Buying images online: choosing the right stock photo site

Buying images online: choosing the right stock photo site

When it comes to buying images online, it is important to choose the right stock photo agency.  The choice will depend on your needs: are you looking for photos or illustrations; do you need images for web or print applications; will you buy images constantly or you just need a couple of photos or illustrations for a particular project.

All microstock sites offer royalty-free photos, most of them sell vector illustrations as well, and some offer footage. Prices for individual images start at just 1$, and can be even less if you purchase a subscription plan.

You will find an extensive list of microstock photo agencies on our site.


If you are not going to buy a lot of images, the best choice would be an agency where you can purchase a small credit package (10-15$) to buy individual photos or illustrations (for example, BigStockPhotoiStockPhoto, or Dreamstime). If, on the contrary, you want to buy large volumes of images regularly the best choice would be an agency offering cost-effective subscription plans. More and more agencies are now offering subscription plans in addition to credit packages (for example, DreamstimeFotolia123rf). Shutterstock will be your best choice to buy a subscription plan if you are ready to buy up to 750 photos and vector illustrations per month.


Quality of images is very important. Basically, if you need photos for web applications, any agency will be good in terms of image quality. But if you need high-resolution photos for print, a good idea is to buy from an agency which has high quality standards and a zoom option on the website, so that you could check an image at full size to make sure the quality is good enough. The strictest stock photo sites in terms of quality of photos are iStockPhotoShutterstock and Dreamstime, so you can be sure that photos won’t contain artifacts, noise, will have good focus, and will be suitable for print applications.


The largest collections are offered by ShutterstockiStockPhotoFotoliaDreamstime, and BigStockPhotoShutterstock adds to its collection about 90,000 new images every week! iStock is working hard to get as much of exclusive artists as possible, so in addition of the pictures that you will find on any big site, it offers many unique images that you won’t see anywhere else. Dreamstime and some other sites also have a number of exclusive images.


Basically, most sites offer similar prices. They start at 1$ for smaller web resolution images, and go up to 6-10$ for high-resolution images for print. Subscription plans are cost-effective (price per image can be as low as 0.30 – 0.40 cents) and allow you to buy around 25 photos per day.

To buy individual images, you need first to obtain a credit package. Image prices are usually indicated in credits, and 1 credit equals approximately 1$. For example, a small 72-dpi image for web would cost 1 credit, and a large 9” x 6” print size image at 300 dpi would cost 6 credits. Different credit packages are available (5, 10, 25, 100 credits etc.), and the more credits you buy, the more money you can save.

New stock photo agencies

Microstock photography is becoming really popular, there are so many new stock photo agencies that have appeared during the last couple of years. Some of them are really good in terms of design, functionality and navigation, and seem to integrate the best features of their older and well established competitors. Some of them are really bad and uncomfortable to navigate. The danger with new agencies is that they often have lower quality standards and accept photos that bigger agencies reject. So if you are intending to buy a photo for print, it is a good idea to zoom it and check at 100% size if such an option is available on the website.

Personal choice

You may just feel more comfortable on one site than on another. Interface, design, site features, and site speed can be important to make your buying experience pleasant and time-saving. Personally, I buy images from Fotolia because I can conveniently convert my photographer earnings into credits and get as little as 1 credit if I need just one image. I buy images only occasionally for web design, and this site has a good collection (they are quite picky when whey choose images to add to their library).