Ian Middleton

Writer - Photographer - Teacher

Content creator - web Design - SEO - SEM

where to find images – 8 best stock photo websites

By Ian Middleton

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links which, if you click and buy something I will receive a small amount of money in commission at no extra expense to you. In fact, where possible I have ensured you get a discount as part of my affiliation with these companies.

What is stock photography and why use it?

Stock photography is what it says on the tin, a stock of images for sale. Essentially it’s like going into a shop to buy imagery off the shelf. The advantage to stock photography is that you don’t have to commission a photographer to take the photo you need, unless your needs are much more specific or you want something totally unique.

In most cases the image that people need is one that someone has likely taken before, so all you need to do is purchase a license to use it for your particular website, blog, in your book or social media and marketing campaigns.

Many photographers, like myself, shoot generic images that have not been commissioned for a specific and exclusive use and can therefore be put up for sale on a stock photography website.

There are two types of licenses: royalty-free & rights managed.

Who needs stock photography?

Many people need stock photos. Even I, as a photographer, use stock photos on occasion. The header photo in this article was purchased from Istock Photo. It’s not always possible for me to take the photo that I need, so I’ll often search for one on any of these sites below. It’s much quicker also than going to all the trouble of setting up a shoot.

What is a royalty free image?

A royalty-free image is one that is being sold with a royalty-free license. What this essentially means is that the buyer pays a single one-off fee to use the photo under the terms of the license without having to pay any more royalties derived from the use of it. In most cases the royalty-free license is issued in perpetuity, so once you have purchased and downloaded the image you are free to use it for as long as you want, but within the terms of the license.

A royalty-free license isn’t without restrictions, though. The time of use may be unrestricted, but there could be other restrictions such as volume of use. One example would be buying the license to print and sell on a product such as a mug or T-shirt. Make sure you check the license details to see how many products you can sell with this image on. For example, it may state that you can use this image up to 500,000 times on a book cover. Once you have printed and sold 500,000 books, you would need to go back and buy another license. Additionally, if you plan to sell a product where the image is the primary value of the product, such as a calendar, greeting, art print etc, then you would most likely need to purchase an extended license, which would also come with a print run restriction.

Royalty-free licenses are ideal for website use, blogs and social media campaigns. Prices are relatively low for these kinds of licenses, and there would be no time limit on use.

What is a rights managed image?

A rights managed image is one that has a license for a very specific use and timeframe. The price is set according to the actual use. This is ideal because you can then pay for what you want, rather than pay a generic high fee for an image you may want to just use in a newsletter or magazine for just one month. Or you may just want to use it in a small print run of a book, so again rather than pay the same fee as someone who would use it in a print run of 500,000, you would pay a lot less because your usage is smaller.

Similarly, you may just want to sell that book in one country, whereas another book might be sold worldwide. Again, it would be cheaper if you choose one country for use. Rights managed licenses are ideal if you want access to high quality imagery that is less generic and hasn’t been downloaded and used everywhere under the more cheaper royalty-free use. It also means that although you may pay a bit more for the license, the fee is still calculated according to your exact use. This is much fairer for smaller businesses. How would you like it if Apple paid the same fee for their massive worldwide marketing campaign with an image that was instrumental in making them more money, as you did for your small local campaign within your hometown?

Vectors and videos too

Most stock photo websites also sell videos, illustrations and vectors. Video is king these days, so using appropriate video content on your website or to market your product or service is becoming ever more popular.

8 best stock photo websites

So, here is a list of my 8 best stock photo websites, broken down into paid stock photos and free stock photos.

Best Paid stock photos

Why should I pay? Well, while there are many free stock photo sites around with photographers kindly offering their imagery for free, it is very limited and also the photos will have been downloaded and used by billions of others. This is fine as I say if you need something generic, but if you are looking for something special, more unique and which more accurately fits your needs or illustrates your story or product, then like everything in life, paying for it will get you a much better image.

Alamy is not a microstock agency and is, in my opinion, the absolute best place to buy and sell stock photos if you are looking for unique and higher quality imagery. In fact, it’s the only stock library where I sell my own photos. Alamy has a huge library of photos, vectors, illustrations and videos all available to purchase as rights managed or royalty free. Alamy allows its contributing photographers to choose which licenses they want to make available. Some photographers, like myself, will only allow a rights managed licensed, which means that although you may pay more, you will get more unique imagery for your website, magazine or commercial marketing material. You can also tailor a price more specific to your usage.

Microstock sites may be cheaper, but you will also get images that have been downloaded in the thousands and are being used multiple times all over the Internet for one single fee. Now, that is fine if you don’t need something special, but if you want something that is unique and stands out, then Alamy is the place to go.

Istock is owned by Getty Images, the world’s leading photo agency. However Istock is more of a microstock agency offering images much cheaper than you would find on Getty. Microstock agencies offer images on a royalty-free basis only.

The biggest difference between Istock and Getty Images is that the photos on Istock are provided by photographers on a non-exclusive basis. A Getty photographer only shoots for Getty, whereas contributors to Istock are freelancers who are able to sell their work elsewhere.

Istock works on a subscription basis or by purchasing credits. Each photo is priced by credits, so a certain image at a certain size can be purchased for say 3 credits. You can choose to purchase credit packs, or pay a monthly subscription based upon the number of monthly images you would like to download and the quality of the image. There are premium options with access to more.


Shutterstock is another microstock agency with over 400 million images. It has a well-structured subscription model designed for people who may only buy a small number of photos per year, to heavy users who buy regularly. Alternatively there is also the option to purchase single images via their on-demand packs.

Photodune is part of Envato Market and offers images on a purchase only basis, so it’s a great place to go if you just want to buy generic images from time to time. Prices are low and all images are available on a royalty-free basis with standard or extended licenses.

Dreamstime is also a microstock agency with a huge range of imagery for as low 20 cent. You can also sign up for a one week free trial and get 15 photos for free.

Best Free Stock Photos

It sounds too good to be true, but there are places where you can get free photos. Many of these websites are places where photographers can upload their photos and kindly allow people to use them for free. In many cases you can also make a small donation to the photographer as a thank you.

Images are mostly free for both commercial and personal use, but be sure to check each image before you download as to what rights you have to use it and where.

Pixabay is my favourite and there is an excellent choice of good quality photos, videos and vectors and illustrations here. It’s also available to download as a smartphone app.

Raw Pixel is a hybrid site offering a great selection of both free and paid stock photos, vectors, fonts, illustrations and videos. Imagery is either free or premium. The premium options are available to anyone who subscribes to their monthly premium service.

Pexels is another good choice for free photos and videos, and also available as a smartphone app.

Every week Istock chooses a photo from its stock library and offers it for free for a limited time. All you have to do is sign up for free and check in each week to see what is on offer.

More stock photo sites

If this is not enough, then have a look here at this ultimate guide to 20 stock photo sites:

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