We recently looked at a bunch of resources for finding free images on the web. But sometimes, despite the millions of photos on those sites, you just won’t find what you want. That’s when it’s time to turn to the microstock photography sites, which offer more depth, more professional images, and better-tuned search engines – for a price.
Microstock photography is a creation of the internet age. Stock photography – licensing existing photos for your own use – has been around for decades as a source for professional photography. Microstock applies crowdsourcing to this business model, allowing talented amateurs (and some pros) to put their photos up for sale at prices ranging from a few cents to a few dollars. While there are a few stories of big success for these contributors, microstock has led to some controversy as it disrupts the income of traditional photographers. If your concern is with finding inexpensive images for your site or business, though, these seven sites are worth knowing about.
Shutterstock has nearly 4 million images available and calls themselves “the largest subscription-based stock photo agency in the world.” Shutterstock only offers subscription pricing, starting at $249 per month for a flat 25 downloads per day, making them one of the more expensive microstock agencies. Their search options are less flexibly than some, but they offer extra amenities such as a “lightbox” area that lets you store favorite pictures for future purchase.
Fotolia weighs in at over three and a half million images. Their pricing is in terms of $1 credits, with images costing 1-6 credits and credits expiring in one year. Annoyingly, you need to go through a 3-page signup process to see pricing and buying details. They offer a reasonable number of search options with fast thumbnail pages and good depth, though their search does seem to have more tendency to return irrelevant results early in the search than some of their competitors.
iStockPhoto is widely credited with having founded the microstock industry, and with over three million images online, they’re a good first port of call when you’re looking for an image. As with other microstock sites, the basic currency is the “credit”, with pricing ranging from $1.30 down to $0.96 depending on how many you buy. Credits swap for images depending on the image size (usually 1 to 10 credits). Credits expire after a year whether you use them or not. Recently they’ve also introduced subscription pricing, giving you a daily ration of credits for a period of 3 months to 1 year. iStockPhoto’s search is quick, and makes suggestions as you type; their thumbnails and preview images load quickly.
Dreamstime has about three million images online and ready for searching. Like iStockPhoto, they’ll sell you credits with a 1-year expiration, or via subscription. Pricing per credit runs from $1 down to $0.83 in bulk, with most images running 1-4 credits to purchase. Their search engine does a good job of returning relevant images in general, with plenty of search options (something that’s true of most of the microstock sites).
123RF offers over 2 million images – the “RF” is for “royalty-free,” which is the way all microstock photos are sold. They offer a mix of subscription (starting at 5 images per day for 30 days at $89) and credit-based ($1 down to $0.70) pricing, with images running 1-5 credits. 123RF credits expire after two years, giving you extra time to use them. Frequent buyers also accumulate reward points that can be used for Amazon gift certificates, Apple gift cards, or other bonuses. Their search engine is a bit slower than some, and tends to return a wider variety of images (rather than narrowly targeting my search keywords) in the test searches that I’ve tried.
Big Stock Photo gives you just over two million choices at 1-6 credits each; credits cost $2.50 to $1 in bulk and expire in one year. Their search is fast though fairly basic; it did a good job on my test keywords, but for advanced search options (such as searching by color, or whether there are people in the image) you’ll want to try one of the other sites in this roundup.
Stockxpert sells their images at 1-10 credits each, with credits starting at $1. They also have subscription pricing starting at $220 per month; to see pricing details, you need to create an account and log in. They don’t seem to mention how many images they have online, and I’ve found their search generally returns fewer results than other microstock sites.
As you use the microstock sites, you’ll discover there is some overlap in available photos between many of them; most smart photographers upload their images to more than one site to maximize their chances of making a sale. For reasonably common searches (“zen garden,” “overgrown lawn,” “weightlifting”) any of these sites will deliver multiple hits. For more obscure desires (“cat in mailbox,” “tin car” ) I’ve had the most luck with Dreamstime and Shutterstock, though this depends a lot on the exact search. If you get truly specific (“heathkit radio,” “potted dandelion”) you usually won’t get any hits at all; at that point Dreamstime is the most helpful with its photo request forum that lets you tell photographers what you’re after. Good pricing depends a lot on how frequently you’ll need photos, as bulk discounts on expiring credits can tempt you to buy more than you’ll use; in that respect, 123RF’s two-year expiration is a distinct advantage for the infrequent buyer.
Opening photo credit: Stock.XCHNG user lusi.