Anybody who might have tried selling their pictures and videos online through microstocks (learn more about microstocks) knows that Shutterstock is an agency with excellent sales performances for:

  • pictures/photos (stock images)
  • videos (stock footage).

For me, as I specialize in stock footage, it’s the second most profitable microstock after Pond5 (read the complete guide for Pond5).

This is my dashboard:

Shutterstock dashboard

and that more than $40,000 is my earnings up until now. Numbers are incontestable, and I'm sure there aren’t many contributors around the world who can present the same figures.

For more than 10 years, the time I’ve dedicated to this work is not the same as you’d dedicate to a full-time job. The mentality of many old-school photographers – even those with many years of experience as professionals – isn’t compatible with the selling of photos and videos online.

I’m sorry to say it, but when we talk about complaining about innovation, we photographers and video makers love to overcrowd places like forums and Facebook groups.

Submit Shutterstock: sign-up tutorial

Signing up to Shutterstock takes a matter of minutes and, obviously, it’s completely free. By the way, if a microstock asks you for money to sell your content, it’s likely a fraud, so move on.

These are the agencies that really let you earn something:

  • Shutterstock
  • Adobe Stock (here’s the page to sign up)
  • Pond5 (here's the page to sign up)

They will just keep a percentage of your future sales.

Go to submit.shutterstock.com and click on the red button:

Shutterstock homepage for applying for becoming a contributor

  • Get started

First important thing: on the upper right-hand side, you can change the language from English. My advice is to leave it in English – that’s the language of microstocks. The software translators used by websites don’t work properly on single words, like the keywords you insert to describe your stock images and stock footage. They only do a good job with sentences.

In the next page:

Shutterstock contributor application window

write:

  • your name
  • your preferred username (it can be the same one you’ve used on other agencies)
  • your e-mail
  • a password

Use the checkbox to certify that you’re at least 18 years old and agree with the Terms of Service and the Privacy Policy.

After that, click

  • Next

You’ll receive an e-mail with a link:

Shutterstock contributor application window

By clicking on it, you will be redirected to a webpage where you’ll have to write your residential address.

Shutterstock contributor application window

After that, click:

  • Next

On this page:

Shutterstock contributor application window

you’ll have to upload a digital copy of an identification document, to protect the intellectual property of the creator and speed up the payment process. I can’t show you these steps because I’ve already got a Shutterstock account with an associated document.

After this, you’ll have to wait a few working days to let Shutterstock check that everything is alright.

Selling on Shutterstock: everything you need to know

Shutterstock prices range from:

  • $79 to $199 for videos (depending on video resolution and client’s subscription)
  • $1 to $10 for photos (depending on photo resolution and client’s subscription)

Today, making money isn’t as easy for producers as it was in the early days of this business. But it's still possible if you work in the right way.

In 2009, I shot a video of the Champs-Elysées from Place de la Concord, Paris. I used an awful camera, but for a 10 second video I've earned $1,500 on Pond5 alone.

Pond5 sales report

As a low-cost traveler, I paid my travel expenses (flight and hotel) with a few seconds of video, and I still had the money to pay for many other excursions. Today, things are different (at least, if you produce travel-related content) because of strong competition.

If you change your subjects, or at least put friends in front of your lens with famous landmarks in the background while they:

  • check their smartphone
  • look at a tablet
  • hold a map

the figures I showed you are still reachable.

Domenico Fornas, one of the students on my course, earned almost €2,000 filming his arm (read his story).

These are his Shutterstock bestsellers:

Shutterstock sales report

Regarding which subjects will make more money and the tools to help you understand what they are, it’s harder to explain in a single page because it involves a complex strategy which you can only start to learn after multiple lessons.

Strategies to sell more

Indexing is one of the most important factors for making money with stock images and stock footage. It’s also one of the most underestimated elements by photographers and video makers.

Due to this weak point in your competitors’ arsenals, you must consider indexing as a crucial aspect if you want to earn more.

Let’s try to make it simple:

  1. A potential client writes a keyword in Shutterstock’s search box (let’s say: New York)
  2. Thousands of stock images appear.

Shutterstock results for the search of stock images with the keyword "New York"

For a contributor who wants to sell, their earnings depend on where their content appears; the more their content is on the top, the more money they make, because no buyer will ever have the time and energy to view all the pictures of New York that Shutterstock collects.

Search engines are fundamental to online business. (And on this site, microstock is a business, even if it’s just a hobby for many people).

If someone sells you a magic trick to cheat the algorithm, beware, because their honesty level is the same as the people who sell books with titles like “How to Become a Billionaire in a Couple of Days”.

Talking about Shutterstock, the best strategy to increase your earnings is to upload content that the market looks for, with good technical quality. If your images and footage will sell, Shutterstock will raise the ranking of your whole portfolio.

There are many theories of how to reach the top of the lists shown to potential buyers, based partly on speculation and partly on Shutterstock’s own declarations. In the first category (speculations) is the idea that the amount of unsold content in one’s portfolio will lower the indexing of the contributor’s whole collection.

Thus, some people ask:

If after some years my content remains unsold, should I delete it?

I admit that I’ve done so in the past for that reason. Those videos were from my earlier period as a contributor, and they were:

  • ugly
  • obsolete (I started uploading stock footage in 2007, when standard definition was used, and it had 4/3 aspect ratio. Nowadays, there’s 4K resolution and 16/9 aspect ratio.)

In the past, I wasted a lot of time cleaning up my collection, and it didn’t actually achieve visible results in terms of indexing for the rest of my portfolio. So, I never did it again.

As in all businesses, with microstocks you must always consider costs and profits, not only in relation to money, but also the time you spend.

Extended licenses

On Shutterstock, we, as producers, earn 30% of what the buyers pay. Shutterstock sells stock footage at:

  • $79 for Full HD resolution
  • $199 for 4K resolution

while photos are sold only with packages, at variable prices that range from $2 to $10 for each picture. There are, however, some exceptions.

Thanks to the extended licenses contracts that Shutterstock and all the other microstocks sell when a client uses stock images and stock footage in projects bigger than strictly personal ones, sometimes us photographers and video makers receive sales that earn us more than $100 each, which is definitely not that bad.

What you see below is a summary of my monthly sales.

Shutterstock sales report

Focusing on stock footage, the average royalties I get paid range from $10 to $20. You’ll notice, though, that in the last line that figure increases to about $30 (61.47/2=30.735). This was due to the sale of a couple of extended licenses.

Here’s another example:

Shutterstock sales report

The screenshot above should give new life to your hopes as a rookie producer (or a $20/month producer) because $90 for time-lapses of:

  • the Coliseum in Rome,
  • the leaning tower of Pisa

are a great income, and it's footage that anybody can produce.

What gives hope is not just the single sales of those specific videos, but that I had already sold them in the past on Shutterstock and other agencies, making the total earnings for them hundreds of dollars. Remember this the next time you visit Italy and its beautiful cities.

Useless but expensive strategies

My podcast is always an inspiration, helping me to understand who the photographers and video makers are that discover microstocks thanks to me. If they start to sell before they study the market – maybe because they believe they’ve found the magic formula to earn money with no effort required – they’ve got a big problem. And I try to solve their problems with my explanations.

One of the many strange questions I’ve been asked is:

I noticed that, on Shutterstock, a monthly subscription that allows you to download 750 photos costs €199. But, for every photo I sell, I earn €0.2821.

So, if my girlfriend subscribes and downloads 750 photos, would I earn more than what she pays? How can it be that Shutterstock loses money?

Shutterstock makes hundreds of millions of dollars per year and has paid a billion to its contributors.

Shutterstock report about payment to contributors

It’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange. So, it's impossible for them to make these kind of mistakes, because if they did, they’d already be bankrupt.

The photographer who asked that question made one evaluation error in his premise: Shutterstock doesn’t always pay €0.2821 per photo.

Today, I only create stock footage. With the sale of the same video to two different buyers, I can earn $23.70 or $5 depending on whether the person who bought it has:

  • paid for the video at full price
  • chosen a subscription

The price depends also on the resolution of the stock footage I sold.

So, if a client who bought a €199 photo package chose to download a photo, the photographer that owns that stock image earns proportionately.

If I was a newbie, I wouldn’t waste time and energy studying an algorithm to cheat the agencies. They’ll always win anyway, since they pay trained people a lot to counter these tricks.

Given they still exist, these tricks clearly only work once before they’re spotted and blocked.

The best advice I can give to help you truly earn is to study the market. And to add stock footage to your collection, even if you're a photographer and you only want to produce stock images; videos increase your earnings 10 times over.

From being a photographer to a video maker, increasing earnings 10 times over

The crucial step a photographer has to take to earn more on Shutterstock is to start uploading videos.

Today, this is easier than it might seem, as:

  • all reflex and mirrorless cameras also record video
  • the dynamic of the subjects usually portrayed in stock footage is limited
  • video editing isn’t all that complicated for stock footage

So, for someone who used to take photos, starting to create videos isn’t that difficult and can represent a turning point in terms of earnings. (If I hadn’t done so myself, I wouldn’t even have a tenth of that $40k I mentioned).

By starting to create stock footage, you can earn more, mainly for two reasons:

  1. There’s less competition.
  2. Selling prices are 10 to 20 times higher than photos.

Then, there are strategies you’ve got to follow to succeed. The first one is to always find the subjects that buyers want, with tools like keyword.io or agencies’ search engines.

It’s useless trying to explain it in a few paragraphs, since I do so much more thoroughly on my course.

The editorial license on Shutterstock

When you film or photograph something and the image features:

  • a copyrighted element (a logo, a modern building, a billboard)
  • a recognizable person

if you don't have a signed release, you have to tell the agency that the content has to be sold with an editorial use only license. Otherwise, you’re going to have problems, and I recommend that you don’t underestimate them. You can look into this matter further on my course, which has a lesson about it, or by reading this page:

  • Learn about the differences between editorial use license and commercial use license.

The content below shows you how to use the editorial use only license as a getaway from copyright laws, because the main reason for the video being sold is the Burger King logo, even though it has nothing to do with the news.

Stock footage of Burger King published on Shutterstock

To comply with Shutterstock’s guidelines, the first thing you’ve got to do is check the box on the right next to “Editorial use only”.

Then – and this is the most troublesome matter – you have to write a description similar to the one you see in the screenshot:

  • CITY – DATE: (who) (what they’re doing)

making sure to use present tense verbs.

To see Shutterstock’s complete guidelines, you should check here.

The real problem is that the best strategy to save time when keywording your content is to use a .csv file to transfer the title and descriptions you previously entered on Pond5. On Shutterstock, if the content has an editorial use only license, you have to rewrite titles because of those guidelines.

This is annoying, even though you can save a lot of time by working properly. Unfortunately, however, there is no other way to do it.

Shutterstock's new rules on editorial use only content

Some time ago, I received this email from a listener of my podcast:

I often photograph and sell works by well-known architects as editorials. Today Shutterstock refused me photos of a famous architecture building, specifically the church of Ronchamp of Le Corbusier, with the following motivation:

Non-Licensable Content: Due to legal compliance restrictions, we cannot license this content in our collection.

I know there is intellectual property for works of art and architecture, but I thought that this could be always overcome by selling content as editorial. Otherwise how would it be possible to photograph cities that are full of buildings and monuments?

Shutterstock, like any multinational corporation, seriously assesses the danger of lawsuits.

It's true that you can usually sell stock images of a busy street where there are dozens of recognizable people, even though the law protects their privacy. But Shutterstock occasionally makes exceptions to its policies, especially when there is a powerful company on the other side which pays millions to its attorneys.

For example, Shutterstock no longer accepts content created in Disney parks, even as editorial. Pond5 still does.

The editorial license is only a legal loophole to allow agencies to sell more content. Sometimes, though, some agencies choose not to hold this position.

For a while now, Shutterstock has adopted a very cautious policy on this matter, but it’s just an editorial line, because the protection of copyright in our legal systems is faced with every citizen’s right to take pictures in public spaces.

Murals

Stock image of graffiti in Orgosolo, Sardinia

Shortly after, another reader of mine wrote to me because Shutterstock refused his photos of the Orgosolo murals in Sardinia (learn more about Orgosolo murals on Wikipedia).

I advised him to protest, pointing out that although his content had been rejected for copyright reasons, there already were dozens of photos of the same subject in Shutterstock’s collections.

Shutterstock answered kindly (it seemed a bit like Amazon in this) but it didn’t solve the main problem. It argued that copyright laws changed frequently and, therefore, there is always the possibility that, from a certain point onward, they’d have to reject subjects previously accepted.

La Guernica

I would say that this is not completely true because copyright laws are retroactive. If you are at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and want to take a photo of the Guernica painting, you can’t just put the stock image up for sale claiming you took it 50 years ago when copyright policy was different.

If you search for any Guernica-containing content on Shutterstock today, you won’t find anything portraying the painting because everything has been removed, even though, years ago, Shutterstock allowed the sale of images and footage of the painting itself (for editorial use). But (I really don't know how this can be possible) you’ll easily find copies in the form of murals or stamps.

Shutterstock results on "La Guernica" painting stock images

To testify that a loophole can always be found.

The acceptance rate on Shutterstock

The acceptance rates of content sent to agencies are constantly changing. So, my advice is:

  • never get overexcited over 100% acceptance of your stock images or stock footage
  • never get sad over 0%

The refusals and approvals of the agencies are evergreen topics on the forums and Facebook groups about microstocks – the same web spaces populated by those unsuccessful producers who can’t wait to blame their inability on others, earning €20 per month and spending their long, unproductive days complaining about everything.

If you want to earn, you’ve got to produce from morning to evening, and the time not spent on producing has to be spent on studying how to improve your collection.

If you waste hours of your life reading what do-it-yourself contributors do just to find fuel for your complaints, then you’ve got a problem.

Re-uploading a file after the reviewer’s refusal

To make you understand how crazy it is to let your mood depend on your acceptance rate, I’ll tell you a secret: agencies’ reviewers, including Shutterstock’s, are people. As such, they make errors. Or, at least, they do not make incontestable decisions. They’re a bit like referees in sport.

If you upload a photo or a video that is rejected, Shutterstock doesn’t have software which can recognize re-uploads. So, if after you get a refusal you try your luck again, it could be that your content is accepted.

I don’t think it’s the best strategy to re-submit refused stock images and stock footage, but there are contributors who like that strategy.

How to change the preview frame of your videos

A strategy to improve the salability of videos is to change their preview frames. Those thumbnails are the images your potential clients see on a page with dozens of files to choose from. Therefore, it's your video’s business card.

To be effective, it must show the main subject of the video; so, especially if there’s a pan or a tilt, you have to change the default one.

To do so, go here:

Shutterstock dashboard

  • Portfolio/catalog manager

Then, on the left of the page, you’ll see this:

Shutterstock window for changing the stock footage thumbmail

Select:

  • Video

Then, you have to click on the preview frame of the stock footage whose thumbnail you want to change. It’ll turn to black. Click on:

Shutterstock thumbnail selection window

the pencil icon. You’ll arrive at a page with the details of the stock footage.

On the right, you’ll find the command:

  • Select video thumbnail

Shutterstock window for changing the thumbnail

By clicking on it, you’ll be able to select the frame you think would be most effective for selling the whole video.

Shutterstock thumbnail selection window

Strategies like this one are far more important than technical perfectionism for making money with microstock. Unfortunately, the artists within ourselves may never understand it.

The technical requirements of stock footage

Becoming a video maker after already being a photographer is a step that, if you’ve got someone to explain how to do it, isn’t difficult and can make a difference in terms of earnings. One of the things that skeptical photographers struggle to learn is the technical requirements of videos sent to agencies.

For example, this was an e-mail sent from a listener of my podcast:

The first test footage I’ve uploaded was rejected by Shutterstock for this reason:

Frame Rate / Shutter Speed - Clip exhibits issues related to frame rate or shutter speed.

These are the parameters I used in exporting with Pinnacle 18:

  • .mov,
  • resolution hd1080
  • 1200 Kbit/s
  • 25.00 fps
  • 16 bit stereo, 44.1 Hz

I can’t remember if Shutterstock asked me to choose PAL / NTSC. I think the reason might be the graphics card, which can lose quality in the processing.

When this happens, given the technology of today's computers, it is certainly not the graphics card’s fault. What is wrong is the settings selected in the editing software.

So, if you set an incorrect parameter, Shutterstock, or any other agency, will refuse the content. To work out the problem you just need to learn what Shutterstock wants.

The Pinnacle parameters indicated seem correct at a first glance, except for the codec, which the listener hasn’t written. To avoid problems, in microstocks, the codec for stock footage must be:

  • PHOTO jpeg
  • H.264
  • Apple Pro Res

If you choose one of them, no agency will refuse the stock footage due to wrong settings.

PAL or NTSC?

As for the television standard, Shutterstock accepts PAL and NTSC both. The former has 25 fps, the latter 29.97.

In creating a video, you should never mix the two, like:

  • filming in NTSC
  • exporting to PAL

because this creates issues with the fluidity of the video.

Beware of one thing: both Pond5 and Shutterstock, and generally all other microstock agencies, accept 25 (PAL) and 29.97 (NTSC) fps.

I recommend working at 25 if your portfolio is created mainly with content shot in Europe, or in other countries that use PAL, because the geographical area where the content is located represents the main consumer base of the content itself. Hence, videos of Rome and other European capitals are purchased all around the world, but mostly in Europe. Therefore, it is better to create them in PAL.

New York videos, instead, are mostly purchased in North America, so it’s best to create them in NTSC.

And, of course, I don’t recommend converting one TV standard to the other and uploading them both, because it’s a waste of time and has no positive impact on sales.

Bigstockphoto

Shutterstock owns other sites that sell stock content, including another agency specializing in low-cost subscriptions for downloading photos and videos: Bigstockphoto.

As a producer of videos (I have many informative YouTube channels), I too have purchased stock images and stock footage from the Bigstockphoto collection because it was very cheap. Before Storyblocks started selling off unlimited downloads subscriptions (learn more about low cost subscriptions on Storyblocks), it was the most convenient deal on the internet, since a subscription of 10 stock footage downloads per day for a month cost only €79.

And for exactly this reason, I don’t think Bigstockphoto is a good agency for us contributors. Unlike their owners, Shutterstock.

W-8BEN on Shutterstock

One of the most troublesome topics for contributors is taxes.

What producers earn from microstocks is an income, so they have to pay taxes on it (at least in most countries). I advise you to talk with an accountant, since they'll certainly be more informed than me on this matter, and the law is not the same everywhere in the world.

Taxes must be paid to your country of residence but also to the USA, as Shutterstock is an American company. This kind of tax is called TDS (taxes deducted at source). So, Shutterstock asks you to fill out a form which every non-USA resident who sells on microstocks knows.

The form’s name is W-8BEN and it takes five minutes to fill out. If you do so, you will have a reduced rate of TDS. In my case, as I'm a resident of Italy, that rate is 8% for stock footage and 0% for photos, instead of 30%, as there’s a bilateral treaty between the United States and my country.

Just to prove that the globalized world has uncertain rules: Pond5 is an American company too, but it doesn't have TDS, and therefore it doesn’t ask for the W-8BEN.

Warning: If you’ve recently discovered microstocks, you must read below

Since I think whoever finds this tutorial should be a rookie, I want to make a couple of statements to help them get started on the right foot.

Uploading stock images and stock footage allows everyone to earn at least once in their career. Even if you don't know how to film or take pictures, and you don't study the market, you'll probably earn at least a single dollar with microstock.

The problem is that, if you do everything on your own:

  • producing content without thinking about what subjects the buyers want
  • creating only photos, not videos as well
  • learning strategies from forums and Facebook groups full of people who earn only €20 per month

you’ll only get spare change and waste a lot of time. Hence, you'll make less than a fast food worker, and while shooting is pleasant, writing titles and keywords is tedious.

I created this blog just to help beginners to make more money. And the videos you will find below is a great way to start doing so. Take your chance. Watch them, and submit your email to see more content.

Good luck.

Do you want to make more money on Shutterstock?

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