Last week Shutterstock, one of the photo agencies where I sell my images, announced that they will be updating the earnings structure for photographers. They claimed this change is made “to reflect changes in the market for creative content.”

Until now, the earnings structure was divided into four tiers, based on the photographer’s lifetime sales.
Old earnings breakdown. Screen capture taken on May 31, 2020 from https://submit.shutterstock.com/payouts.

Old earnings plan
Old earnings plan

The new scheme is much worse: there are now six image levels, with the first level offering either a 15% commission or 10 cents, whichever is greater. The screen capture below was taken on May 31, 2020 from https://submit.shutterstock.com/payouts.

New earnings plan for photos

The worst thing is that all contributors reset to level 1 for both images and videos at the beginning of every year. Even worse is that, even at maximum level, most of the sales are now of 0.1$.

The new earnings distribution scheme is clearly unfavorable for photographers, who will lose both short- and long-term. Things will be hard, especially in the first part of the year, until they reach the level of the previous year. How much money will be lost is hard to say.

There is an analysis made by Xpics that seems quite accurate, and things aren’t looking good.

Lowering photographer’s commissions: a race to the bottom

It is true that now, during the COVID-19 lockdown, many photographers woke up without work and began to pay attention to stock photography. But many ignore that in the current context making money from stock photography is a long-term endeavor. Besides, stock photography is a game of numbers: you need a consistent portfolio to have good earnings.

That is why, in the long run, the decrease in photographers’ commissions will lead to a decline in interest in stock photography. Many talented photographers will decide that it is better to dedicate their time to other activities. And stock photography will be more of a 5 to 9 activity, a secondary source of income.

I also think that another effect of lowering commissions will be dropping the quality of stock images. It’s not worth investing time and money just to be rewarded with 10 cents commissions — for which you also pay taxes.

What I will do

I will not close my account on Shutterstock. Of all the microstock agencies I work with, Shutterstock ranks in the top three in sales. I am aware that I will earn much less on their new earnings structure, especially in January and February, and possibly in March. My portfolio has a small number of sales these months, and I expect that only in April things will return to normal.

Instead, I will change the way I produce images. I will favor quantity over quality, hoping to maximize the sales in the first three months of the year.

I won’t spend another two or three hours making a picture. I will aim for just above the average quality, well-lit images, but nothing fancy anymore.

Also, there will be changes in the way I choose to distribute my images to microstock agencies. I’m thinking to upload my best images only on agencies that pay decently, particularly on Adobe Stock.

I’m also thinking of trying to upload images exclusively to agencies that allow this, such as iStock and Dreamstime.

By the way, big applause for Dreamstime, who increased their commissions for photographers.

It remains to be seen whether this approach will work.


It’s worth noting that, if nothing changes in the field of stock photography, in a few years the market will be dominated by sites that offer free images — Unsplash, Pixabay, Pexels, etc.

The other day I took a look at Unsplash, and I found hundreds of images at a quality at least as good as the one on stock agencies, but for free.

As long as there are photographers who support this system, or they accept to be paid in peanuts, the future of stock photography is not great.

Keep in mind that gratitude and exposure don’t pay your bills.