Image source: Shutterstock.

The business of providing digital photos and video for businesses has grown immensely in recent years, and Shutterstock (SSTK -1.97%) is just one of the players looking to deliver visual enhancements for customers looking to improve their profile. Carlyle Group-owned (CG) Getty Images has an extensive digital library of its own, and although that hasn't made a major dent in Shutterstock's growth in the past, Getty Images still looms as a long-term threat. Coming into Wednesday's fourth-quarter financial report, Shutterstock investors were bracing for a possible drop in adjusted earnings per share, but the company managed to overcome those negative expectations and produce solid gains across its income statement. Let's take a closer look at the latest from Shutterstock and what it should tell us about its future.

Shutterstock needs no enhancement
Shutterstock's fourth-quarter financials continued the positive momentum that the image provider has developed in the past, although top-line growth fell just short of expectations. Revenue climbed 27% to $116 million, compared to the 29% growth rate that investors were looking to see. Adjusted net income rose 8% to $13.8 million, and that produced adjusted earnings of $0.38 per share. That topped the consensus forecast by a nickel and defied calls for a slight drop compared to year-ago figures.

Looking more closely at Shutterstock's numbers, the company's operational metrics still look strong. Paid downloads rose 19% to 39.8 million, and revenue per download was up $0.18 from the year-ago quarter to $2.86. The company's collection of images kept getting bigger, hitting 71.4 million by the end of 2015, up 53% over the course of the year.

Several factors had impacts on Shutterstock's results. The acquisitions of PremiumBeat and Rex Features partially offset the downward impact of foreign currency fluctuations, bringing Shutterstock's adjusted organic growth to about 24%. Executive management severance costs weighed on profitability, as did higher personnel and marketing expenses. Adjustments for changes in fair-value contingent consideration for acquisitions more than offset a decline in equity-based compensation charges.

Shutterstock CEO Jon Oringer was pleased with the way the company closed the year, describing 2015 as "another year of sustained operating momentum and strong financial growth." Oringer pointed to growth in its libraries and other enhancements to make content more easily available to customers, seeking "an unmatched user experience to our expanding customer base."

What's next for Shutterstock?
Shutterstock also expects 2016 to be a strong year for the company. The CEO pointed to investments in technology solutions and expanded product offerings as drivers of long-term growth and value for investors.

Yet Shutterstock's guidance for the coming year was mixed. Revenue guidance was in a range between $495 million and $510 million, which was less than the $515 million consensus estimate among investors prior to the release. Adjusted operating profit growth of 12% to 18% would be respectable for the full year, but the current expectation among investors is for 23% growth in earnings per share, and that might be difficult to achieve under Shutterstock's current guidance.

Ways to make content available to customers in a more efficient way will be crucial for Shutterstock in fighting against the Carlyle Group-owned Getty Images. Getty has almost 200 million digital assets, including both photos and video, and it works with customers in 200 countries in providing images obtained from more than 200,000 contributors. With Carlyle Group's financial resources behind it, Getty has been able to make smart strategic moves that threaten to dwarf Shutterstock.

Shutterstock shares reacted negatively to the news, falling 8% in the opening minutes of the trading session following the announcement. In order to bounce back, Shutterstock needs to prove it can reawaken its growth engines and keep rivals like Carlyle Group's Getty Images at bay.