I have been designing for, oh, about a million years and during that time the way photography or illustration is purchased has changed dramatically – from working directly with photographers and illustrators to using web sites that provided a cost-effective way to buy stock photography and illustration, and to now, where there is a good amount of completely free photography and illustration. But gone are the days of terribly clip art, some of these free stock illustration sites provide excellent quality creative.

In the early days, I used iStockphoto because they provided well-priced, royalty-free and rights-managed photography, which meant it was easy to shop for photography without negotiating based on where the photography was used, size of print runs, or size website audience. For a few dollars you could get a good quality image, which was an excellent option for most of my clients.

However, after iStockphoto was bought by the high-end Getty Images, the prices crept up. This resulted in other cost-effective sites popping up, sites like Dreamstime. Fast forward to today where there are new, completely free stock photography and illustration sites with great quality content, I’ll list these later.

Why would I ever pay for stock photography?

That’s a good question. Firstly, royalty-free or rights-managed sites, like iStockPhoto and Dreamstime, ensure that the photography has complete ownership of the work (no copyright infringement) and a model release has been obtained.

For example, I recently worked with a research group at Stanford University. Unlike the university itself, research groups do not tend to have large budgets, so they were very interested in the totally-free stock photography. However, I encouraged them to buy photography instead. The two reasons were (a) knowing the rights to the images were obatined including the model release, and (b) more appropriate and better quality images for the specific goal of the research group. We purchased 3 web-quality images for about $15, very cost effective.

Another consideration is the cost and difficulty of replacing photography or other images if there is a problem. For example, if you want to do a huge print run, plaster your advertisement on buses, put an ad in Times Square, changing that image is going to be extremely expensive. On the other hand, if you are a small business and want to print up a few hundred fliers to distribute locally, or add a photo your site, those are relatively quick and easy changes to make.

Best Free Stock Photography Websites

Most of these sites allow you to use photography without crediting the photographer or site. Although, it is always appreciated when you do. Always check the site for specific information about usage and attribution.



Best Cost Effective Stock Photography Sites

These are the sites that I have personally used and recommend when you want more control over usage and rights, and more protection against possible copyright infringment. All are royalty-free, but paid.


* photo credit: Julius Drost