Shutterstock (become a Shutterstock's contributor by signing up on this page) has been the most popular microstock agency by photographers for about ten years, because:

  • It was selling more than its competitors
  • it paid producers an honest share of royalties

I said "for about ten years", despite the fact that microstock has been in business since the early 2000s.

Throughout the first period, in fact, the best agency for contributors was Istockphoto which helped us earn good money and had a fair royalty policy.

At a certain point, however, more or less in 2011-2012, Istockphoto, as happens to many digital companies, made two mistakes:

  • raising prices too much
  • creating an unfair royalty structure

Those of Istockphoto / Getty were not hegemonic like Facebook / Instagram, so they began to lose customers and contributors because there were so many similar microstocks willing to exploit the wrong decisions of their main competitor.

Guess who took advantage of it the most?

Don't trust my answer, which you already know what it is, but this table showing the royalties Shutterstock has paid to its contributors (when looking at it, focus on the peak in the years I'm talking about):

Of course, the story doesn't end there, because in 2020 Shutterstock does exactly what Istockphoto did a few years earlier:

  • changing its prices (this time downwards, focusing on low cost subscriptions)
  • reshaping the royalties share it pays to producers (lowering them)

So, contributors today don't have a favorite agency anymore. Sometimes it is Adobe Stock, which still has high prices: sometimes it is Pond5, which sells well only stock footage. Sometimes it is still Shutterstock, which still sells a lot (but pays us less).

But let's go step by step.

Why Shutterstock became Shutterstock

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

  • stock images
  • 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:

Those over 2,000 unpaid dollars are my royalties pending because, to reduce bureaucracy, I release payments once a year, as I teach in my course to all those who want to earn with their photos and videos.

These are my best-selling contents (the amount marked is how much I cashed):

That stock footage continues to generate income without me doing anything, as, once published, it becomes passive income.

So: do you want to work hard to make money like I do?

I'm going to teach you how.

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:

  • 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:

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:

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

After that, click:

  • Next

On this page:

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

Earning with microstock is not as easy as it was when this business was born, but you don't have to produce stock images and stock footage only to make money.

If you understand how microstock works, you will also understand how every other digital business works, because some of the things that make the success of a producer are the same ones that make the success of any ecommerce, start-up or even of the personal sites of those professionals who have closed their office to the public and now do everything from home thanks to a website:

  • saving on costs
  • gaining time for their live

While there are many people who still hope the world will turn back, this will never happen.

The microstock business has become tough for those who improvise, because of extreme competition. It's not possible anymore to bring home good money with minimum effort, as I did in 2006, since millions of people have now discovered how good it can be to make money with their passion for photography and video making.

It's so easy for them to try their luck. Selling photos and videos is free and the equipment needed to create content can be very cheap.

So:

anyone can become a microstock contributor in 5 minutes. But if you do it badly, you don't earn anything.

If, like all beginners, you don't give agencies a reason to show your images and footage when customers are looking for something, you'll end up just wasting your time because your earnings won't be more than $50 per month.

Prices on Shutterstock

Shutterstock prices range from:

  • $79 to $199 for stock footage (depending on video)
  • $0.25 to $10 for stock images

Alongside single sales, there are subscriptions, which is also the reason why, especially after Shutterstock launched low cost subscriptions, contributors sometimes only get a dollar for a sale of a video.

Pay attention:

You stil can take home a serious income with microstock

but it is not easy.

Bureaucracy

A lot of people love microstock, because:

  • You make money
  • You do what you would do for free

Until 2006 I used to walk on the streets of European capitals with my camera around my neck. The images and videos that I created up to that moment had never generated a single euro.

Then I discovered the microstock business and I started being paid for what I loved to do. Initially I did exactly the same things I did before, taking pictures and shooting videos freely.

Then, due to increasingly fierce competition, I professionalized the production, focusing not only on the creation of content, but also on the boring parts of the job, such as:

  • writing titles and keywords in a certain way
  • searching for the subjects most requested by the market

As for the latter, unfortunately, in the last few years these subjects have stopped being the ones I loved the most, the big cities populated by tourists, as many people love to travel and being able to do it by paying for flights and hotels by photographing is the dream of millions of people.

That's why, if I write Paris on Shutterstock today, hundreds of thousands of photos appear in the search engine:

as evidence that it has become difficult to earn by photographing and filming tourist destinations.

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.

As a low-cost traveler, I paid my travel expenses 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 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:

He just had to:

  • study what the right subjects were
  • work hard to produce stock footage

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 query in Shutterstock’s search box (let’s say: New York)
  2. Thousands of stock images appear

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 view all the pictures of New York that Shutterstock collects.

Search engines are fundamental to online business.

There's no magic tricks to cheat the algorithm. You just have to consider the description of your stock images and stock footage as important as the creation of them and find the most requested subjects by the buyer. Then if your images and footage start selling well, 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.

So 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 15-40% of what the buyers pay.

I already showed you at what price sells its content. 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:

The average royalties I get paid range from $10 to $20. You’ll notice, though, that there's a $105 sale. This was due to an extended licenses.

Here’s another example:

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.

The editorial license

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.

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 contributor:

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.

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.

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.

To testify that a loophole can always be found.

Useless but expensive strategies

The email messages I receive are always an inspiration for me. They help me to understand who the photographers and video makers are.

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.

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.

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.

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 how to cheat the agencies. They’ll always win anyway, since they pay trained people to counter these tricks.

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.

To make you understand how crazy it is to let your mood depend on your acceptance rate, I’ll tell you something: 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.

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.

By starting to create stock footage, you can earn more, 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.

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:

  • Portfolio/catalog manager

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

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:

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

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

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.

Low cost subscriptions and lower royalties: the turning point of Shutterstock

The strategy that has allowed Shutterstock to be the most loved agency by photographers and video makers for 10 years is due to a combination of factors:

  • steady and good sales
  • honest royalties paid to contributors (they used to pay 30% to everyone)
  • medium-high prices

As for the first element, after the decisions to lower prices and reschedule royalties taken in 2020 there were no major shocks.

The problem for contributors was to move to a new system of sale shares. In theory, compared to before, it gave benefits to those producers who sell the most. In the real world, 99.999% of us now earn less.

This is the table that explains the new royalty structure:

At the beginning of every year all the contributors start from scratch. So we begin by earning 15% of the selling price (half of what we used to).

To get to the previous level, 30%, for stock images you need at least 501 sales and for videos at least 251.

Low cost subscriptions

But in the same period Shutterstock has also started selling low-cost subscriptions.

The market scenario in which this happened was influenced by what another agency was doing. Storyblocks (read the guide on the agency) sells an unlimited downloads subscription plan for $199 a year.

It means that by spending that figure you can download more than a million videos from their collection. If their stock footage was poor, Shutterstock wouldn't have had a problem. But seeing that it isn't so, they could not wait to launch their own aggressive offer.

It is true that Adobe Stock still has prices very similar to those that Shutterstock had before the launch of low cost subscriptions, but as everyone has the right to set their policy, wasting time complaining, as contributors who join the Stock Coalition do (read their manifesto) in my opinion is a waste of time.

By the way, these are Shutterstock's subscription plans:

Pay attention: In the screenshot of my monthly earnings I showed you a less than one dollar figure for a single sale. If you take the lowest cost per clip from the table above (13.82 euros), and divide it by my current percentage (30%), the amount you get is 4.15 (euros, not dollars).

So why do they sometimes pay even less?

Because there are even cheaper subscription plans. Some of them are not advertised and can only be reached if Shutterstock notices that you are leaving the site:

With these "lower cost" subscription you can pay only 7.50 euros per clip. But looking at the figures they sometimes pay (less than a dollar), there are obviously even cheaper ones.

However, low cost subscriptions have always existed.

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 for YouTube, I too have purchased stock images and stock footage from the Bigstockphoto collection. Before Storyblocks started selling unlimited downloads subscriptions, it was the most convenient deal on the internet:

  • a subscription of 10 stock footage downloads per day for a month cost only €79
  • a subscription of 10 stock images downloads per day for a month cost only €79

But the Bigstockphoto collection was awful and never influenced other microstocks sales. Something that today I can't say for Storyblocks' or Shutterstock's subscription plans sales.

Do you want to make more money on Shutterstock?

I have 4 free videos that teach you how to sell more.

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Read the privacy policy.