. You choose which one works for you. I don’t downsize for Shutterstock.


  • Erik Kolstad
    Posted at 05:25h, 03 July Reply

    Come July, I decided to delete all my images from Shutterstock. I only had around 100 uploads there, but after having considered for a while, I just couldn’t live with being paid $0.25 per download. In just over three months, I made $98 on 390 downloads. This is the comparable to what I would have made on one download of a medium-sized royalty-free image at the PhotoShelter Collection, to where I am slowly moving my portfolio. […]

    The rest of this blog entry can be read on my new photo blog (click on my name above). Like Lee, I will share my microstock earnings each month.

    The gist of it is that with small portfolios, you make next to nothing on SS. With a larger portfolio, you make more, of course. But if you divide your earnings by the hours spent shooting, editing, keywording etc., I’m not sure you’d be happy with the results. I’m moving to PhotoShelter.


  • microstockphoto
    Posted at 07:15h, 30 October Reply

    Shutterstock is the best selling micro stock site for most microstock photographers (including myself) so we can’t simply ignore it.

    But the race to submit more and more just to stay visible is driving me crazy: we are forced to engage in shooting “quantity over quality” which is not what I like to do. How long this model will be sustainable?

  • FEOJ
    Posted at 21:11h, 02 November Reply

    Twice tried to submit images to Photostock and got a “photos are poor, not professional” response. Ironic, as I have been in freelance photography since the 1970’s. The fact that the images I uploaded were Kodachrome25 slides, later scanned in, also got me a negative response. I got the impression that the uploaded images have to be digital in origin.

    Which bums me out, considering I have a few thousand slides in binders…


    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 23:14h, 02 November Reply

      Hi FEOJ,

      This is a common complaint from established professional photographers. Ironically, quality standards are much higher in microstock compared to traditional stock and many other photo markets. You need to play the game a little until you figure out what it is the agencies are seeking.

      Also remember that the ‘application tests’ to get approved to submit to some of these agencies are tougher than regular reviews – they need to see that you’re going to be a profitable contributor.


    • Kobus Smit
      Posted at 07:21h, 07 February Reply

      Dear Lee

      I submitted my 10 slides last night and no one was accepted, but I am not very worried because Istock has accepted 3 of the photos and me as a contributor. Looking at their comments on my submission I also get the idea that Shutterstock are not very keen to accept slides. Do you have any information on their attitude towards slides?


      • Lee Torrens
        Posted at 21:40h, 26 August Reply

        Hi Kobus, apologies for the super-late response.

        I’d suggest doing everything you can to get the photos looking as professional as possible. If they’re comparable in quality to photos from a modern digital camera, then agencies have no reason to reject them. I’m not suggesting you break the rules, but submitting them without specifying they’re originally from slides will ensure they’re reviewed on the basis of the image quality, nothing else.

        Also see if you get better results downsizing the photos. This removes a lot of focus, noise and artifact problems.

        Otherwise, no, I don’t have any information on attitudes of specific agencies towards slides.


  • FEOJ
    Posted at 22:19h, 05 November Reply

    Ran into the same problems (poor images, etc) from 3 other agencies. One had the comment “35mm slides are not a viable format, we accept only digital. Scanned 35mm slides are also not accepted”.

    So much for my collection of 12,000+ images from the late 1960’s to 2002….

    • LEE
      Posted at 02:57h, 28 November Reply

      AMEN – slides seem to count for nothing despite decades of being
      a professional and much published photographer!

  • MM
    Posted at 15:24h, 17 March Reply

    I love this site, great downloads so far and fast reviews.

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  • Niki
    Posted at 12:53h, 04 May Reply

    I also noticed recently they become more and more picky. Not far ago when I was shooting with point and shoot camera I had more accepted images than now with my new DSLR. This drives me crazy!

  • Rose
    Posted at 09:47h, 17 September Reply

    I have a doubt. Does Shutterstock allows uploading the same images I submitted to other microstock companies like iStock?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 10:46h, 17 September Reply

      Yes, Rose, you can upload the same photos you upload to Shutterstock to other agencies. This, and many other frequent questions are answered on this page to help you get started. Good luck.

  • Timi Ke
    Posted at 15:04h, 30 October Reply

    Hi, my question is, that if I would like upload some works which was made in programs without license? Can it be a problem?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:16h, 31 October Reply

      Timi, this depends on a lot of factors including what file types you will upload and which programs. To my knowledge there’s no indication in the files about whether the software used to make them is properly licensed or not, although I know some ‘trial versions’ include a visible watermark on the file.
      There are lots of great free license solutions which do a great job. GIMP is one example for photo editing. These solutions are a great way to use legal software until you can afford to choose any solution.

      • Timi Ke
        Posted at 12:58h, 02 November Reply

        Yeah, it depends on program, of corse. The price of AI and PS is affordable. But the price of 3ds max (the best program to prepare my illustrations) is huge, too much just for a hobby :((

  • HangItShop
    Posted at 10:16h, 09 December Reply

    Submitted my 10 test pictures last evening. Woke up to an email saying that all 10 got approved. Guess time to upload some more 🙂
    I’m really excited about finding out soon how much money I will be able to make with them.

  • zrmedia
    Posted at 11:25h, 12 December Reply

    Shutterstock is the bottom of the barrel. It’s the most arrogant stock site out there, which would be expected if it wasn’t also the worst stock site out there. I conducted an experiment after reading some negative comments about SS to see if it was worth my time to sign up: I uploaded 10 images. 4 were rejected for very vague reasons (they claim to make these reasons clear so that newcomers can learn from their mistakes, but no such luck.) The most arrogant thing about the site is that they make submitters wait an entire month before they can submit another 10 photos. This makes absolutely no sense and totally justifies all the negative things I’ve read about the site. So a month later, I submitted the exact same 10 photos. This time, 5 were rejected and 3 of the accepted ones had been rejected the first time!!! This proves that they have no set standards and whether you get accepted or not depends entirely on which reviewer you get and his/her mood on that day. Also, I have thousands of photos that I gave file names to for submission to other sites, and when I finally got accepted at ShutterStock and attempted my first batch upload, it failed due to a “critical upload error”. I looked for the problem in the forum and discovered that there can’t be any spaces in the filename or the transfer will fail. So I would have to rename thousands of files to upload them. All this trouble and you only make $0.25-$0.30 per photo. I posted my own comment about how ridiculous this was and my comment was deleted within ten minutes. This level of arrogance is unheard of and I can’t believe there is even one positive review of ShutterStock anywhere. Trust me, folks, don’t waste your time.

    • Charles
      Posted at 09:39h, 13 December Reply

      zrmedia has lied throughout his comments. First, SS didn’t delete his comments. They’re still there and the real submitters are having a good laugh. He thinks they’re not there because he’s too stupid to find them. He also said that he could get past any forum ban. This is doubtful since it’s obvious that he can’t even follow simple directions for submitting. He posted the same “paragraph” twice in the same post because he can’t figure out how to use Word properly so it’s pretty doubtful he has the expertise to get past a forum ban. He’s just one of those people that can’t follow directions and then when he gets mad he blames everyone but himself (like a small child). He, in fact, did NOT have the images resubmitted by a friend. He also claims that he has THOUSANDS of videos to upload but refuses to post a link so the submitters at SS can see those thousands of videos. If he really had thousands, he’d know the routine by now and he would have followed the directions and he’d be making money now. Instead, he’s chosen to fabricate a few stories and blame the world for his inadequacies as a photographer/videographer/human.

      Shutterstock IS difficult to get into, but once you’re in, you can make some really good money if you think, learn, remain open to change and criticism, and work hard.

      • Lee Torrens
        Posted at 09:45h, 13 December Reply

        Thanks zrmedia and Charles for the conversation. I’ll leave these comments online in the name of open discussion, but I don’t want to encourage comments getting personal as in these two. So let’s let this particular conversation end here (i.e. responses to these comments won’t be published).

  • ann
    Posted at 13:45h, 13 December Reply

    Hi Lee – re Payout box info: contributor may request $75 automatic payout limit

  • bill day
    Posted at 05:58h, 25 March Reply

    Hi Lee, thanks for so many informative snippets over milleniums..my specific question is about SS and re-editing or re-keywording images that have been accepted and are selling..(eg not in the uploading process)…
    Does the process of re-keywording reset the images parameters as if it were a NEW image and help get it at the top of the search function’s algorithm?
    I hope the question is clear enough since I am not an experienced writer..

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:59h, 29 March Reply

      Hi Bill, Shutterstock tell me that when they edit an image’s keywords it is NOT reset as if it were a new image. The image retains the metrics that it previously had, and just picks up the new keywords added by the Shutterstock team. Thanks for your question.

  • bill day
    Posted at 06:54h, 26 April Reply

    Thanks for answering, Lee. This leads to another question that is related to getting sales in the SS sphere, other than eliminating the images from the SS bank and the re-submitting them to get them at the top again (probably sanctioned in some way or other as it would pressure their reviewig process.). Where can I get information about how to promote my images? The clients are ANONYMOUS and hidden. From what I have read on the internet, it seems to be a very uphill procedure involving inserting tags in the so-called ´text´ field inside the HTML script. (Please excuse my geeky ignorance.)Any information would be appreciated. TIA / bill

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 18:23h, 26 April Reply

      Bill, I don’t think many agencies would like you resubmitting deleted files. I know some keep thumbnails after deletion for duplicate detection, but I’m not sure if Shutterstock do so.

      As for getting buyer information, it’s not directly possible, though you can use some tools to try to find your images in use online. Most buyers aren’t interested in hearing from photographers, so agencies don’t facilitate it. That, and they’re customers of the agency, not us photographers.

      Promotion is the task of the agency, so you’re better of focusing on the quality and quantity of your portfolio if you want to maximize your revenue.

      Hope that helps.

  • Kris Asenov
    Posted at 06:15h, 01 June Reply

    Very frustrating and inconsistent image review/approval process.
    When I upload a batch of selected images to all the agencies I work with – I never know whether shutterstock will approve or reject it. With the other agencies I know and I can expect consistency – they always accept my batches (seldom on occasion an imperfect image that slipped into the batch will be rejected, but on an average 99% of my images are accepted at istockphoto,dreamstime and fotolia). With shutterstock it seems very random – a hit and miss. And their rejection reasons are also very frustrating. For example images which I shot under perfect lighting conditions, had metered all camera settings and measured white balance with grey card – then shot — well they would reject those images with the baffling reason of “Poor lighting or incorrect white balance” which is the most frustrating part of it all.

    Examples can go on with pin-sharp images rejected for reason of “too soft or blurry”, but I don’t want to recall those negative emotions.

    In conclusion, my impression as a photographer is that the reviewers/editors are biased, perhaps overworked, stressed or otherwise too subjective in their review process. There is no consistency and I never know if the images I successfully sell elsewhere will pass their process or not. Slowly I stopped re-submitting with them and just today closed my account with shutterstokc altogether.

    While sales are impressive at first, I find my income from istockphoto and alamy satisfactory enough to completely move away from shutterstock’s frustrating process.

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