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Web Stock

December 01, 2004

The imagery needs of most web sites are modest; haven’t stock photography providers figured this out?

Due to download times and the frequent need for dynamic content areas, the web approach to photography is often different than print. Buying one single photo for a large print run is commonplace; buying one single photo for an entire web site is limiting.

The web designer needs:
high-quality, but comparatively low-res images
re-usable imagery
a large selection of easily usable photos to fill dynamic areas, some of which may draw from pools of dozens of variations
nominal fees for volume, royalty-free photography
The average stock provider offers:
Royalty-free singles at pre-determined resolutions
Rights-managed singles that have a price calculated based on size, impressions, and usage
photo CDs for $300-$600 or more

I’m all for paying for the use of someone else’s creative work, but it strikes me that there’s a fundamental difference between the average web designer’s needs, vs. the offerings of the likes of Veer, Getty, Corbis, and the rest. Ideally I’d be buying themed photo CDs and building up my own library, but doing so involves paying for print-resolution photography.

It could very well be that there’s no business case for providing stock for the web; I’d expect lower prices for the lower resolution, but of course the content of the photo is what we’re really paying for. Perhaps there’s a break-even point that targetting prices for web use would fall under; perhaps not.

Increasingly I’ve been turning to the “dirty little secrets”, the open photography providers like iStockPhoto and stock.xchange. Both allow sharing of digital photos, and re-use in commercial projects. The quality is hit and miss, but the prices are low (iStock) or free (stock.xchange). The resolution is usually a few megapixels, which is rarely, if ever, not enough.

I’ve started my own personal collection of stock from these sites that’s starting to rival what I’ve had to work with in the past, with the added bonus of being made up only of shots that I like, rather than shots that happened to be included on the CD. I’m having a hard time finding a downside to this approach.

Am I alone? What’s everyone else doing for stock?

Reader Comments

Susanna says:
December 01, 01h

Like Jim, I use morguefile a lot. Since its inception, it’s grown tremendously. I have to go through a lot of red tape to authorize every purchase, so I save that for really important, major images and use morguefile (or our research group’s camera) for everything else.

There used to be a great site that I can’t remember the name of that offered their entire catalog of stock photos and clip art for a $30/yr. subscription. It was great for my at-home, on-the-side business, until they upped the price to something like $200/yr. (about half of what I might make in a year!).

david may says:
December 01, 01h

I agree with Justin and most of the other comments I’ve read. We’ve just started using iStockPhoto at the Advertising Agency I work for, and it really pays. However, as Justin stated, not all the images are up to par, particularly people shots.

These images certainly suffice for web related projects. When it comes to print (depending on what medium and publication), you need to be more careful. And I think the commercial providers that are mentioned (Corbis, etc.) more so gear towards print than other media.

December 01, 01h

I use iStockPhoto weekly. I also have begun making my own library from digital photos I take.

December 01, 01h

Coming from the print side of the design world, I’ve mostly used PhotoDisc, adding the cost of one disc to each project’s bid. I’ve built up quite a stock of discs that way.

I wasn’t surprised when disc prices began to rise after Getty bought Photodisc, but not happy either. I’ve begun to use more and more (buying unlimited rights per year), in addition to the Photodiscs I have. But even their price has begun to rise.

So, thanks for the other references. I’ll check them out.

Ryan says:
December 01, 01h

I use iStockPhoto almost exclusively for basic needs. In fact, I’ve uploaded a handful of my images, which are just enough to provide me with credits to download without hardly ever having to charge up my account.

A nice trade, if you ask me.

December 01, 01h

Two other sites you might wish to consider also….

December 01, 01h

Veer, are you listening?

We all love you, but your stock photos just simply are overkill for what we need. I see a market you can create…

December 01, 01h

I’ve found excellent quality and almost everything I need at I also browse other free sites (mentioned above) and sometimes find exactly what I need for free! I still look through the expensive collections, but mainly for inspiration.

greg says:
December 01, 01h

Sounds like a helluva opportunity for someone. iStock is awesome but doesn’t always have the shot.

December 01, 02h

I love “dirty little secrets” In addition to the ones mentioned above, I use:

Jason says:
December 01, 02h

There a a few other “dirty little secret” sites out there:

All inexpensive royalty free stock sites.

nick b. says:
December 01, 02h

I have found that over the past year, nearly every electronic device that I have purchased to carry with me on a daily basis has a camera built in (Palm Zire 71 PDA, Motorola v400 phone). Granted, they both max out at 640x480 res.*, but as I tend to only use bits and bobs from photos and mangle them in Photoshop before use (the banner on my website was taken in the bathroom mirror with my PDA), that really isn’t a limitation. Plus I found out that my PDA has a really neat unexpected fisheye effect when taking pictures of objects at close range.

If there is a need for a higher-res image, I break out the Sony Cybershot and it seems to do the trick.

* NOTE: The new(er) Zire 72 has a 1-point-something Megapixel resolution camera.

December 01, 02h

#7 Have you looked at ArtBitz for vector illustrations?

I have never personaly used them but they’re in my bookmarks “just in case”

Oh, and ditto with stock.xchng - great stuff on there.

December 01, 02h

The usual modus operandi in web design is low res photos. However I’ve found its nice to be able to have access to the high res version as well. I think the perfect service would be if a company had quality stock images that you could get a cheaper low res version for web work. Then if you or the client want a higher res version for a print piece you can pay a little more for it.

adrian says:
December 01, 02h

Being a back-end coder, and not actually a designer in the truest sense, I don’t get to do much design work except for on my own personal stuff, and for that, I’ve generally had to just make my own graphic elements because I don’t have the time or resources to shop around for something I like.

December 01, 02h

In addition to the resources already mentioned, I also try to get the weekly free stock photo from, the higher end alternative to I’ve also managed to get a few dozen from places like StockByte when they’ve had some promos on.

December 01, 02h

Since I’m not quite the man of the money, I too use free stock photos. But I like Pixel Perfect Digital [1] best. Great quality, growing database by the day.


December 01, 02h

Something that I use a lot, that nobody has mentioned yet is deviant art. They have a good collection of photos in a variety of categories. Most of the stuff isn’t print quality, and generally people ask that if you use their photos you let them know, but that’s a small price to pay for some of the really good photos.

December 01, 02h

You can find some fairly good images here now and then, especially if you need something related to nature:

ray says:
December 01, 02h

Travis (#20) - Thanks for the listing and I’m glad you enjoy the photos, but I just need to clarify, all images at my stock site are for personal use. I’m not sure how handy they would be for Dave and the other pros commenting here.

To answer Dave’s question:

If i don’t have a suitable photo that I’ve taken in the past, I usually head to istockphoto or (which has an interesting payment scheme).

Caleb says:
December 01, 02h

Being a photographer I can pretty much tell you why you don’t get the lower prices for lower resolution files. The photographer is not going to sell his work cheaper just because it is for the web. IMO you sould actually pay more for an image used on a web site because It will most likely see more faces than a print ad will.

However I am also a designer. I to use IstockPhoto and the like, but would never be caught dead giving away my images there. I also take my own shots when possible. Sadly though I recently deleted a ton of stuff I had downloaded from Istock. Big bummer.

But what it all comes down to is what the photographer feels his or her work is worth. It would be my guess that if you are doing print and web design work your hourly rate is not much different, so why should a photog sell his work for less if it is in web not print?

Dave S. says:
December 01, 03h

Thanks for the photographer’s perspective, Caleb. I realize traditional rights-managed pricing models rely on impressions, so it’s no surprise that a photographer might think a web site should pay more for use.

But I think the evidence speaks loudly — even at current prices, web designers aren’t exactly buying in droves. So clearly the needs of the two aren’t aligning properly here.

It might be a different case if we were talking custom photography, but we’re not. We’re talking about stock.

Tom says:
December 01, 03h

It used to be the case that deviantART’s stock section would veild some decent results. Over the years its not been looked after.

As steven ametjan rightly points out there are lots of really good photos in the “proper” photo section and on most cases people will be more than happy to let you use there photos.

However I will stress that you do ask and not just take! Firstly i’ts just bad manners and secondly deviantART has a pack of hounds (aka lawyers) ready to kill!

Jeroen Visser says:
December 01, 03h

There’s a downside to this ‘dirty little secret’ thinking, though. If webdesigners are signing up for an account at iStockPhoto or stock.xchange, downloading files and not asking permission or giving credits where it’s due, supplying photographers will not be inclined to share their best with the world. To illustrate: one photo of mine has been downloaded 150+ times, and I’ve only had one formal request for permission so far. I honestly doubt that there isn’t a single illegal commercial use among those downloads.
Now, some of you may say: then don’t put your photo up there. Then I say: that’s exactly my point! ;-)

Josh Mast says:
December 01, 04h

You’re not alone in the least. I completely raided stock.xchange for my last project, and it turned out pretty well. Commercial stock is just too ridiculously priced for me to use without driving the final price of my usual projects up 2x. Maybe worth it if I latch onto a huge client that’s willing to shell out major bucks at me, but that’s pretty rare for me lately.

On a somewhat similar note, I’m pretty amused at stockbyte’s attempts to get me to buy $1500 worth of stock, where at they’ll throw in a FREE (FREE! FREE!) 30gb ipod. Well, isn’t that a bargain.

Simone says:
December 01, 04h

I have to 100% agree with Caleb. Being a photographer myself, I cannot stress enough that we - the people who create the images you love to use - have to eat too. And giving away those images we work so hard to create for free (or damn near) just isn’t an option.

In that sense, iStockPhoto and stock.xchange are really bad for our business. I get clients all the time, wanting quotes for web use of my images, and although I think my prices are *very* reasonable and far below what Getty and the like charge, they end up running off to a place like iStockPhoto.

Web designers - I hear you all about needing a place to buy reasonably-priced stock pics.

But look at it this way - do you really think a photographer is going to sit on some cold, snowy mountain for hours to wait for that perfect sunrise shot for his stock collection, only to end up giving it away for free?

What if there were huge online deposits of website templates, with all the bells and whistles included, and companies would be able to just use those instead of hiring a web designer?

Right. That’s exactly how we photographers feel about iStockPhoto.

cam c. says:
December 01, 07h

Simone, you bring up a good point, that a lot of photographers have a huge back catalogue of their own work that they are willing to sell for less than the big box stock sites.

By the way, there are already a lot of sites full of cheap website interfaces… not free, perhaps, but you can buy a whole template for about $50 or so these days… springs to mind… ugh…

December 01, 08h

Much the same as everybody else,, etc. has a great collection of links, go spend a day or three exploring and build a photo library.

Another dirty secret, photographs taken by US Government employees as part of their work are generally not covered by copyright. Which means the photo archives of
the Navy (18000 photos)
the Airforce (6000 photos):
and a large number of others govt depatments ie: Fish and Wildlife Services are available for use.

The only real restriction with these photos is people in the photographs are entitled to privacy, so no identifiable people photographs should be used. But that is the same with sxc and most other free/low cost sites. istockphoto is different they required model releases, but that is why people shots are rare there.

Seriously, the amount of trouble with red tape for me to purchase a stock photo, makes it easier to shot it myself on a digital camera or grab it from a low cost source on the web. I have built up a small library of stock photos (4000 at last count) from photos I have taken or grabbed from the web that are useful for most purposes, except people shots.

That problem at work is solved by hiring a photographer a couple of times a year and shooting a large number of stock people photos, often using staff. This is usually done in conjuction with special photo shoots. So we hire a photographer for a day instead of half a day.

Some photographers do not want to work that way and I understand why.

Does my employer spend more or less on photography now than 5 or 10 years ago. No, it is roughly the same portion of our budget, the amount spent of stock photos has dramatically decline (no stock CDs anymore), allowing us to spend more on commissioned work.

December 01, 11h

I do the exact same thing.

I’ve bought some photos from the sources you mentioned, but they were over-priced, when I only need it as a background image, or something subtle, that won’t necessarily be the focal point of the design.

I’ll never need a photo at 3000x3000px, that’s just way too big… so I’ve been building my own library of photos that I’ve taken, as well as from other places I’ve found on the net.

December 01, 12h

Dave, I am right there with you. I actually have quite a bit of photos from iStockPhoto and that is currently my primary source for stock photos.

December 01, 12h

Also take into account RM (Rights-Managed) images which can be considerably more expensive than RF images and can be even more limited in terms of what you can use them for without having to pay additional usage fees.

For my own work, I prefer to work with the “dirty little secrets” because they either offer decent (but not always spectacular) images for little to no money, but I am willing to resort to Masterfile, Veer or one of the others if necessary. There are some good gems if you’re willing to spend the time searching through the more amateur shots…

December 01, 12h

I’ve been using iStockphoto for the past year, and usually can either find the “perfect” photo, or a close enough alternative to get by. It’s a great resource for web designers.

Jason Long says:
December 01, 12h

It’s *really* hit or miss, but I’ve found the Creative Commons search engine to be quite good at times:

December 01, 12h

I recently purchased a few stock images for print and was quoted the same price again if I was going to use it for the web.

Thinking this reeked I found similar enough images to use at: and

Both good to hunt through and free.

December 01, 12h

I couldn’t agree more. I use the stock.xchange almost exclusively. The photos are professional enough and the quality is more than I would ever need.

The real problem I think is finding quality illustrated work. I rarely have the time to hop into illustrator and design a quality icon and I have yet to find a professional , high-quality illustrative work and reasonable prices, much less for free. Plus, they never give you a vector file… What gives?

Pascal says:
December 01, 12h

I think I’ve been doing this for years. Nice to see that the “big boys” do this as well… ;)

On a sidenote: another great resource is . It’s in german, but really self-explaining.

December 01, 12h

iStockPhoto almost exclusively. I had forgotten about stock.xchng. Thanks for reminding me. I also use my own photos, or those of friends (who are usually better photographers than I!).

December 01, 12h

I guess I’m pretty much reiterating what all have said so far… iStockPhoto all the way. Recently, at work the web designer and marketing manager purchased some photos from Corbis. The prices blew me away and when I told her about iStock Photo and the amazingly affortable prices she had no idea iStockPhoto even existed. We ended up using the expensive photos in a print ad, so all was not lost. But at the same time, we’ve used these images repeatedly on the website, for which I could not ever justify paying much money for.

Many of the photos at iStock are sufficient for print ads as well, just not all of them. I’d always check there first.

December 02, 01h


I live on stock.xchange and have a huge library on my local drive that I’ve built from that site. I have two folders: one for “no permission required” and another for “permission required.” I add labels to the latter to ensure I am able to contact a photographer if I eventually use one of the photos in one of my designs.

The large providers don’t get it. Fortunately, sites like iStockPhoto and stock.xchange do. My analogy is that the small potatoes are like open source: we share and trade so that we all arrive at a good place together. That’s what the web is all about.

Finally, I’m a novice photographer and take many of my own photos, even for clients. If I can do it, so can you. As designers, we’re artists. And photography is the art of vision. You’d be amazed at how quickly you, as a visual designer, could apply your visual skills to the art of photography.

Nice of you to bring this topic to light, Dave.

Adam says:
December 02, 01h

What a great list of links, I’ve wacked all the free ones into my site at with a load of sub catergories. If anyone wants a quick reference although it doesnt include peolpes very useful commentary.

Nathan says:
December 02, 02h

I joined iStock about a year ago, back then the deal was $80 for 80 photo’s, since then the price has risen, but how can you beat value like that. If all else fails I have a few mates who are photographers so if things get desperate I can always call on them.

I think I’ll be sticking with iStock for quite some time yet, and if I get a chance to leave the office I may just take some snaps myself.

December 02, 04h

I’m wondering, do people use specific applications to help file their stock photo collections? At the moment I have about 2,000 images which are just stuck in Windows directories that I feel are appropriate at the time. I’d like to be able to store them with keywords and search them, etc.

Any suggestions?

December 02, 04h

I generally use, but that’s really only because the company I work for has an account with them.

brein says:
December 02, 04h

nice the christmas logo too
google-style ;)

David says:
December 02, 04h

You are, of course, overlooking other stock sources, other than photography, naturally

Both DeviantArt ( ) and GFXArtist ( ) have a large assortment of royalty-free stock libraries

Then there’s always Worth1000’s Pre-Photoshopped collection, however as I’m not a member of W1K, I’m not sure of the terms attached to their library

and IRT Paul:

I just sort them into semantic and meaningful subdirectories under my \My Documents\My Pictures folder (on WinXP)

I think it would be wise to invest in a proper image collection management app if you’ve got an extensive collection, there was one included in an issue of CAS a few years ago

December 02, 04h

As someone who’s just getting started in web design/development, I always wondered where the “good” sites get those perfect photos from. I found stock.xchange last night. Ten minutes later I had an account. Who knew?

Indranil says:
December 02, 06h

Well, I tried deviantArt, but it’s stuff was too dark, if you know what I mean.
So, I use stock.xchange. I even got the leaf on my header from there.
But, I don’t mind paying for stuff. It’s just that it costs too much.

steve says:
December 02, 06h

two other military image resources…

thanks for all the other tips.

December 02, 07h

We use where I work. It seems like a great deal for what you get, but then again, I did find the selection wearing somewhat thing in certain areas after time.

I don’t really touch visual design much anymore, though, so I dunno what the site’s like currently.

December 02, 08h

Just wanted to add to the list of folks who frequent stock.xchange and

Both of these sites have provided excellent stock photos in a pinch.

The other method I employ frequently is my own photography (amatuer, but pretty decent). Often I find I have many of the things I need, if I just look for them. Plus, if you need something specific there are always people who want to pose for the camera!

Oh, yeah and bluevertigo is amazing… tons of stuff if you have time to search.

December 02, 09h

Like many here, I use Istockphoto as well. I started uploading images myself about 3 months ago (I bought a Nikon D70) and have been fortunate to get a number of downloads. I typically buy about 20-30 images a week and hopefully by next year, my uploads will lower or eliminate the costs.

Interestingly enough, I used to average about $3000 - $5000 a month in stock photos from Veer and Comstock. I still buy there but Istockphoto satisfies about 90% of my needs. And the community there is awesome. Some great designers.



December 02, 10h

As far as deviantART goes, the stock photography there has gone downhill in my opinion. As a member since the beginning (August of 2000), I’ve never really felt that deviantART was a good resource for stock photos, especially with the lack of a good search feature on the site.

Thanks to everyone who shared their opinions on this. I’ve gained quite a few new resources from this thread and hope to start building my own repository of stock photography soon.

PS. I agree completely with Mark on his point that we, as web designers, have the ability to take our own stock photography. I’ve done this numerous times with my digital camera when stock archives just couldn’t provide me with the right picture for the job.

Ross says:
December 03, 08h

Response to Paul Haine (#42) -
Extensis Portfolio is a nice app for managing your photo library.

And I have a minor OT question for anyone-
Kind of a silly question but why is it that when I download a high-res jpeg from one of these sites, it downloads it as for example a 2.5 meg file but when I open it in photoshop it’s 10 megs there?


December 03, 09h

Ross: It’s because Photoshop displays the uncompressed size of an image.

December 03, 10h

For photo management on a PC, try using Picasa from Google (it’s Free as in Beer). It’s worked well for me. It does everything you’d like a photo-management application to do:
and send to “Hello”

Kev says:
December 03, 12h

Simone said:

“But look at it this way - do you really think a photographer is going to sit on some cold, snowy mountain for hours to wait for that perfect sunrise shot for his stock collection, only to end up giving it away for free?”

It seems a lot of them do though. seems to be mostly made up of very skilled hobbyist photographers who aren’t too concerned how their stock gets used - that seems to me to be totally their perogative.

You on the other hand are approaching this from a business model point of view and whilst I can understand your frustration to a certain degree the two things aren’t really comparable IMO.

I’ve given away designs before. For non-profit groups, for friends and even sometimes for companies in my local area that needed a starting boost. Just like these guys on iStock or stock.xchange I do it at my discretion.

December 05, 03h

Hi guys, count one more for stock.xchng , I also had one account at iStockphoto but only used my first 2 free credits. I am going to revisit them, upload some of my pictures and buy some credits.

Adam (#40): Thanks for sharing your bookmarks, I am also a user of them.


December 05, 09h

SXC Kicks ass.

I wonder if there is a good mac os x program (free) that would let me catoloug images that I found that I love.

Hmmm, version tracker I know.

nick b. says:
December 06, 04h

So obviously there’s a niche that is begging to be scratched here… I’m down for working with photographers and other web developers to create a “fair-for-all-parties-involved” web design focused stock image site (Phew!). Any takers, contact me! nick [at] deceptykhan [dot-com](Seriously, I live for useful projects like this :) And if you’re going to email, don’t forget to lose the munge!)

Jim says:
December 06, 06h - This site has a decent collection of images.

December 06, 07h

I don’t think this site was mentioned, but I’ve found some nice work here, so I thought I would share. The yearly subscriptions is a really great deal, if you want to spend the time archiving stuff for later use.

December 06, 08h

I don’t think this site was mentioned, but I’ve found some nice work here, so I thought I would share. The yearly subscriptions is a really great deal, if you want to spend the time archiving stuff for later use.

December 07, 02h

I shoot my own

Eric Hayes says:
December 07, 09h is a new site that has some pretty good photos. They have a reasonable pricing structure and if you sign up you get a free download every day. Their collection is small but it’s growing.

December 09, 06h

Some changes are afoot at istock:

1. January 3 will see their prices double. You can go buy credits at this year’s prices now and they will be valid next year.

2. istock will increase the commission to photograghers they “exclusively” represent. Which means to earn the extra bucks the photograghers will have to remove their photos from SXC and other places. So know is the time to go build your own photo library by hitting the SXC back catalog.

fish says:
December 09, 12h

Hope I’m not just dittoing, but you raise an interesting need.

Istock and other creative commons type stock options are missing the boat (I think) because they haven’t incorporated the social aspects of software into their interaction design.

A combination of … say,, and, with a twist on ‘s lighboxing: designers post creative briefs. Photographers (by this i mean the gamut, from stockhorses to your favorite photoblogger) respond with images from their ouvre. You see one you like and arrange a fair price/rights arrangement.

You pay a premium for access to high resolution. Resolution comes in handy. But the transaction is P2p, and in effect, on spec. The risk is minimal for both parties, and maybe even fun.

Resolution is important, because our perception of value in images is directly tied to how clear it is to our eyes, how detailed. Thus the 40 square pixel art deco tile that looks fabu in your design, costs about $1.50, and the striking, model released tableau on 4X5” film costs you 100 bux to use in pieces throughout your site, but it costs the ad agency you’re working for 2000 dollars for the big ass banner version.

The owners of the system earn a tiny portion of each transaction. Everybody’s happy.

Of course it would all hinge on a really good, intuitive, and community enforced classification system. tags.

Good ones and lot’s of em. If you can find it and talk to the person who made it, you’re all set.

Ray says:
December 15, 11h

Where practical I shoot my own. I’m a photographer and a Web designer so I am loathe to purchase stock work where I can produce an image on my own.

Buddy up with a photographer. Barter. Save a photographer or two from those nasty Flash and Muzak websites ‘optimized for IE at 1024x768’ and you’ll have all the stock you can print.

Stefan Witte says:
December 21, 12h

To Erik Christensen (OS-X pictureviewer): try IView MediaPro. I’m a webdesigner/photographer with huge amounts of images lying around and use it all the time.
A really powerfull life-saver.

December 23, 01h

I have made my own stock collection for years. I started at and got addicted to stock. I now have over 3000 print quality images I can use.