Becoming a Shutterstock contributor

Shutterstock stock photography agency

When you venture into the world of stock photography, you will come across the name Shutterstock on many occasions. Shutterstock is one of the largest platforms for stock images, illustrations and videos. In this article I discuss the how and why, as well as the pros and cons of using Shutterstock from a contributors point of view. I will share my experience and my views on certain matters.

Stock photography

So, what is stock photography?   Imagine you are a content creator, writing an article about artichokes. Or about cruise ships. Maybe about the sun. Or you are creating an advertisement for a product that targets the elderly. In most cases you need images to support your article, advertisement, invite, magazine, etc. You can hire a photographer to take the exact photos you want, but that can be expensive. A much cheaper option would be to buy the rights to using a photo that already exists. That is where stock photography and stock photography agencies come in. Stock photography platforms are basically large databases of photos where people or businesses can buy the right to use them for all kinds of purposes.

Passive income from photography

Selling your photos through stock photography platforms can be a great way to earn passive income. However, passive income does not mean effortless income. You have to put in the work in advance, and then sit back and wait for the income to come in. For stock photography this means that you have to take the pictures, or select from photos that you have already taken. Then you have to think of a good title for your photo and provide keywords, so customers can find what they need. After that you can upload the photos to Shutterstock and then it’s their time to go to work. They will evaluate the quality of photo and, if it’s good enough, enter it into the database. From that moment on clients can purchase the rights to use the photo and if it sells the contributor will receive a part of the cut.

Stock photography is by no means a way to earn quick cash. By continually uploading good quality content, you will eventually build a portfolio of good work. The more good works you have, the more they will sell. It is important to shoot stuff that is relevant and fresh. You have to imagine yourself what a photo could used for. Can’t think of any good use? Then most likely the photo will never sell.

How to get started?

Before you can start sending in photos, you off course need to sign up. Just head over to the Shutterstock website (or use the button below), click the sign up button and enter your information. Part of the sign up process, is to send in some of your best photos for review. Only after these have been approved, will your account be activated. Be sure to think about what you want to send in, because it can be frustrating to get rejected and having to start again. Consider it a good test. But don’t worry, if your files get rejected you can just try again.

I advise you to carefully study the submission and account guidelines before sending in any photos. This contains useful information about what is and is not allowed. Another useful resource before getting started is the content review guideline. This gives you an insight in the aspects the reviewers pay attention to.

Uploading media

When you’re done reading up on the what en why, and you have selected the photos you would like to submit first, you can start uploading them. You will then have to think of a title and keywords for you images, and choose a category they belong in. You will also have to choose if you want to submit your photos with a commercial or editorial license. This is an important difference, and will cause many a headache for most beginning stock contributors. Read more about the difference between the two in my article Commercial or editorial license?

Shutterstock keyword tool

One of the big advantages of the Shutterstock website, is the keyword tool. Thinking of keywords can be a pain for contributors and it really is a skill you need to learn. On the other hand it is also very important to include the right keywords, as they help customers find the photos they need in the vast amount of images that the database contains. Including irrelevant keywords can get your photos rejected too. 

The tool Shutterstock provides, searches for images they already have in their database and show you their keywords. You can then select the keywords that apply to your image and easily add them. When your are adding the keywords manually, there will be keywords suggestions underneath the keywords you already added and below that is a link to the tool that says “find more keywords”. When click here, the tool will open in a new window. You will see images that have a visual similarity to your photo, but you can also enter search words to find more images. Then just click at least 3 images that are most relevant to your subject, the more the better. The keyword suggestions just pop up and you can select the ones you want to add to your submission.

Shutterstock image review

After you have submitted some photos to Shutterstock, they will appear in the Pending section. This means they need to be reviewed by Shutterstock before they are approved for sale. The review process can take anything from a couple of minutes to several days. In my experience it’s usually done within a day. When the review is done, you images will appear in the reviewed section, they will be visible there for 21 days. Accepted photos will be added to your portfolio and will be eligible for sale. Let the money come in!

When your image is rejected, the rejection reason or reasons will be given. The reasons for declining can vary from technical quality to poor composition, copyright issues, issues with the keywords, and more. When a photo has been declined, you can sometimes correct the issue and resubmit it. Sometimes, if you don’t agree with the rejection reason given, you can resubmit without changing a thing and find that it does get accepted the second time around. This has to do with the human reviewers that sometimes interperate the guidelines differently.

Even though rejections can be frustrating, they are always a learning opportunity. Don’t get knocked out by them, they will make you a better stock contributer in the long run.

Shutterstock contributor app

Besides the website, Shutterstock offers an app for contributors too. Although it is also possible to submit images through the app, I never use this feature. For me the app is an easy way to check the review status of photos I submitted, and a convenient tool to check sales and revenues. These features are easier to find and open then on the regular website. For me it’s also convenient that I can just quickly check them on the go without having to start the computer or open a laptop.

Earnings and payment

As a stock contributor you earn a commission when one of your files sells. This is no different for Shutterstock. You will earn a percentage of the price the image is sold for. It’s not easy to say exactly how much you will earn from one sale, because this can differ a lot. Firstly the sales price can vary a lot. A customer that buys just one image, will pay more then a buyer who buys many pictures. Shutterstock offers packages with credits for buyers who need a lot of images. The more you buy, the cheaper the credits. This means that when a big buyer purchases your photo, you will earn less. The minimum commission you receive at Shutterstock is $0.10.

An other thing that influences the prices, is the use of the photo. The standard license has limits for the use, such as maximum number of prints or restrictions in use. If the buyer has other needs, they can purchase an enhanced license. At a higher price off course, earning the contributor a higher commission.

Contributor levels

The last thing that influences the commission payed out to the contributor, is the level system.  You can climb levels by selling assets. This means if you a large high quality portfolio, you will most likely sell more photos and climb the levels faster. When you reach a higher level the percentage of your commission for the next sales goes up. 

In the past the contributor level was never reset, so once you got up to a higher level you would stay there. A couple of years ago, in a controversial move, this system was changed by Shutterstock. Now, at the beginning of the year, each January, all contributors are reset to level 1. This change caused a lot of commotion with long time contributors, who believed their earnings would drop dramatically. Still every year in January many newer contributors are surprised to see their level dropped back to 1 after just having reached the second level.

One question regarding commission and levels I often hear is: “Now that I have reached level 2, I still get $0.10 commissions”. This is easily explained. The $0.10 is the minimum payout amount for Shutterstock. And your commission is a percentage of the sales price. Most likely your commission would have been less then $0.10 for most $0.10 sales, but since the minimum they have to payout is $0.10 you actually received more then the actual calculated commission. With you being at level 2, the commission for many sales will still be below the minimum, still resulting in a $0.10 payout. The difference is in the sales with a higher commission. These payouts will increase in amount when you reach a higher level.

Data license

Shutterstock introduced data licensing as a new way of earning money from your photography in 2023. Your images can be used to train AI by machine learning. Even photos that have not been accepted into your Shutterstock portfolio can be eligible for data licensing. I wrote an in depth article about Shutterstocks data license for you to read if you need more information on this subject.


Once you have earned enough, you can get Shutterstock to pay your balance to you. There are three payment options; Payoneer, PayPal or Skrill. You can set a minimum payout amount and payout method in your account settings. The lowest minimum payout amount you can choose is $35. When your account balance exceeds your minimum payout amount at the end of a month, your balance will be payed out. I usually receive my payments from Shutterstock on my PayPal account in the first week of the month.


Being one of the main players, Shutterstock is a force to be reckoned with in the stock photography world. My personal experience with Shutterstock has always been good. Everything works flawlessly without technical hickups or downtimes. The keywording tool is very useful, especially for beginning contributors. Off course there are also some points of critique around the low commissions and the resetting level system. All in all, due to the high number of sales, Shutterstock is still the highest earning platform for me at this moment. If you’ve gotten excited about the platform after reading this article, catch up with my tips for stock photography and click the button below to sign up as a contributor now!


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