by Konstantin Sutyagin

After watching many photographers crash and burn on their initial test submission to Shutterstock I thought I have to help the newcomers by putting this little tutorial together. It’s makes sense to prepare carefully for the test because if you fail they make you wait 30 days before you can try to pass it again. Although the main purpose of the text is to help people unfamiliar with microstock standards pass the initial test at shutterstock, most of the information is valid for any stock site. It might also benefit those who already sell stock photos but want to improve their skills.

We will check several key factors of a successful stock photo submission.

First – strong thumbnail

When a buyer makes search on a stock site he usually gets many pages of results in form of thumbnails of all the images relevant to his search. Based on thumbnails the buyer makes his choice which images he might want to take a closer look at. If the thumbnail doesn’t pop it will not get clicked and sold, pretty simple. That is why I consider thumbnail the key factor for a successful stock photo. It should clearly represent a photo in as small as 100x80 pixels format. Good composition and colors are the key elements of a strong thumbnail. Take a look at the illustration to see what I mean:

The Importance of Thumbnails

All the upper photos would pass, all the lower photos would be rejected with the reason: "Poor Lighting--Poor or uneven lighting, or shadows. White balance may be incorrect." You may have a perfectly natural photograph with dull grayish lighting rejected for this particular reason. You may try to submit those kinds of shots AFTER you get accepted. For your test submission I recommend choosing the safe approach and avoid dull shots completely. Photos on white background, people over blue sky, bright objects and the likes are the best. Start with photos which are already crisp and fine-tune them to perfection in Photoshop. But don’t get over-exited – if you tweak the photo to the point when it doesn’t look real anymore it will get rejected as being over processed. In short – don’t bump saturation all the way to the limit :-) Learn how to light at Strobist.

Little know-how: When I work on a photo in post-processing and I can’t decide on which version of an image is better I zoom-out and compare versions at a smallest thumbnail size to see which one is better.

Second – noise

Yes, that’s probably the second biggest reason for a rejection of a test submission. Shutterstock has zero-noise tolerance. At this moment I use a Canon 5D with one of the cleanest performing sensors on the market, and yet I sometimes use noise reduction even on ISO 100 shots (in dark areas) just to be on a safe side. Take a look at the illustration below to see what I’m talking about:

Noise Reduction

Thoroughly inspect darker areas of your photos for noise patterns. Apply noise reduction selectively to those areas as needed. Avoid loosing fine details with too much of a noise-reduction. Photoshop CS2 and higher has a noise reduction filter. Also there are great programs made specifically for noise reduction, like Noise Ninja.
Here is the rejection reason corresponding to the noise issue: "Noise--Noise, film grain, over-sharpening, or artifacts at full size." Notice, that you should not oversharp a photo to the point of sharpening artifacts becoming visible. Convert from RAW with zero sharpening, remove noise selectively if needed, sharpen selectively if needed. Don't run noise reduction or unsharp mask over the whole image to avoid artifacts and loss of fine details. Otherwise you may get this rejection: "Overuse--Overuse of noise reduction software".

Third – focus

This one is simple. Your photo should have a clear sharp focus point. Avoid photos which have too shallow of a DOF in your test submission. A reviewer might miss the tiny focus point and reject the photo on this ground. Save those shots for the later submissions AFTER you get accepted.

Tip: you can reduce the size of a photo down to acceptable minimum at Shutterstock, which is 4 megapixels now, to reduce noise and artifacts and improve sharpness altogether! If in doubt about noise or sharpness - always resize a photo to 4MP for a test submission (megapixels are millions of pixels – for example a camera with an image sensor that is 2000 pixels across by 2000 pixels high will capture 4,000,000 total pixels and is called a 4 megapixel camera). Simply multiply width by height in pixels to calculate and adjust this parameter.

Fourth – copyrighted material

This one seams simple too. Remove all copyrighted material from your photos prior submission to any Royalty Free stock agency. Logos, trademarks, license plates, copyrighted designs, drawings or photos if not yours or if you don’t own rights to them, and so on. The tricky part is to spot some of the logos and trademarks. They could be as small as a little text on a button of your model’s shirt. Pay close attention to find and remove any copyrighted material from your photos. I chose one common example as an illustration. It’s small, and yet it’s still a copyrighted trademark. I think everyone knows which shoe company these three-striped sneakers came from:


These are the most common reasons for a failed test submission. If you found this information helpful I would appreciate if you use my referral links to sign up to some of the stock sites I send my images to. This way you can help to support this effort as 3 cents from each image a referred shooter sells would go to me. (That's from the company's split, not yours.)







Last, but not least

Of course you already know that you must submit a signed model release form for any recognisible person in your photos. You can use the generic Model Release form I am using to submit photos to many stock agencies. It is in PDF format and you can type right into it. Although it works for me without a glitch the form is provided "as is" and I bear absolutely no responsibility whatsoever in the event of any kind of loss or damage, whether directly or indirectly, resulting from the use of this page, including this model release form.

Model Release Form


If you have any comments or questions you can contact me via info[~at~]cool-photos[~dot~]com. I have also just created a Flickr group dedicated to this topic. You may post 100% crops of the photos from your submissions to the group pool to look at and check for any potential problems like artifacts and noise and discuss it with fellow stock shooters. I will try to check it regulary, but you always can shoot me a Flickr mail if you want me to check your photos there.

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