The Tao of Shutterstock: What Makes a Stock Photo a Stock Photo?

And how do photographers know that I'll need a picture of the sun streaming through clouds?

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This. This. This. (Shutterstock/Kruglov_Orda)

There are not many occasions when one will find oneself seeking an image of a cat in smart clothes with money and red caviar on a white background. But there may well be one occasion when one will find oneself seeking an image of a cat in smart clothes with money and red caviar on a white background. This being the Internet, actually, there will probably be two or three.

For such occasions, when they arise, your best bet is to turn directly to an image service like Shutterstock. The site, as the documentation for its upcoming IPO makes clear, is a web community in the manner of a Facebook or a Twitter or a Pinterest, with its value relying almost entirely on the enthusiasms of its contributors. But it's a community, of course, with an explicitly commercial purpose: Shutterstock pioneered the subscription approach to stock photo sales, allowing customers to download images in bulk rather than à la carte. Shutterstock is e-commerce with a twist, and its success depends on its contributors' ability to predict, and then provide, products that its subscribers will want to buy. The site is pretty much the Demand Media of imagery -- and its revenues, for both the company and its community, depend on volume


Shutterstock launched in 2003 and has grown steadily since then, bolstered by the explosion of web publishing. On the Internet, there is always text in need of decoration -- and the site now offers a library of 19 million images to do that decorating. (Per Alexa's somewhat reliable demographic stats, Shutterstock's site visitors are disproportionately women -- women who live in the U.S., who browse the site from work, who don't have children, and who do have Master's degrees. Which is to say, probably, they're members of the media.) As its own kind of inside-out media organization, Shutterstock leverages the same kind of market-prediction strategy that Demand does ... but it does that without Demand's infamous algorithms. Instead, says Scott Braut, Shutterstock's VP of content, it provides its contributors with tools like keyword trends and popular searches so they "can find out what people are looking for and when." 

The site also hosts multiple forums intended to guide people through the photo submission process -- and that process, its contributors have told me, is exceptionally user-friendly compared to other microstock photo sites.

It's also, however, fairly exclusive: Shutterstock has a team of reviewers charged with ensuring editorial consistency and quality -- and in 2011, Braut says, only 20 percent of applicants who applied to become Shutterstock contributors were approved. And less than 60 percent of all the images uploaded by those approved contributors were ultimately put up on the site. For each download their photos receive, photographers will get about $0.25 U.S. -- and more if they're oft-downloaded contributors and/or the purchaser has a high-level subscription.


In some cases, Braut says, Shutterstock's content team will do direct outreach to the site's top videographers, photographers, and illustrators "to help fill specific content needs." For the most part, though, Shutterstock contributors figure out for themselves what subscribers are looking for. There's very little "Hey, Orda, can you dress up a cat and pose it with some Benjamins and Beluga? Because that would be awesome." If there's a need for an image of that particular scene -- or of, say, a cheeseburger, or a German shepherd laying in the grass with a laptop, or a shadowed man gazing contemplatively at the sea during a colorful sunset -- it's pretty much up to the photographers to identify that need. And, then, to fill it.

And fill it they do. To browse Shutterstock -- as I often do, since we sometimes use their images here at The Atlantic -- is to go on a weird and often wacky and occasionally totally wondrous journey through the visual zeitgeist. The site's contributors have covered almost everything, topic-wise -- to the extent that, even with my occasionally zany image searches, it's extremely rare to have a query come up blank. (I did a search for "zeitgeist," just to see, and was rewarded with three packed pages' worth of images: clocks, scantily clad ladies carrying clocks, cartooned gentlemen carrying clocks, youths flashing peace signs, stylized clinking glasses, more cartoons, more clocks.)

The images Shutterstock serves up may not always be classy or fully clothed or even 100-percent relevant ... but there they are nonetheless, courtesy of photographers from around the world. It's all very of, by, and for the Internet: The site's images focus heavily on sit-comic poses, colorful cartoons, plates of food, ponderous abstractions, and cats. And while the selection of images a query returns can occasionally be fairly painful in their posery -- cf. the horrific/hilarious Awkward Stock Photos -- they can also be awkward in a sadder sense: as vehicles of a kind of preemptive nostalgia, insisting stubbornly on a world that exists only in the minds of the microstockers. (See: Women Laughing Alone With Salad.) 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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