Why going exclusive as a microstock photographer doesn’t work.

Shutterstock has gone through many iterations to become what it is today. I started with 30,000 of my own images – and today we have a dynamic marketplace with over 20 million assets, 35,000 active contributors, and more than 550,000 customers. Today Shutterstock is the volume leader in the stock photography space, selling more than 2 images per second.

The marketplace for imagery that we’ve created could have gone in several directions, but we’ve learned a lot about both image buyers and image sellers over the past 9 years. I often get the question from buyers, sellers, investors, and press: “why don’t you encourage contributors to become exclusive at Shutterstock?” All of our competitors that are close to our scale offer exclusivity, but we do not. The answer seems simple to us, but it’s complex if you aren’t as close as we are to the business. The bottom line is that as a microstock photographer it just doesn’t make sense to be exclusive to any one agency. Here are the reasons why:

1) No longer is content the only competitive advantage, data is also a large component. To some this may not seem intuitive. We sell creative assets and at first glance one would think that having exclusive assets would be an advantage. We add over 10,000 images each day to our library of over 20 million images. We’ve sold over a quarter of a billion assets over the past 9 years. We have an incredible amount of data on these downloads. We know what search leads to what image, and at this point we can practically read the user’s mind in 14 different languages. Shutterstock is the volume leader, and therefore we are the data leader. In several languages we use the data we have to display the best search results for any given query. We obsess over search success – and if we can reduce the time it takes to get from search to download by a tenth of a second, we win that day. We iterate over and over and use whatever data we have to continuously find the best image for the customer. The best image for a given search isn’t one that another agency doesn’t have, it’s the one that will get chosen and downloaded. Out of over 20 million images, with 10,000 more each day, we’re likely to have the image you need. We believe that if we can get the right product to the buyer the buyer the quickest, we win in the end. Having exclusive royalty free content is of no advantage when a buyer is going to choose where to buy a photo – it’s getting a relevant photo the quickest. To see the user of this data in action, go ahead and try a search on Shutterstock – and compare it the same search on our competitors sites.

2) As a democratized marketplace, we believe in fairness. From the start I have believed that fighting for business will make Shutterstock the best product. By selling more of a contributors work, we build lasting relationships that are built on sales – not contracts that tie you to your distributor. If a contributor can make more with a certain image at another agency, then they should sell that image at another agency. This attitude makes the Shutterstock marketplace stronger in the long run because we have to continuously fight for both sides of the marketplace. At Shutterstock we take nothing for granted, and we like it this way.

3) As a marketplace, in order to guarantee that the buyer gets the right photo every time they search, no photo can be more special than another. Every single image at Shutterstock will cost the same once you have bought a subscription or image pack. This is unlike any other photo marketplace. Image marketplaces that offer exclusivity to contributors must favor certain images. The sort order of each search has to favor exclusives in order to keep the exclusive relationship. If you aren’t selling more images at a higher price, why will they continue to stay exclusive? Are images that are held exclusively of better quality or more relevant to the search? This isn’t the metric to measure a specific search on. Are images that make the most money for the contributor or the agency the best image for a specific query? No. At Shutterstock we get to concentrate on one metric – search success. While other agencies sort their search results based on maximizing revenue, we maximize on search success.

4) Since all images are royalty free, exclusivity isn’t an advantage to the buyer. An exclusive image doesn’t mean that the image was used less than a non-exclusive image.

At Shutterstock we have a long term view. We believe that the image the customer wants is the best search result. By keeping things simple, not favoring exclusive images, and iterating on metrics like search success, we feel like we will be more and more successful for both our buyers and our sellers over the long term.



  1. Jo Ann Snover

    I’m already sold on Shutterstock’s long term view. I’m contributor 249 and am back as an independent contributor after a stint as an exclusive.
    I see the recent deal between Getty and Google to put nearly 6,000 free stock images – including many on Shutterstock and other agencies – as a massively damaging move, not only to contributors but also to other agencies.
    The images were stripped of copyright and any future earning power virtually gutted – that’s the damage to the copyright holders.
    I see this move as a shot across Shutterstock’s bow – long term, users won’t pay for content they can get for free. Google Docs/Drive are being pitched to businesses, apparently successfully, not just school kids putting together a report. There’s always been free content that’s not very good, but this is best selling stuff from stock agencies. Now it’s only 6,000 images but Getty says they’re going to do more.
    I want Shutterstock to continue to grow, as do a lot of other contributors who make very good money courtesy of your business idea and how you’ve nurtured it. I see this Getty Google deal as bad news for much more than just their remaining exclusive contributors

  2. Jax

    Are you including “illustrator” and “videographer” when you say “photographer”? Or does this only apply to photos?

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  8. M Strip

    I’m sold. And not sold cause wool was pulled over my eyes, but rather because I see clearly and I believe the what & the why, as it was presented (and not in a “sell-y” way – Amen.) I was not sure how to vet which agency to use. Now, my first destination = Shutterstock. I am heading to submit my photos tonight/tomorrow. Thanks for simplifying, clearly, John. It’s just good business.

  9. Jonathan

    I have had 3 downloads within my first week with Shutterstock versus none within a month with istock. I think it is clear that istock favour their exclusive contributors and will be putting my efforts into shutterstock from now on. The whole google drive business smells like looking after number one instead of the contributor too. Is no wonder shutterstock is the go to for stock images now…

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