Shutterstock Review: How I’ve Made Over $79,888.53 Selling Photos Online

shutterstock contributor earnings screenshot

One of my favorite side hustles of all time is Shutterstock. I’ve been a Shutterstock contributor for over ten years and in that time I have made over $79,888.53, basically while sitting in my pajamas. 

If you’re looking for a great way to make money online and you enjoy taking pictures, Shutterstock may be a great little side hustle to explore.

Here We Cover:

What is Shutterstock?

Shutterstock (  is a popular microstock photography company based out of New York City. It was founded in 2003 by CEO Jon Oringer. Shutterstock is basically a huge online marketplace where you can buy and sell videos, illustrations, photographs, vectors and music. Today it is a publicly traded company (ticker NYSE:SSTK).

My Personal Review of Shutterstock for Contributors

I get it.  When you’re looking for ways to make money online, it’s hard to to parse the legit opportunities from the scams and “opportunities” that will make you almost nothing for a huge amount of work, right? 

What is worth your time? I am here to tell you Shutterstock is worth your time. It’s the real deal. No BS. 

You can make a very nice side income here, and many people make a full time living with their Shutterstock portfolio.

Now, let me be clear: It takes work, and you have to hustle to do well here, but you definitely can make legitimate money on Shutterstock. Of all the mircrostock sites, it is the best, in my humble opinion. 

Read on to learn why I love selling photos at Shutterstock. 

Is Shutterstock A Scam or Legit?

Shutterstock is legit. I have had such great experiences over the years with them. Back in the early days, I would even email the founder Jon with questions and he’d get back promptly and politely. Of course he’s probably too busy taking baths in vats of money to do that now.. haha, but he deserves it! He built a great company.

I have been delighted with the opportunities Shutterstock has given me and found them fair and reasonable in all their interactions with me as a contributor over the years. They’ve paid me every cent they owed me on time, given me raises and honored all of their commitments to me over the years. I trust them. 

Can You Make Money on Shutterstock?

shutterstock earnings
Here are my Shutterstock earnings to date.

Can you make an income on Shutterstock? Oh heck yeah.

I would not call myself a professional photographer ( I am self taught) but I have made over $79,888.53 as a Shutterstock contributor. That’s an average of $7,988 per year. Sure, that is not a full time salary in a first world country, but it is a VERY nice side income to make from something you love doing and goes a long way when we are living in Thailand.

My Shutterstock income has allowed me to pursue adventure, purchase higher end camera equipment and go on trips I’d have otherwise said no to. It has helped pay off my student loan. Yes, you can totally really, honest to goodness make money on Shutterstock. 

My mom also got into uploading on Shutterstock around the same time I did. Her focus was to upload vectors (graphic illustrations) instead of photos. She taught herself a design program (Illustrator) and worked hard at uploading, and THIS is a snapshot of her current earnings to date. I don’t think either she or I expected anything like this when we first started out, that’s for darn sure. If you’re curious you can check out her image portfolio here. And fun fact: Hallmark cards discovered her on Shutterstock and has since commissioned her for some greeting card work. How cool! 

shutterstock earnings report
My mom’s Shutterstock earnings to date (she uploads vectors, not photos).

How Much Does Shutterstock Pay Contributors?

So, you’re probably wondering the million dollar question: How much money can I actually make on Shutterstock?

The answer is it depends. Shutterstock is amazing because you basically write your own ticket. If you’re willing to be tenacious and work hard, there is no limit to how much money you can make. I am here to tell you loud and clear that Shutterstock is not a scam, it is a safe and legitimate company that has paid me faithfully each month for over ten years.

In terms of how much Shutterstock pays contributors, Shutterstock will first pay you 25 cents each time someone downloads one of your pictures. There’s eventually tiered set of raises as your sales volumes grow – you’ll make 33 cents, 36 cents and 38 cents for every download when you reach the $500, $3,000 and $10,000 lifetime earning milestones. I am at the 38 cent per download rate right now.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but Shutterstock is a volume game. People all over the world see your pictures every day, and you have the opportunity to make so many dang sales.

shutterstock screenshot showing my sales and where they were bought
These are photos that have sold today, with little dots on the map showing where in the world they were purchased.

How to Get Accepted as A Shutterstock Contributor

After you register a contributor account and choose a username, you need to get accepted as a contributor. 

To be accepted into Shutterstock you apply by submitting ten of your best photos to their initial test. It used to be that you had to have 8 out of 10 images pass the test but nowadays it’s much easier—you only need 1 image to pass! That said, it can still be tricky to pass the test, so you need to be careful.

Don’t mess this part up. Following are some tips on how to pass your initial contributor test at Shutterstock. I recommend you read these carefully.

Tips for Passing Your Initial Image Test on Shutterstock

There are for sure some classic mistakes people make in submitting their first images to Shutterstock.

You can’t be precious about your images.

Uploading stuff that’s beautiful and you are emotionally attached to  but that’s not technically acceptable, i.e., has blown highlights, focus is a little off, or the image has excessive noise, incomplete model releases no property releases etc. is a common error.

The technical rules are strict. No exceptions. Follow them. 

Shutterstock has written an article called “How to Prepare Your First Submission” that’s pretty useful for an overall look at how to approach submitting images. 

From my perspective, If I could only give you ONE TIP to getting accepted into Shutterstock, it would be to make sure your images are not AT ALL noisy.

Zoom in to 100% in your photo editing program, and if you see ANY noise, you need to run a noise filter on them. In the stock world, noise is a huuuuge no-no. 

At first it seemed a bit insane to me, I had so many images rejected for noise where I could barely see any grain in the images at all. But eventually I decided to just accept it. If I wanted to succeed at Shutterstock, I needed to upload photos with no noise.

I used to remove the noise manually in Photoshop. Later when I got more serious about uploading images to sell, I invested in Noiseware to save time and just do it way better. There are free programs out there too, but nowadays I personally use and love Imageonic Noiseware – it is incredible how well it works. 

Before I had this plugin, I got images rejected for noise all the dang time. It seems like that’s one of the reviewer’s favorite reasons for rejecting images.

Other tips to pass your initial image test at Shutterstock: 

Read through the guidelines and know what you can and can’t submit. (Boring I know, but trust me.)

Be strict and careful with model releases, if you’re uploading pictures of people. Property needs a release too, and artwork like paintings or tattoos do too. Be especially careful when uploading photos of kids, you need a specific photo release from their parents for that. I personally just keep it easy and mainly avoid things that need a lot of releases – I upload images of my friends (with their permission), dogs I love, and nature. Sometimes I will throw in detail shots of hands – weirdly, hands sell well. 

Examine each of your pictures at 100% on your computer screen so you can clone out dust and dirt etc.

Choose pictures that are not too artsy but rather that are solid, technically sound GOOD photos – strong composition, proper saturation, no blown highlights

Don’t upload ten pictures of the same thing. I know you love your dog (heck even I love your dog), but, try to have some variety in your submission (and ok full disclosure, some of my best selling images are of my dog… )

Shutterstock size requirement is 4mp minimum, don’t go way above this because the bigger the images you submit the more obvious any of their imperfections. Smaller images mask these a wee bit.

If you fail your first time don’t worry. You just have to wait 30 days and try again. MANY people fail, don’t take it personally, take it as a chance to learn.

If ONE out of ten of your photos are accepted then you’re in. Congrats! You now have a storefront to sell your photos from online. Welcome to the magic of internet money.

As in most things in life, from here on in the 80/20 rule applies. Twenty percent of your images will make you 80% of your money. My portfolio has over 5,400 images in it, and my top 100 images earn me most of my money.

What Stock Photos Sell Best on Shutterstock?

This photo I took of my friend Rob while we were hanging out in Hawaii more than paid for the trip. I am not sure why this one got so popular but it sells so well.

Here’s something crazy:

Some of my best-selling photographs on Shutterstock are fairly casual snaps I took of a good friend while we were on a trip to Hawaii. A bunch of us were all sitting around the pool, he started goofing off and jumping in and I grabbed my camera. Something about those images struck a chord with Shutterstock buyers, and with just a few hit photos, my trip to Hawaii ended up making me much more money than it cost me.

But listen, if I had a perfect formula for exactly what sells on Shutterstock, I’d be living on a private island somewhere and not writing this blog. (Well maybe I would write in between massages from my manservant Juan). 

In real life, no one can say exactly what will be a hit on Shutterstock. But there are definitely ways to work smarter not harder and upload images that have a WAY better chance of success. These days I don’t bother with images I know won’t be worth my time.

It’s key to be strategic with what you upload. Try to take pictures of things that will sell. Wondering what buyers are looking for? Shutterstock keeps a list of most requested shots. Use this as your guide. Would you stock the shelves of a store with weird things no one was looking for? Probably not.

In a nutshell I have found: People like pictures of people, animals, hands (weird but true), Christmasey-stuff, weddings, plants, famous places, and images with healthy food and good natural light. My more candid/real looking people do better than posey-posey stock looking stuff. Experiment and see what works for you. 

Good old Maxine! I snapped this photo on a walk. It has more than paid for the camera I used to take it. Good dog.

How to Succeeded As a Contributor on Shutterstock 

Have a Thick Skin. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, at first it’s hard to get the occasional or not-so-occasional rejection of your images by the Shutterstock team. It’s beyond frustrating when you work all day on a batch of images you think are awesome, only to have some or all of them rejected. And it definitely happens.

But, what I’ve decided over the years is rather than get mad at the reviewer, be open to the fact that for whatever reason, something was “off” about the rejected photos to someone. Maybe I’ll edit my rejects a little and resubmit, but if I’m feeling especially grumpy, at times I even just throw them in the trash and call it a day. BUT, if you can dust off your ego and handle the sure to come photo rejections, and just keep plugging away, it is so worth it.

Truly Think Like a Buyer. Buying stock photos sort of sucks. It’s page after page to wade through, things are very similar, and we’re all in a rush right? Put yourself in your buyer’s shoes, and create images that a) they’re actually looking for (Check out Shutterstock’s regularly updated Shot List for ideas) and that b) they can put copy onto (consider adding both vertical and horizontal photo options) and finally that c) pop on the page.

Remember, you need to stand out in a sea of other images, so clean, vibrant shots are going to be your best bet.

Keyword Like A Boss Keyword well and thoroughly. Cover Who/What/When/Where/Why in your title and description and use detailed, thorough keywords in the keyword area. Shutterstock offers specific keywording tips here. 

Always Be Uploading New Stuff. This will help buyers find your designs when they search “newest first”. 

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for a way to make money on the side and you enjoy photography, there’s no reason in the world not to try Shutterstock out. 

It has been life changing for me and I so recommend it as a way to make passive income and become a better photographer. It’s also SUPER COOL when you see your images out there in the world, used in unexpected places from magazines to commercials to billboard ads. If you ask me, why NOT earn money doing what you love?  

I’d love to hear your ideas, tips, questions and whatever I missed when it comes to being a Shutterstock contributor.

Leave a comment down below, and thanks for reading!

Oh, and if you think you might sign up to be a Shutterstock contributor and you’ve found this article helpful and want to throw a coffee or two my way (hopefully not at my face though), I’d so appreciate if you sign up through my referral link here, which earns me a small commission 🙂 

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