Updated: Feb 12
I’ve been contributing stock photography to the Shutterstock microstock site since April 2021 and so far, they’ve been my biggest income earner. But, I almost gave up on them several times. This review explains what I learnt along the way.
*Updated in January 2022* - while I initially wrote this article about my first 100 sales, I've since made more than 500 sales and made my first $150. I also haven't uploaded anything for a few months and yet I'm continuing to make a small income from it.
Shutterstock for beginners
Shutterstock is what’s referred to as a microstock photography site which means it’s low cost, high volume, there are a lot of contributors, lots of buyers and a anyone can upload photos to start making money as long as the individual images pass a quality test.
You don’t need to be approved before you start uploading, anyone can start selling straight away, but your photos do need to be approved and they are quite strict regarding what they will and won’t accept. I’ve found Shutterstock to be the most strict when it comes to approval rate and rejections, and often what they do or don’t accept doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m convinced they use an AI computer system for their approvals because sometimes an image will be refused due to the “main subject being out of focus”, where as any human would have picked up that selective focus was used to intentionally draw the eye to a different part of the image. They’ve also rejected images for having ISO grain that were shot at 100 ISO in full sun with a sandy (intentionally grainy) background. When I resubmitted with the keywords “sandy background”, it was accepted. Anyway - that’s just my hunch, if you know any more about this approval process, please comment below!
Most of my sales from Shutterstock have been a measly 10c. Yep, beautiful photos that I’ve spent hours shooting, editing, uploading, keywording, you make a sale and it is - surprise! Not enough to buy… anything really. HOWEVER - don’t let me lose you yet. Because while the income from individual photos is very small, they have a huge client base and therefor I’ve made more sales on this site than any other site, adding up to a higher overall income.
How long did it take to make my first sale on Shutterstock?
I had heard that some people made their first sale on Shutterstock the very first day their first batch was approved so I had high hopes! However, that wasn’t my experience.
It didn’t take me too much longer, my first sale took me three days. It was a photo of a stunning Broome sunset with a group of people (silhouettes) playing near the water. It was 10 cents, which told me it was a subscriber purchase. 10c is the lowest you can make from a single sale on Shutterstock.
My next sale didn’t come for another 13 days, at which stage I was feeling pretty disheartened, but this was a 52c sale, so at least it was a little higher than the first one. And then I made my third sale only one day later. Over the course of my first month I made 4 sales totalling 82c, from a folio which had about 100 images by the end of the month. Not going to pay the bills! But, in all the research I had done, I knew to be patient and to persist, keep on uploading, and so I did.
How much money do I make from Shutterstock now?
After about 6 weeks I had made a total of 18 sales with a portfolio of 200 images - with a total earning of… drum roll… less than $3. It was pretty disheartening. It had taken me hours and hours of uploading too. As Shutterstock’s approval rating had been really poor, I had uploaded probably 500 images, only to have 200 approved. You’d think this was a sign that the quality just wasn’t good enough, but I was having an approval rating of close to 100% on other sites and many of the reasons given for the rejections didn't fit the photos. Some of them were fair enough, some of them weren't.
So at the 6 week mark I decided to give up. About 24 hours later I made my first sale of over $2 (I know right, RICH!) and then had a day where I made 6 sales in a single day. So, I decided to persist and see where it would take me, feeling sheepish and like I had just agreed to give an abusive ex a second chance after they rocked up on my doorstep with flowers.
My Shutterstock earnings started picking up from there onwards, and while it took me 6 weeks to make 18 sales, I made my next 18 sales in about half that time, and they’ve been increasing week on week since.
I’ve also since had multiple sales around the $2 and $3 mark, so my faith in the ability to actually make money from shutterstock has been boosted - only just slightly. Short term pain, long term gain. I hope?!
I currently have 300 images in my portfolio, I’ve been selling for under 4 months, made 77 sales and about $20. Less than it cost me to shout a homeless guy a hot lunch and a coffee last week because it was bloody cold.
Can you earn a decent income from Shutterstock?
***Updated Jan 2022***
6 months later, I've only uploaded an additional 100 images to Shutterstock, and yet my contributor earnings have risen significantly. I now have 407 published images, have made 490 sales, and have earned $160. Considering the time and effort I put in early, it's slave labour, but considering I enjoy it as a hobby and no longer spend any time on it, it's quite nice to have a bit of extra passive income. I also feel confident that if I did bother continuing to upload, I'd be able to increase my monthly income.
So, Shutterstock remains a passion project rather than a get-rich-quick scheme, but I'm feeling encouraged at just how quickly my sales are increasing.
Here are my first few month's results with a portfolio of 300 images:
April 2021: $0.82 (4 sales)
May 2021: $1.50 (10 sales)
June 2021: $9.86 (39 sales)
July 2021: $13.12 (55 sales)
Portfolio increased to 400 images
August 2021: $20.44 (75 sales)
September 2021: $27.82 (82 sales)
October 2021: $23.97 (86 sales)
I'll be honest, while the earnings so far are small, I get a little kick every time I see my download count tick over in the app, which is several times a day. So it's a bit of fun, for now!
If I were to start all over again, I'm not sure I'd dedicate the same amount of time to this website, I'd probably either smash through the uploads with greater speed and less TLC, or save myself a bunch of time by using Wirestock and letting someone else do all the keywording and metadata for me. Read more about how Wirestock works here.
Sign up to become a shutterstock contributor through my referral link here if you're interested in giving out a go.
Here's my portfolio of images if you want to check it out. I've discovered that my editorial photos of news and current affairs sell the best so far. Certainly not the most technically brilliant, but the most sought after.
Keen to sell your photos on other sites too? Here are my referral links to: