How to Become a Shutterstock Contributor to Make Money

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This article goes over how to become a Shutterstock contributor and sell photos online. This beginner’s guide will also cover many aspects that can help you become a successful stock photographer.

My wife and I have been doing stock photography as a full-time business since 2015. We built a passive income stream and earn a living from our stock photography portfolio. Over these years, we accumulated a lot of experience on how to sell photos online and make money.

As a word of warning, stock photography is no get-quick-rich scheme. It takes a lot of time and experience to accumulate a large enough portfolio to earn a decent livelihood. If you keep your expectations low, you won’t be disappointed.

How to Sign Up as a Shutterstock Contributor

You can sign up for a Shutterstock contributor account at the Shutterstock contributor webpage. You will need to supply your email and address. Also, provide your payment and tax information to get paid. Shutterstock pays contributors through Payoneer, PayPal or Skrill between the 7th and 15th of each month.

In the past, you had to go through the approval process by submitting your best 10 images. You could become a Shutterstock contributor only if Shutterstock approved at least 7 out of 10 submitted images. But, Shutterstock no longer does that. So, it is easier than ever to become a Shutterstock contributor and start selling photos online.

How to Deal with Common Photo Rejections as a Shutterstock Contributor

The most common rejection reasons on Shutterstock are: (1) noise, (2) out of focus images and (3) incorrect exposure. To maximize your acceptance rate, there are a few important steps to take here. You must complete some of these actions before you even click the shutter release button.  

Chiusi, Italy narrow alley street in small historic town village in Tuscany
Narrow alley in Chiusi, Italy

Take Photos in RAW Format

First, we recommend taking photos in raw format. The main reason is that raw format images store a much higher dynamic range of colors. Using raw images, you can recover a lot of details from shadows and highlights and avoid undesired noise. You will create JPEG files as a final product though.

Properly Expose Your Photos

The next thing is to make sure that your images are correctly exposed. You can use built-in exposure meters in your camera to see if you are under- or overexposing. With mirrorless cameras, it is even easier. What you see in a viewfinder is what you get in your recorded image file.

If the image is not properly exposed, you will be sliding shadows and highlights sliders in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom to the extreme. This can bring out a lot of noise. So, correct exposure is the number one priority above anything else.

Reduce Handheld Camera Shake

When you take photos handheld, ensure that your shutter speed is at least double of your focal length. This will maximize the sharpness of your photos. For instance, if you are taking a photo with a 35mm lens, then your shutter speed should be at least 1/70 of a second. After you take a photo, check that your subject is in focus on your camera preview display.

Many modern cameras and lenses come with a vibration reduction function. This function can help you to take handheld photos with shutter speeds below 2x of your focal length. But you do not have to follow this rule-of-thumb. This is true, if you have a tripod, artificial lighting or going after certain artistic effect (e.g. panning).

New York City, Midtown Manhattan Columbus Circle and Broadway street road with panning shot of one single young man, guy rollerblading roller skating in motion

Reduce Undesired Noise

Noise shows up when you use a high ISO setting. Depending on your camera, you are likely to see undesired noise with an ISO setting above 400. There are several ways to deal with noise, in pre- and post-processing.

Dealing with In-Camera Noise

First, use a tripod, which will allow you to cut on camera shake and use lower shutter speeds. You can also use artificial light from a softbox or flash. We love and use the Neewer softbox lighting kit. This kit features 3 softboxes with extendable boom arms. It also comes along with wireless control of light color and light intensity. This lighting kit becomes handy if you plan to branch out into creating stock videos.

The other thing you can do is to open up your lens by decreasing the f-stop number. This will let in more light into your glass and hit the camera image sensor. By doing so, you won’t have to use high-ISO settings. But be careful. Lower f-stop numbers bring a shallow depth of field with them. This means that there is a narrower distance range that will be in focus. Also, low f-stop settings are associated with lower sharpness for a given lens. So, keep these things in mind.

Dealing with Post-Processing Noise

Before uploading your images to Shutterstock, make sure to inspect them at 100% zoom level. You can do so in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom or any other photo editing software you use. We use Adobe Photoshop along with Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Bridge to edit and manage our photos. Adobe Bridge is available to anyone for free

We recommend Adobe photo editing software programs for their speed and useful features.

Adobe Photoshop image with free trial try now button

You can remove noise in post-processing in the “Detail” tab in Adobe Camera Raw or Adobe Lightroom. We use this method when we have a very noisy image. Otherwise, there are many plugins on the market that find and remove noise in specific areas of an image.

We use Topaz Denoise AI after testing several denoise programs. But, none of the above-mentioned methods are perfect. Sometimes we prefer removing noise manually in Adobe Photoshop. We create a separate layer and apply the denoise function in Adobe Camera Raw. Then, we mask out parts of an image that do not need noise reduction.

Increase Sharpness in Post-Processing

If you are having sharpness issues in post-processing, there are Adobe Photoshop plugins that can help you with that. We tested several of them and decided to use Topaz Sharpen AI. It can do wonders sometimes to out-of-focus images. I am amazed at times what these programs are capable of these days.

But, I must warn you that hoping to correct sharpness or noise in post-processing is the wrong mindset. It is better to put your best effort to make sure that images are sharp and devoid of noise before even taking them. This will cut a lot of unnecessary and redundant work later.

Make Your Images Stand Out

Before submitting your images to stock photo websites, make sure that they stand out. If your images are colorless and get lost among images of other stock photographers, their ranking will suffer. This means that you photos will appear much later on the search results pages. If you image does not show up on at least the first three pages of search results, the likelihood of a sale goes down substantially.

Kyoto Garden at Holland Park, London UK, featuring traditional zen Japanese garden with bamboo trees and waterfall
Japanese Kyoto Garden at Holland Park, London UK

To make our images attract a buyer’s attention, we always give it a final look from a buyer’s perspective. Besides tools in Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Photoshop, we also take advantage of DXO Nik Collection plugin. We especially like their Color Efex suite of filters that create tonal contrast and spotlight certain colors. We use these filters because it is difficult or time-consuming to create a certain color look. In this regard, DXO Nik Collection plugin is an excellent alternative.

Keyword and Title Images to Maximize Sales as a Shutterstock Contributor

The next task is to keyword and title your images. We made a comprehensive guide on keywording and tagging stock photos. There, we detail how to produce keywords and titles to maximize your sales on Shutterstock and other stock photo platforms.

Keywording and titling stock photos is a necessary evil. While it can be boring, having poor keywords and titles will almost certainly guarantee poor or no sales. Learning this skill is not difficult, but it will take a little time to get used to it.

Image License Types on Shutterstock

There are two types of licenses that you can choose for each image on Shutterstock.

Commercial Stock Photos

Commercial images do not contain any recognized people or property. An example of property could be logos, brands and trademarks and even someone’s house. If you have a recognizable people or property, you must provide Shutterstock with a model or property release.

Young woman and man couple standing in dark passage tunnel of fortification castle wall in Castiglione del Lago, Italy
Exploring ancient castle of Castiglione del Lago, Italy

We use the Easy Release app to manage all our property and model releases. The app creates JPEG and pdf versions of model and property releases, which all major stock photo websites accept. Easy Release takes information and creates releases in digital format only. This includes even getting signatures from all required parties from your phone. The app costs a little bit of money, but it is totally worth it.

Editorial Stock Photos

Editorial images contain recognizable people and property for which you cannot provide releases. Editorial content comes with its own restrictions. For instance, buyers cannot use it for commercial purposes or promote products. The editorial license limits the use of such images for news and other informational purposes. For this reason, many stock photographers prefer taking commercial photos. We take both types of images and they sell well for us.

Adobe Stock recognizes a third license type called illustrative editorial. In 2019, Adobe issued guidelines for illustrative editorial images. There, they define such images as photos depicting brands, products and logos. Adobe requires that illustrative editorial images have no recognizable people in them.

Person holding iPhone phone screen with Spotify music app application. An example of illustrative editorial image for Adobe Stock.
An example of illustrative editorial image (no recognizable people visible)

How to Supply Image Keywords, Descriptions Efficiently to Shutterstock

After creating keywords and titles, we record this information in a separate spreadsheet. We prefer Google Sheets for their ease of access and automatic backup. This spreadsheet has such columns as file name, license type, description and keywords. You can download this sample spreadsheet for your own use, if you’d like.

Tracking record spreadsheet for stock photo image files to keep track of keywords, titles, descriptions, license types and acceptance and rejections on stock photography websites

You can also include columns that will keep track of rejections or acceptances of your images on Shutterstock and other stock photography agencies.

The next step is to think how to provide your metadata (e.g. keywords, descriptions) to Shutterstock. There are generally 3 approaches to do this task.

Approach #1: Manual Copy and Paste

Approach #1 is to manually copy and paste metadata for each image for each website. You want to avoid this tedious and time-consuming approach. It is highly inefficient.

Approach #2: Embed Metadata into Image Files

Approach #2 is to embed metadata into images before uploading them. Image file will contain keywords and descriptions before you upload them. Each stock photo platform will recognize and populate this data for you upon upload. There are generally 2 ways to embed metadata into stock photos.

Embed Metadata with Adobe Bridge

This is an easy to understand and follow method. We made a tutorial on how to embed metadata using Adobe Bridge. Embedding metadata with Adobe Bridge is superior to approach #1. But, it still involves a fair amount of clicking.

Embed Metadata with the Free Exiftool Program

This is our preferred method of embedding metadata into image files. The free Exiftool program writes keywords, titles and other metadata quickly and efficiently. Moreover, Exiftool does this task for batches of files. Take a look at our comprehensive tutorial on how to use Exiftool on both MacOS and Windows. No programming experience is required to use Exiftool.

Approach #3: Upload CSV Function

The third approach is to upload a comma-separated values (CSV) spreadsheet file. This file must contain metadata in a format required by stock photo platforms. The way this method works is the following. First, you upload your images. Then, you upload the CSV file containing keywords, titles and other metadata. Each stock photo website will get hold of metadata from CSV file and display it for your uploaded images.

We made a tutorial on how to use the Upload CSV function. We use Exiftool to embed metadata into our images. However, uploading a CSV metadata file is an efficient approach too.

Uploading and Submitting Images on Shutterstock

The next part is to upload your images. To do so, major stock photo websites recommend using a file transfer protocol (ftp) program. We use the free Filezilla program.

Once you uploaded your images, choose the type of license for each image on Shutterstock. Next, you would choose 2 categories for each image and location if it is important for your content. Otherwise you can leave this field blank. Then hit the submit button and you are done! You can also select and submit many images at the same time.

Around 2020, Shutterstock introduced weekly submission limits. Since then, you can only submit 500 images and 100 videos in a 7-day period.

Shutterstock Contributor Earnings

Once your images are up for sale, Shutterstock will give you a cut from each sale. The cut ranges from 15% to 40% depending on your achieved sales level.

Shutterstock contributor earnings table with levels and earnings percentages for photos images, illustrations and vectors

If you have few images, you will be somewhere between level 1 and 3. The more you sell, the higher your percentage cut gets. These levels reset each year on January 1.

The total dollar amount for each sale depends on the type of subscription plan a buyer is on. For instance, the subscription plan for 50 images a month costs $99 or $1.98 per each download. If you are on level one, you will get 15% of it or about 30¢.

Not all sales are subscription-based. There are also one-time buyers who pay big bucks for each download and you can get a large cut from such sales. Also, stock videos pay very well and we recommend that you start submitting stock videos too. The amount you earn will depend on the type of a buyer and which subscription plan he or she is on.

As a Shutterstock contributor, your task is to smash through those levels. By doing so, you will avoid leaving money on the table for Shutterstock to pick up.

Sales will likely increase as you accumulate a large portfolio of diverse images. It is important to remember that stock photography is a numbers game and it is a long game. We wrote two posts discussing the pros and cons of doing stock photography for a living. There, we share our experience and take if stock photography is still worth it.

Should You Resubmit Your Rejected Images?

On average it takes 2 to 5 days for Shutterstock to review your content. Do not get discouraged if you see high rejections at the beginning. Even now, our rate of acceptance can range from 50% to 90%.

The acceptance rate depends on license type, reviewer and quality of submitted images. In our experience, editorial reviewers are stricter than reviewers of commercial images. It can also happen that we get an picky reviewer. This reviewer can reject many high-quality images sometimes for spurious reasons.

Chiusi Scalo houses in Tuscany, Italy town cityscape and red geranium flowers in garden foreground on building terrace patio landscape view
Cityscape of Chiusi, Tuscany in Italy

One way to cope with rejections is to improve your photography skills. Also, you can note the reasons for rejections, re-edit and resubmit images again. This is where that tracking spreadsheet we mentioned earlier comes in handy. With it, you can track which image got accepted or rejected. We often correct and resubmit our content. This alone improved our cumulative rate of acceptance to over 90%.

How to Improve Your Photography Skills as a Shutterstock Contributor

There is a whole creative aspect to stock photography. You will need to train your eye to see creatively, which is a fun process in and of itself. While there are so many resources on photography, we love books by Bryan Peterson. Bryan is a successful photographer and even better teacher. He has an extensive experience of running his own photography school for decades.

My all time favorite book by Bryan is Learning to See Creatively first published in 1988. It was my first photography book I got hold of and helped me hone my photography skills.

Bryan wrote many other excellent books. Among them are Understanding Exposure, Understanding Composition, and Understanding Closeup Photography. I recommend Bryan Peterson’s books if you are starting or want to brush up on your knowledge.

Also, there is the skill of editing photos in Adobe Photoshop. When I started my photography journey, I watched many classes online from CreativeLive. There is an excellent class on Adobe Photoshop by Ben WIllmore. There is also another great class Fundamentals of Photography by John Greengo.

While you need to pay for classes, CreativeLive makes some of them free to watch during live broadcasts. This is actually how I got to watch and learn from CreativeLive. The drawback of free live classes is that you have to be available to watch them when they go live. You can check out the CreativeLive schedule of live free classes on their website.

Concluding Remarks

We hope this tutorial inspired you to become a Shutterstock contributor. Stock photography could be a great way to improve your photography skills and build a passive income stream.

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