I have started a new series of blog posts, going into details for each of the agencies I am submitting to. The first one was a review of GL Stock Images, today I’ll talk about Shutterstock, the best earner for me since going independent.
Website design and functionality
Shutterstock has a very modern and clean design, lots of white space and a few sprinkles of images on their homepage. The prominent search box in the center of the page clearly shows their orientation to search functionality. As has been stated in the past quite often, Shutterstock does its best to present matching images to any search a customer enters, so they are not into curation collections or galleries.
A second key proposition is “any image, any size, one price” which means that any given client does not have to wade through results from different collections to understand why some of them might be ten times more expensive than others. It doesn’t mean all images for all clients cost the same – the price is differentiated by the type of user, buying model, licenses. While their monthly and annual subscriptions are certainly still a key to success, the number of image packs, single image downloads and extended license types is lower but returns much more on average.
File Types, Search Results
Shutterstock holds around 25 million visual media items – photos, illustrations and videos. Their library is broad and covers all ranges of topics. Even a search for Currywurst – a very local topic for Germans – returns a full page of images to choose from.
The pricing varies depending on the type of subscription you choose. The smallest payment possible is €39 which covers either 5 large of 12 web resolution images. I can’t say how much this is for US buyers but I assume it would be $49. So for a very small buyer, Shutterstock is not the cheapest site to choose as the minimum is higher than on most other sites. Someone looking for just one or two images should choose a single image site like GL Stock Images.
The simplicity for the buyer is that – with the exception of the choice between “all sizes” and “small and medium only” for image packs – he does not have to worry about the file type or size he is looking for. He pays for a number of images he needs which most buyers know better than the exact size they might be needing.
Obviously most buyers will (have to) buy more than they actually need. I guess no one really needs 750 images a month – a large publishing house might but they will have multiple departments and designers, not a single person. So it does not cost extra to just download a few files to choose from or some image which you are not sure if you need it. My assumption is that a significant amount of images downloaded (I would actually guess more than half of the downloads) will never end up in a published product, be it a website, an ad or a brochure.
Among all the agencies I am submitting to, Shutterstock has one of the most simple to use and well designed contributor area. Uploading through FTP is quick and easy, the images usually show up within minutes (occasionally half an hour) in my upload area. The categorization is very simple with a short list of categories and it can be done on multiple images at once.
Shutterstock drops the “title” from IPTC data and only uses the description which has to be considered when preparing files locally. So it is important to mention the main content not only in the title but also in description field at the beginning. The description is limited to 200 characters.
Also, Shutterstock has an extensive directory of words, it will claim and automatically remove duplications (“object” and “objects”) and mention potentially misspelled words. The contributor still have the last word on it, so if I want to have the German word “Weissbier” (wheat beer) in my keywords and description, I just have to confirm that it’s not a mistake.
You can submit up to 40 images at once per page but there is no daily or monthly limit. Images are usually reviewed within one week, sometimes a few days. There is something special about the review: Once your account reaches the top of the queue, all of your recent submissions will be reviewed at once. So if you upload images on Tuesday, some on Thursday and some on Sunday, even the Sunday images will be reviewed at the same time as the prior ones. For me that means it can be an advantage to have a few images ready to be uploaded immediately after a review – it “reserves” a spot in the queue and you can add more images the days after.
The reviews on Shutterstock are strict, similar to iStockphoto. However, Shutterstock is even more restricting with regards to potential intellectual property issues – for me that means, modern architecture images are hard to get through. Also, they have a strict policy about focus: It should be on the front part of the main object in your image. Occasionally I have received rejections for images where I deliberately had a blurred element in front of the main object. Overall my acceptance at Shutterstock is in the range of 90%, so it can easily be worked with if you know what not to submit.
They are relying a lot on the strength of their search engines figuring out which images to show, so I had no rejections for keywords or description so far (even though I had a series described totally wrong as part of a copy & paste error).
An interesting part of Shutterstock is the sales feedback. You can see the locations of buyers for your most recent downloads, and you also get information about search terms used by buyers to find your images. This can certainly be helpful in your planning and keywording for the future.
Downloads, Sales, Royalties
The download volume on Shutterstock is enormous: In the first half of April I had almost 200 downloads on my portfolio of about 1,000 images. Images are getting downloads quickly after approval as subscription buyers seem to look out for new images when they still have downloads left in their accounts. Only between 10 and 20 per cent of downloads are not from subscriptions – however, they make up an important part of the royalties. I was lucky to receive an Extended License download for $80 once which makes for a quarter of my total earnings so far. Other image packs make up another quarter, so subscription sales are accounting for about half of the earnings.
Earnings in total have been about $65 in the first half of April and are accounting for the largest share of my total royalties at the moment. To reach a total of $500 on Shutterstock is quite important as at that level contributors are getting higher royalties – subscription sales will make $0.33 instead of $0.25, so the growth will be about 30%. I expect to reach the $500 mark in May, after about four months selling on Shutterstock, and it would mean my income could grow to about $200 a month from SS. Given the current trends, it will be hard for iStock even including the partner program, to even get close to that number, so at that time I expect Shutterstock to be by far the largest source of royalties.
Don’t I regret selling my images at that low price?
Well, there is a bit of a bad feeling to know that even the largest resolution can be downloaded and result in a mere $0.25 for me. However, as I stated above, my assumption is that a majority of downloads will never make it into a final design, they are used as comp images, for choice or just because a buyer has some downloads left in his account. While at other agencies I assume each image paid for is meant for a specific purpose before spending money on it, at Shutterstock I have the feeling that I often get paid for what buyers would download as (free, watermarked) comp at other places. This, and the fact that significant parts of my royalties are coming from larger sales as well, make up for the low subscription payouts in my opinion.
And quite honestly: That is also part of being a microstock photographer – because the average payment per download is not higher and can even be quite a bit lower on most of the other sites, especially those with a strong subscription offer. Being an exclusive iStock contributor means you are beyond the “normal” microstock these days as – with E+, Vetta, TAC, GI Sales – you have access to higher paying parts of the market as well. When I decided to start offering my images in microstock in 2007, my average royalties as an iStock exclusive also were well below $1 per download, they only grew beyond that in 2009 after the first series of price raises.
But it also means I am considering which images to offer in the microstock environment – and which not. I think there is a lot of images that are attractive but too specific to be downloaded often enough by a variety of buyers. But the buyers wanting those images are willing to pay more for the use. Those images will go to mid or macro stock in the future with a clear focus on Stocksy, of course. It will be hard to figure what works best where, though. But it also gives me much more freedom to make the decision myself instead of trusting someone else to make the decision to accept my images to Vetta or Agency – which never worked for me anyways. So I am quite happy where I am. It could always be better but that is totally up to me now. What else could I wish for.