No single stock photo site is the best option for everyone, every purchase, or every budget. For this reason, Photutorial has chosen the best stock photo sites in a way designed to be the most helpful to the widest variety of readers. Rather than selecting the “best stock photo site” and ranking the next nine options, we highlighted the best websites for a variety of situations.
The most popular reason for people to use stock photo sites is to get affordable images, with 52% of stock photo buyers naming this as their primary reason, according to a January 2023 Photutorial survey. However, the survey also found that only 23% of participants knew how to pick a good stock photo site. Not knowing the prices and licenses can hinder your decision-making. Finding the right stock photo website for your needs should be one of the first steps in your creative journey.
The star ratings highlighted below show the site’s rating for its specific category. The global star rating can be found on the site review.
This list contains royalty-free stock photo sites, as well as one option for Creative Commons 0 and Rights Managed.
Top 10 best stock photo sites 2023
- Shutterstock: Best stock photo site overall
- Envato Elements: Best stock photo site for unlimited downloads
- Adobe Stock: Best stock photo site for graphic designers
- Depositphotos: Best cheap stock photo site
- iStock: Best premium images for commercial purposes
- Canva: Best Envato Elements alternative
- Dreamstime: Best for extended licenses in bulk
- Getty Images: Best premium stock photo site
- Stocksy: Best stock photo site for book covers
- Unsplash: Best free stock photo site
How to choose the best stock photo site
Buying stock photos is much easier when you know what to pay attention to. One of the most important but also most misunderstood aspects is licensing—Will you be using photos for blogs, merchandise, or TV? Here’s everything you need to know before picking a stock photo site:
Image quality and variety: Choosing a stock photo site with many images, think in millions, is a good start, but all that really matters at the end of the day is if you can find high-quality images of the motives you need. Look for sites that offer diverse images in different categories, such as landscapes, people, objects, and more.
Pricing: Stock photo prices can vary widely, so it’s important to compare prices and find a site that offers the best value for your budget. Remember that more expensive sites may offer higher-quality images, but you can also find cheap sites with quality photos.
Licensing: Royalty-free license is the most popular commercial license—it lets you use the image in multiple projects without paying additional fees. But they may differ in the number of allowed copies, legal coverage (indemnity), and other restrictions.
Customer support: A good search function is essential for finding the perfect image quickly. Look for sites that offer advanced search options, such as keyword searching, image size and orientation filters, and categories to narrow down your options.
Additional features: Look for additional features that can make your use of a stock photo site easier and more convenient. For example, some sites of APIs, so you can integrate their image libraries into your apps and services, while others offer plugins for popular software like Adobe Creative Cloud or WordPress. Again others offer features integrated into the library, such as insights into which photos perform best in which country.
Search functionality: A good search function is essential for finding the perfect image quickly. Look for sites that offer advanced search options, such as keyword searching, image size and orientation filters, and categories to narrow down your options.
Best Stock Photo Websites of 2023
Best overall stock photo site
- 433 million
- Image price
- Free trial
- 10 images, 1 video, 2 music tracks (30 days)
Overview: Shutterstock has been the best stock photo site with the largest collection of quality royalty-free image for years. Read our full Shutterstock review »
Why is Shutterstock the best stock photo site: High-quality, royalty-free stock photos available through affordable subscriptions and on-demand options and broad licensing terms make Shutterstock one of the best stock photo agencies.
Pros & Cons
- The largest collection of stock images (433 million)
- 30-day free trial with 10 images worth $29
- Wide variety of buying options.
- Big discounts with the annual prepaid plans.
- Editorial images are expensive ($99.50–$199)
- Enhanced License affordable only when bought in bulk
As one of the leading Adobe Stock alternatives, Shutterstock has built a reputation for its vast and diverse library, user-friendly interface, and flexible pricing options. With over 435 million images and an ever-growing collection of high-quality photos, illustrations, vectors, and even video clips, Shutterstock caters to a wide range of creative needs.
Quality & variety (5.0/5.0): Boasting more than 435 million stock images, Shutterstock maintains unparalleled image quality and variety thanks to its rigorous review process. In our experience, the images are distinct, seldom appearing similar or originating from the same photoshoot. With the addition of over 100,000 new images each week, Shutterstock ensures that its library remains up-to-date and diverse. The current collection comprises 242 million photos, 92 million vectors, and 143 million illustrations, with some overlap. Additionally, the platform offers over 50 million editorial images encompassing news, sports, entertainment, and archival content.
Pricing (4.5/5.0): When compared to other stock photo websites, Shutterstock’s pricing is quite competitive and in line with most alternatives. The recently updated pricing structure combines images, videos, and audio tracks under a single subscription plan. All-in-one subscriptions are available in monthly, annual, and annual prepaid commitments and in six sizes, ranging from $25 to $249 per month (equivalent to $0.22 to $4.90 per image). Alternatively, customers can opt for on-demand packages, where images cost between $9.16 and $14.50, while the Enhanced license ranges from $67.96 to $99.50. The annual subscription plan with 10 credits also comes the 30-day free trial, during which you can download 10 royalty-free images, 1 video, or 2 audio tracks. You keep the images even if you cancel the trial and pay nothing.
License (4.8/5.0): All Shutterstock images come with a comprehensive royalty-free (RF) license, which is included with every purchase, even during the free trial. There are two types of RF licenses available: Standard and Enhanced. The Standard license is ideal for commercial use, blogs, and social media, offering $10,000 indemnity. On the other hand, the Enhanced license is better suited for merchandise, providing $250,000 indemnity.
Customer support: Shutterstock customer support is available through live chat, phone call, and email. You can also find help through the help page, which answers most common questions. All types of customer support respond very quickly. However, we noticed that the sales team often tries to upsel a higher tier package than needed.
Additional features: Most notably, Shutterstock offers Creative Flow access for free with an active subscription. This is a tool similar to Canva but less comprehensive. Shutterstock also has API for developers, WordPress plugin, and Adobe Creative Cloud add on.
Free trial: 30-day free trial, during which you can download 10 royalty-free images. You keep the images even if you cancel the trial and pay nothing.
Discounts: 20% discount if you buy an annual subscription instead of a monthly subscription, and a 33% discount if you make an annual prepaid commitment. 32.4% discount if you buy 5 standard images on demand instead of 2, and 37% discount if you buy 25 standard images with demand plans. 10% discount if you buy 5 Enhanced images instead of 2, and a 32% discount if you buy 25 Enhanced images.
Best stock photo site for unlimited downloads
- 7.4 million
- Image price
- Free trial
Overview: Envato Elements is a popular marketplace that offers a range of creative assets, including stock photos, video, fonts, audio tracks, templates, and more, with unlimited downloads. Envato Elements is a good choice for creatives that need a variety of creative assets while on a budget. Read our full Envato Elements review »
Why is Envato Elements the best stock photo site for unlimited downloads: Envato Elements has the largest library of creative assets available with unlimited downloads while offering one of the lowest prices and a generous 57% annual discount.
Pros & Cons
- Unlimited downloads with no daily limits.
- 7-day free trial with full access to all creative assets.
- Assets can be used commercially.
- Simple licensing.
- Plans for individuals, teams, and enterprises.
- One of the lowest indemnities in the industry.
- You can’t use creative assets for new projects after unsubscribing.
- A small collection of photos and videos compared to other stock agencies.
- No refunds.
- Image quality & variety: With over 7 million images, which is considerably less than at other stock photos sites like Shutterstock or Adobe Stock, Envato Elements offers a surprisingly good variety. However, the quality of photos is lower than elsewhere, yet good enough for most projects.
- Price: Envato Elements’ pricing involves only one subscription plan with two commitments and one discount—all give you unlimited downloads of all creative assets. The monthly plan costs $39 per month, and the annual plan costs $16.50 per month. Students get a 30% discount, which reduces the price for the annual plan to just $11.50 per month.
- Licensing: Because you get unlimited downloads, the Envato Elements licensing is not as impressive. While it’s still royalty-free, you may not use the assets for merchandise or other purposes where the asset would represent the majority of the value.
- Customer support: Envato Elements customer support is available through email or a help page.
- Additional features: The best-known Envato feature is Placeit, the mockup and logo tool. There are also tuts+ for learning, mixkit, and reshot.
- Free trial: 7-day free trial, during which you get full access to all features, including unlimited downloads and the commercial royalty-free license.
- Discounts: Subscriptions for individuals are available with 57% cheaper yearly ($16.50/month) and monthly ($39.00/month) commitments. Students get a 30% discount on subscriptions, thus paying only $11.00/month. Each additional team member is 30% cheaper. Read more about Envato Elements discounts »
Best stock photo site for graphic designers
- 335 million
- Image price
- Free trial
- 10, 25, or 40 images (30 days)
Overview: Adobe Stock has the second largest collection of stock images (right after Shutterstock), broad licensing terms, and amazing features that make it particularly popular among creatives. Read our full Adobe Stock review »
Why is Adobe Stock the best stock photo site for graphic designers: The entire Adobe Stock library is integrated into the Adobe Creative Cloud natively, making the search of images and other assets from all Creative Cloud apps (like Photoshop) very easy.
Pros & Cons
- Superb image and video quality.
- Offers templates, 3D objects, and fonts.
- More than 1 million free images.
- Creative Cloud integration.
- Works with Photoshop, Illustrator, & others.
- More costly than some alternatives.
- No promo codes or coupons.
- Expensive premium content.
- Image quality & variety: Adobe Stock gets most of its stock images from photographers using Lightroom and Photoshop, which are connected to the library. As a result, the Adobe Stock library contains photos from some of the best photographers in the world.
- Price: You can buy Adobe Stock stock images with subscriptions, which give a certain number of monthly credits that you can use to download images, videos, or audio tracks, similar to Shutterstock. Standard images cost $0.26 to $9.99 with subscriptions and $8.00 to $9.99 on-demand, while the premium images (higher quality) cost up to $119.80. The Extended license costs $72.
- Licensing: There are the Standard, Enhanced, and Extended licenses. The Standard license is included with all standard downloads, while the Enhanced license is included with the premium downloads. The difference is that the Enhanced license allows unlimited copies, while the Standard license is limited to 500K. The Extended license also grants you the use in merchandise and for other purposes where the image represents the major value of the product.
- Customer support: Adobe Stock customer support is its worst feature. The live chat always responds quickly, but the operators are almost exclusively unknowledgeable.
- Additional features: Integration into the Adobe Creative Cloud apps like Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premiere Pro makes Adobe Stock the go-to stock photo website for creatives. It allows you to browse all Adobe Stock assets from within the apps, thus significantly speeding up your workflow.
- Free trial: Adobe Stock free trial is one of the most generous among stock photo sites, allowing you to download 10, 25, or even 40 free royalty-free images, based on the plan you pick.
- Discounts: 20% discount when you buy a yearly subscription instead of the monthly one. Up to 97% discount on the price per image when you pick a larger subscription (i.e., 750 monthly downloads) compared to the smallest ($0.26/image vs. $9.99/image). Up to 20% discount on large credit packs (150 credits; $8/credit) compared to the smallest credit pack (5 credits; $9.99/credit).
Best cheap stock photo site
- 224 million
- Image price
- Free trial
- 10 images (7 days)
Overview: Depositphotos’ stock images are almost as good as Shutterstock’s and Adobe Stock, but at lower prices and with lower indemnity. Read our full Depositphotos review »
Why is Depositphotos the best cheap stock photo site: Depositphotos subscription prices start as low as $1.44 per image, even with the smallest subscriptions, compared to $4.90 at Shutterstock and $9.99 at Adobe Stock.
Pros & Cons
- 224+ million images
- Good image quality
- No daily limit
- Reverse image search
- Great customer support (phone, live chat, and email)
- A collection of free images
- No custom packs (only available for enterprises).
- Limited flexibility of on-demand options.
- Image quality & variety: Depositphotos image quality and variety are mostly good, but it’s lacking compared to Adobe Stock and Shutterstock, especially for trending/new topics.
- Price: Depositphotos subscription prices start at $24.92 per month for 30 images and up to $166.58 for 750 images, costing $1.44 to $0.22 per image. On-demand options are more expensive, available in sizes of 3, 11, 25, or 100 images, costing $2.99 to $14.00 per image. Extended licenses are much more expensive, costing $63.96–$89.00/image. You can also get Unlimited downloads subscriptions ($4.99/month) with access to 1.3 million files.
- Licensing: Depositphotos offers Standard and Extended royalty-free licenses, almost identical to Shutterstock’s. The only difference is that Depositphotos offers much lower indemnity—only $5,000 for both.
- Customer support: The customer is one of the best stock photo sites. The live chat is knowledgeable and replies very fast, while the response from email takes one to three business days.
- Additional features: Depositphotos’ stock library is integrated into the VistaCreate editor. The site also has a free background remover from images and videos, an image upscaler, and an API.
- Free trial: The free trial last only 7 days, but you can get 10 royalty-free images with the 25 images/mo plan.
- Discounts: 16% discount on yearly subscriptions compared to monthly. 73.5% discount when picking the largest subscription plan of 750 monthly downloads compared to the smallest one. Up to 78.6% discount on bulk purchases with on-demand packs (11, 25, or 100 images) compared to the smallest (3 images). 28.1% discount by buying Extended License in bulk (25 images). On average, a 30% discount for buying videos in bulk (25 videos), and a 33% discount for buying Extended licenses for videos in bulk.
Best for premium images with subscriptions
- 150 million
- Image price
- Free trial
- 10 images (30 days)
Overview: At 150 million images, iStock’s collection isn’t the largest, but you can get premium images and videos with subscriptions. Read our full iStock review »
Why is iStock the best for premium images with subscriptions: iStock is the only stock photo site that offers premium images (called Signature) with subscriptions, costing as little as $0.44 per download.
Pros & Cons
- 150 million images.
- The Signature collection is of superb quality.
- Competitive prices.
- 10 images with the free trial.
- Signature images are a lot more expensive.
- Very expensive extended license.
- Very poor customer support.
- Image quality & variety: iStock divides images into two collections: Standard (Essentials) and Premium (Signature). The Signature collection is composed of technically better images that look more professional. It’s like buying Getty Images with subscriptions, while the Essentials are good for everyday use.
- Price: Essential images cost $0.22–$4.00 with subscriptions, while Premium images cost $0.44–$9.90. You can also get images on-demand with credits, costing $8 to $12 per credit, where Essentials cost 1 credit and Signatures 3 credits.
- Licensing: iStock licensing is virtually the same as Shutterstock’s licensing: The Standard License grants you up to 500,000 copies and $10,000 indemnity, while the Extended License grants you unlimited copies and up to $250,000 indemnity.
- Customer support: It is very rare even to get a response from the iStock customer support team.
- Additional features: Search Trends lets you browse the current visual trends by region, industry, and over time.
- Free trial: The free trial last 30 days, and you can get 10 royalty-free images.
- Discounts: 16.5% discount when you buy annual subscriptions instead of monthly (valid for Basic and Premium subscriptions. This discount is increased to 24% for Premium + Video subscriptions. 92% discount when you buy the largest Basic subscription plan instead of the smallest, 94% for the Premium subscriptions, and 53% discount for the Premium + Video subscriptions.
Other good stock photo sites we’ve tested
Not every stock photo site can be a favorite. Over the years, we’ve tried and tested over 30 stock photo sites, and here are a few that deserve a mention but are not “the ebst” by any means.
- 110 million
- Image price
- Royalty-free, CC0
- Free trial
- 30 days
Overview: Canva is an online platform for amateur graphic design, leveraging professional templates, which enable anyone to create beautiful designs. Read our full Canva review »
Why is Canva the budget pick: Starting at just $9.99 per month, Canva is the cheapest option to get unlimited downloads of stock photos and access to an easy-to-use graphic design editor. These make Canva the best option for amateur designers and solopreneurs on a budget.
Pros & Cons
- 30 day free trial
- Inexpensive subscription
- Intuitive and super easy-to-use
- Huge built-in stock photo library
- Prompts team-work
- Bad at photo editing
- No one-time purchase option
- Can’t use it offline
- Lacks advanced design options
- Image quality & variety: A large portion of Canva’s image comes from free stock image sites, like Unsplash and Pixabay.
- Price: Canva is available with a free forever plan, which comes with a limited number of assets and functionality. Canva Pro costs $9.99 to $12.99 monthly and grants you full access to all features.
- Licensing: Canva offers two types of content: Free and Pro. The Free and Pro Content licenses cover all the content available on Canva’s platform, including photos, icons, illustrations, videos, audio, fonts, and templates. Free users can use Free content at no cost, and Pro content can be used by paying a fee or having a valid Canva subscription.
- Customer support: The customer is quite fast, and it usually takes around 2 business days to get a response through email.
- Additional features: The stock image collection is integrated into a super-intuitive editor, best suited for simple graphic designs, logo designs, and social media graphics.
- Free trial: 30 days free trial of Canva Pro.
- Discounts: 24% discount on the annual plan compared to the monthly. 3% discount for each additional team member.
Best for extended licenses with subscriptions
- 205 million
- Image price
- Free trial
- 15 watermarked
Overview: Dreamstime has a large collection of royalty-free stock images, but many are overedited and don’t look professional. Read our full Dreamstime review »
Why is Dreamstime best for extended licenses with subscriptions: Dreamstime is the only site that offers extended licenses with subscriptions, thus significantly reducing their prices to just $23 per image. However, the license is not as comprehensive as Shutterstock’s.
Pros & Cons
- Up to 30% discount.
- The cheapest extended license.
- Extended licenses with subscriptions.
- Often overedited images.
- Poor variety.
- Free trial images are watermarked.
- Image quality & variety: The variety of stock photos is good, but the quality is largely unsatisfactory. Photos are often oversaturated and have lots of artifacts left from overediting.
- Price: Images cost $0.23–$5.00 with subscriptions and $0.88–$51.78 with credit packages. You can get unlimited access to a limited collection of images for $5/month.
- Licensing: The license is not as comprehensive as Shutterstock’s or iStock’s. The extended licenses require stacking and can cost over $1,000 when not bought with subscriptions.
- Customer support: The customer support is very slow and rarely responds.
- Additional features: There are no useful additional features.
- Free trial: Dreamstime has a 30-day free trial with 15 images, but they are watermarked.
- Discounts: 30% discount with our coupon.
- Images: 185 million
- Price: $150–$499/image
- Free trial: No
- Buying options: on-demand
Why We Picked It
Getty Images is a premium stock photo website best for editorial content with over 157 million editorial images. It’s a site with a long history of first-class and vintage photos for commercial purposes, including exclusive images from worldwide. In addition to a very broad royalty-free license, it sells images under a rights-managed license that you can tailor specifically to your needs. However, it costs a lot more than a royalty-free license—from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars.
All images are sold on-demand under a royalty-free license – you cannot purchase a rights-managed (extended) license. Getty Images sells images in packs that significantly reduce the overall price. A single image purchase costs $175 for a small image/low-res video and $499 for a large image or a 4k/HD video.
If you want to reduce the cost of images, purchase packs of 5 or 10. The price will drop to between $150 and $425 per download. Sadly, Getty Images does not offer a free trial, nor can you purchase a rights-managed license.
Learn more: Read our full Getty Images review.
Pros & Cons
- Exceptional image quality.
- Unlimited license reproduction.
- Great for editorial images.
- No free trial.
- Very expensive.
- No subscriptions.
- Completely unresponsive support team.
- Three images and video sizes (small/low-res, medium, large/4K, and HD) are available with three different packs of 1, 5, or 10 downloads.
- Small images/low-res videos cost $150 to $175, medium images cost $300 to $375, large images, 4K, and HD videos cost $425 to $499.
- You can also get very small images that are best for use on the web for $50 apiece.
- There are no subscriptions or free trials.
- Customer support never replies in our experience.
- Images: 2 million
- Price: $15–$125
- Free trial: No
- Buying options: on-demand
Why We Picked It
Stocksy is a premium stock photography agency, best for book covers, thanks to simple licensing and beautiful images. While its library doesn’t contain many stock images, the ones it has are top quality. Because it has only on-demand options, Stocsky is more expensive than some other stock photo sites. If you want to buy stock images for a book cover, first find the image you want, click Add to cart, and proceed to the checkout. If you need exclusive rights to the image, Stocksy can freeze the market for you, meaning it won’t sell the images to anyone else in the meantime. This costs from $1,2500 for half a year to $9,000 for 5 years.
All content (images, videos) can be bought on-demand only, making them more expensive. Royalty-free images cost from $15 to $125 based on the size. Extended licenses for images cost $100 for multi-seat, $300 for an unlimited print run, and $500 for product resale. “Market Freeze” is an option for Stocksy to stop selling the image, thus giving you exclusive rights. This costs from $1,250 to $9,000 for half a year up to 5 years.
Pros & Cons
- Superb images and image value.
- Royalty-free and rights-managed options.
- No subscriptions.
- Moderately expensive.
- No free trial.
- Images: 4 million
- Price: Free; $4/month for Unsplash+
- Free trial: No
- Buying options: on-demand
Why We Picked It
Unsplash is the best free stock photo site with over 4 million Creative Commons images that you can use even for commercial projects without attributing the author or Unsplash. Unsplash is one of the faster-growing free stock photo sites, with almost 100k files added last month.
You can use all their photos for free, for commercial or non-commercial purposes. What is more, you don’t even have to ask permission or provide credit, although it is appreciated. You can read more about Unsplash License. Since virtually anyone can post on Unsplash and no commission is paid to the author of the image, finding a good picture that perfectly satisfies consumers’ needs is challenging.
Even though Unsplash is an incredible free stock photo website, we recommend you use a site like Adobe Stock or Shutterstock for commercial purposes. Over 4.5 lifetime downloads of Unsplash content, which is around 35 per second.
Pros & Cons
- Surprising diversity for 4 million images.
- Free even for commercial use.
- Doesn’t require attribution.
- Some topics lack image coverage.
- No indemnification.
How we test stock photo sites: our methodology
Testing all the major and best stock photo sites, our reviews begin at the provider’s website, where we examine the details to learn more about the service. What quality of images does the provider offer? Does it cater to specific niches, or is it more general? Does the pricing make sense for the quality of the images? Are there any catches in the small print? And are the licensing terms clear and reasonable?
After subscribing to a plan, we browse and try out the stock photo site’s features, user interface, and search capabilities. We test how well the site’s algorithms suggest images based on keywords, and we evaluate the relevance and quality of the results. We also examine the site’s metadata and categorization system to see how well it organizes images and makes it easy for users to find what they’re looking for.
We assess the quality of the images themselves by downloading samples and examining them closely for factors such as resolution, composition, lighting, and color. We test how well the images perform in various design scenarios, such as print vs. digital, and how easy they are to edit or manipulate.
A good stock photo site should offer a wide variety of images you can use in your projects. To check this, we explore the site’s library to see if it has enough images in various categories, and we test whether it has exclusive or unique images that are hard to find elsewhere.
We might carry out all kinds of other tests, depending on the circumstances. If a site’s metadata or categorization system seems inadequate, for instance, we might manually tag images and see if the site’s algorithms improve.
Want more details? We have a full explainer on our stock photo site testing methodology.
How our picks compare
|Shutterstock||Envato Elements||Adobe Stock||Depositphotos||iStock|
|Photos||433 million||7.4 million||301 million||282 million||150 million|
|Customer support||Excellent live chat, quick over email, phonecall||~2 days over email, community forum||Horrible live chat, ~2 days over email, phonecall||Excellent live chat, ~2 days over email, phonecall||No live chat, poor email, phonecall|
|Additional features||Creative Flow image editor; API; mobile apps; integrations: Adobe Creative Cloud, WordPress, Chrome, Final Cut Pro, SKetch, Google Slided, and Microsoft Powerpoint||Envato Tuts+, Envato Market, Placeit, Mixkit||Integration with all Adobe apps||VistaCreate Editor, logo maker, background remover, image upscaler, API||VisualGPS Insights, API|
A Beginner’s Guide to Stock Photo Sites
How do stock photo sites work?
Stock photo websites connect customers with photographers. When you purchase a photo, you are paying for the right to use it, not the photo itself. The photographer remains the owner, and you must consider the license when using the image. Here’s a basic workflow for using a microstock photo site:
- A photographer uploads a photo to a stock photo site.
- The stock photo agency reviews the photo and adds it to their collection.
- You search for stock photos and select a license that suits your needs.
- You pay for the photo based on how many images you need and how you need them.
- Use the photo in line with the license you bought.
How do stock photos work?
A stock photo is an image available for purchase and can be used for commercial or editorial purposes. Stock photos are often used to fill in gaps in a project where taking photos yourself is not possible or practical due to high costs. Professional photographers sell stock photos on stock photo sites.
When you pay for a stock photo, you actually purchase the right to use it in a certain way and for a particular purpose, not the photo itself. The photographer who took the photo remains its rightful owner. Therefore, you must consider the license, as it specifies exactly how, how often, and how long you may use the photo.
In other words: a license is a legal agreement between you and the photographer. It’s essential to read the license carefully before buying a photo so you know what you can and can’t do with it.
Why should you get stock photos?
If you need images regularly, require a variety of motives, and want to save money, then stock photos are a great solution. A stock photo site offers a quality supply of visual content created by professionals that can make your website or designs more appealing.
Here are some reasons why you may want to consider using stock photos:
- Budget-friendly: Stock photos are much cheaper than hiring a photographer, buying from a private gallery, or learning photography from scratch.
- Convenient: Stock photos are available at your fingertips, saving you time compared to having someone take them for you on-demand, which can take days or weeks.
- Remote locations: If you need photos of a remote place like the Amazonian rainforest, stock photos from photographers who have been there are a great alternative.
However, while stock photo sites are great for always having images, videos, music, and other fonts at your fingertips, they are not an answer to every problem. This is especially true when authentic images are a must, such as for eCommerce stores, author headshots, reviews, and educational graphics.
Who uses stock photos?
- Graphic designers: These creative professionals often purchase stock photos to use in a variety of digital design projects, such as social media banners, advertisements, websites, flyers, and brochures.
- Small businesses: Many small business owners turn to stock photos to add visual interest to their marketing materials, including websites, brochures, and other promotional materials.
- Publishers: Publishers frequently purchase stock photos for print materials like books, magazines, and other printed materials.
- Social media marketers: In the fast-paced world of social media, it can be challenging to develop new content consistently. Buying stock photos is an efficient way for social media marketers to keep their content pipelines flowing.
- Filmmakers and videographers: These creative professionals often purchase stock photos to create motion graphics and custom visuals for their projects.
- Real estate agents: Real estate agents often use stock photos in brochures, flyers, and virtual listings to showcase properties visually appealingly.
- Entrepreneurs: When launching a new business, entrepreneurs may use stock photos to add professional-looking visuals to their websites, business cards, and other printed materials.
- Bloggers: Many bloggers purchase stock photos to add quality visuals to their blogs and websites.
- Interior designers: Interior designers may use stock photos to showcase their projects online and in traditional media outlets.
- Event planners: Stock photos can be useful for event planners who need to create digital media and prints for special events.
- Tourism businesses: Companies in the tourism industry may purchase stock photos to use in their web listings and websites to attract potential customers.
Stock photo licenses
A stock photo license is an agreement between you and a stock photo agency, representing photographers and artists, that allows you to use their photos even though you don’t hold the copyright. In exchange for a small fee, a photographer will let you use their photos through a stock photo agency.
To use stock images, you must get the appropriate license as you are using someone else’s property. Failing to obtain a license before using an image or using it outside the scope of the license constitutes copyright infringement. There are three types of stock photo licenses distinguished by the rights you receive, the cost, and the legal indemnification.
Types of stock photo licenses
|License type||Public domain||Royalty-free||Rights-managed|
|Best for||Personal projects||Commercials, blogs, social media||Commercial campaigns that require exclusivity|
- Public Domain (PD). A public domain (PD) license allows anyone to use copyrighted material without asking the owner for permission. This means you can use the material for any purpose without paying royalties or fees. The most common public domain license is Creative Commons Zero (CC0), which allows anyone to use a work for any purpose without asking the copyright owner for permission.
- Royalty-free (RF). A royalty-free (RF) license for stock photos allows the buyer to use the photo indefinitely in any medium without paying royalties to the photographer or copyright holder. However, some royalty-free licenses limit you to 500,000 copies. In contrast, a royalty-bearing license requires the buyer to pay a fee each time the photo is used.
- Rights-Managed (RM). A rights-managed license (RM) ensures exclusivity and unlimited reproduction. Each RM license is tailored to an individual campaign and may not be used for other projects. Hence, it’s limited to a particular location, timeframe, and project. RM licenses are appropriate for large projects, costing hundreds of dollars.
Tips for buying stock photos
Consider these tips when comparing stock photo sites:
- Evaluate your image needs. Most stock photo websites offer several purchase options, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, if you need a certain number of images each month, it’s best to choose a subscription, which usually has the lowest price. If you know you’ll need the images for at least a year, you should opt for an annual subscription, which is even cheaper. If you only need images occasionally, you should consider credit packs, which offer you a certain number of credits you can use whenever you want.
- Consider what you need the images for. You’ll need to purchase an appropriate license depending on how you want to use the image. In most cases, a royalty-free license is sufficient. However, if you need an unlimited number of reproductions (instead of 500,000), a higher royalty, or the right to resell, you must supplement the royalty-free license with an extended license. These are more expensive but better suited for commercial use.
- Search for the topic you need. If you know in advance that you need a lot of images for the exact search term, it’s a good idea to look up what you can get.
- Look for discounts. Many stock photo sites offer discounts in the form of seasonal promotions or coupon codes that can get you between 5% and 30% off stock images.
How to buy stock photos?
Step 1: Choose a stock photo provider
Our favor to you: contact us, and we’ll help you make an informed decision for free!
Step 2: Search for the desired photos
Once you have selected a stock photo provider, you can search for the photos you need. Most stock photo websites have a search feature that allows you to enter keywords or themes to help narrow down your options. You can also often browse through different categories to find specific types of photos.
More advanced stock photo sites also provide AI search for images, which work similarly to Google’s reverse image search. In addition, you can search by color, number of people, image orientation, to name a few.
Step 3: Select the photos you want to purchase
Once you have found some photos that meet you like, you will need to select them for purchase. Most stock photo websites allow you to add photos to a “lightbox” or “cart” so you can review your selections before making a purchase.
You can also categorize your photos in groups to save them for later and organize your image research. Most sites have these features available with a free account.
Step 4: Choose a license type
While most modern stock photo websites offer royalty-free licensing, their license differ in the nitty-gritty detailes, such as the number of allowed reproductions and legal coverage you get. Which license you pick, determines how you can use the photos.
For example, some licenses may allow you to use the photos for commercial purposes, while others may only allow for personal use. So, always carefully review the terms of each license to ensure that you select the one that is right for your needs.
Read more about licensing: Stock photo licensing
Step 5: Choose a buying option
You can buy stock images in many ways, and which one you choose depends on how many clips you need and how often you need them. Here we explain the different options and which is the best in every situation ordered from the most expensive to the cheapest.
- Single purchase. The simplest way to buy stock images is as a single purchase. It’s the same as buying any product in a grocery store—you pay for it once and can use/eat it. While this is the simplest and most convenient option, it’s also the most expensive. It’s best when you need only one image and won’t be needing more any time soon.
- On-demand. An upgrade from single purchases is on-demand. These come in image packs and credits that give you some downloads. The larger the pack you buy, the more cost-efficient it is, meaning the lower the price per image. These are the best options when you need content occasionally, but you’ll use it within a year because most image packs and credits expire after a year.
- Subscriptions. Subscriptions are the most popular choice. You pay a monthly fee for which you get a certain number of downloads. Similarly to on-demand, the larger the subscription you buy, the more cost-efficient it is. You can save even more by purchasing an annual plan, which is usually 20–50% cheaper than the monthly plan. Subscriptions are the best option when you need images regularly.
- Unlimited downloads. These are also monthly subscriptions, but instead of getting a certain number of downloads every month, you can download any number of images (there’s usually a soft limit of 50-100 downloads/day to avoid stealing). These are your best options when you need a lot of images regularly but don’t have the budget to buy a large subscription plan.
Step 6: Make the purchase
Once you have chosen your photos and selected a license, you will need to make the purchase. This usually involves entering your payment information and completing the transaction. Once you’ve paid for the photos, you’ll usually get an email with links to download them.
Step 7: Download and use the photos
After you have made the purchase, you can download the photos and start using them in your projects. Be sure to follow the terms of the license, which may include requirements such as crediting the photographer or using the photos in a specific way.
Types of stock images
There are four types of stock images:
- Photos or photographs are visual representations of an object, person, place, or idea. Photos convey information about people, places, objects, and ideas. They can be static or dynamic, still or animated. You can take photos by taking them yourself—you need a camera, a lens, and a lot of time. Stock photos are cheaper and time-saving alternatives; you pay a few cents for a professional photo.
- Illustrations are drawings that depict objects, people, places, or ideas. They can be static or animated, created with pen and ink, pencil, brush, crayon, marker, charcoal, pastels, crayons, watercolors, gouache, graphite, chalk, or any other drawing tool. Like photos, illustrations are also available in stock image libraries.
- Drawings are the simplest form of illustration. They can be drawn by hand or created using software like Adobe Illustrator.
- Graphics are images that are simplified to where only shapes and symbols remain to represent the subject. They’re simple enough to be easily understood by anyone.
Best stock photo sites: Statistics & trends
As businesses experience fluctuations in popularity over the years, it’s important to examine long-term trends to get a comprehensive picture of their performance. To shed light on the best stock photo site landscape, we have compiled Google Trends data on the search popularity of all stock photo sites from 2004 to 2023, including Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, Getty Images, iStock, and Envato Elements, in the graph below.
The graph reveals both emerging and declining stock photo sites. Getty Images’ success peaked around 2006 and has been steadily declining since then, as has iStock since Getty Images acquired it in 2006. These Getty-owned stock sites have seen a drop in popularity, while innovative stock photo sites have been gaining momentum.
Shutterstock is currently the most popular stock photo site, having held its position since 2010 when it surpassed Getty Images and iStock. Notably, Shutterstock is also our Editor’s Choice for the best stock photo site, the best Getty Images, Adobe Stock, and iStock alternative, and the best stock photo subscription.
Two other sites have also enjoyed tremendous success in recent years. The first is Adobe Stock, which became the close second to Shutterstock after Adobe acquired Fotolia in 2015. The very affordable Envato Elements has also gained momentum in the last four years and currently enjoys about a third of Shutterstock’s popularity.
What can these statistics and trends do for you? They represent customer satisfaction and popularity among clients, which can aid in making informed purchasing decisions when buying stock photo sites.
Why you should trust us
To understand which stock photo sites are the best and which are not worth spending money on, we tested, reviewed, and then tested every stock photo site again: Shutterstock, the best overall stock agency; Adobe Stock, the best stock agency for graphic designers and anyone using Adobe’s apps; iStock, a great place to buy premium images at affordable prices; Depositphotos, the best source of stock photos for small businesses and individuals; Getty Images, a premium stock agency with a long tradition and the best source of editorial images; and over 20 others, like Alamy, 123RF, Vecteezy, YayImags, Bigstock, Dreamstime, Offset, Photocase, StockUnlimited, CanStockPhoto, StockPhotoSecrets, and PxBee. This holistic approach, combined with years of experience in stock photography, gave us the opportunity to write the most comprehensive guide on the best stock photography sites—the one you’re reading now.
The writer of this article, Matic Broz, has been passionate about photography for over 2 decades and is now specializing in stock photography and the use of images in marketing, graphic design, and websites. Through years of experience with stock agencies, he knows all of them inside out. He tested each with several accounts (we know that one review is not enough!), while also consulting with other experts in the field.
The article is also regularly fact-checked by stock photo site representatives, who ensure that the data is 100% correct. However, the opinion remains our own because we understand that our editorial integrity is the reason you trust our reviews.
How we picked
We looked at over 30 stock photo sites, both free and paid, commercial, premium, cheap and expensive, legit and scammy—we checked them all, so you don’t have to. Here are a few features we focused on:
- Number of photos: We wanted a stock photo site with a large number of images (over 100 million). The number of images is crucial when choosing a stock photo website because if you need thousands of images, you can quickly run out of fresh photos. We checked the databases of each stock photo website and took notes on the number of images.
- Quality and variety: To check for quality and variety, we searched each stock photo website for over 50 keywords and analyzed the results. Both metrics were qualitatively assessed based on our expertise and experience. The quality review covered technical quality, including exposure, sharpness, grain, saturation, color temperature, and impact. The diversity review focused primarily on what percentage of the images were from the same photo shoot or were very similar to each other.
- Pricing: Affordable image pricing is important for a stock photo site. All our picks sell stock photos for as little as $0.26, or even less, and never more than $20 (except for premium stock photos). We also paid attention to the pricing of the extended licenses, focusing on stock agencies that sell them for less than $100 (iStock is an exception). In addition to the prices, we took into account how many buying options there are—the more, the better. We checked whether the stock photo agency offers subscriptions, on-demand options, and in which sizes and durations. Having a free trial is also important as it allows customers to get an insight into what they can expect.
- Licensing: A good stock photo site needs broad but simple licensing terms, meaning fewer licenses with high legal coverage (indemnity) and a higher reproduction limit. We compared them based on how many copies, reprints, and impressions they allow, whether or not you’re limited by your budget, and their indemnity value. We also considered how many licenses a stock agency offers because, in our experience, customers prefer fewer licenses as they are easier to understand and don’t require complex comparisons. So, the stock photo companies we recommend offer two main types of licenses (standard and extended).
- Additional features: and tools are meant to simplify or enhance a customer’s workflow. We reviewed and tested all the additional features where possible. Since some are limited to enterprises, or we couldn’t get in touch with the support team, we asked the customers with access to the additional features for their opinion. All our picks offer various integrations, plugins, built-in tools, helper tools (converters, resizers, upscalers), team collaboration tools, admin dashboards, APIs, and customer insights.
- Customer support: When something goes wrong or you need a refund, you contact customer support, and not getting a response for a long time gets very frustrating. This is why we picked stock photo sites with great customer support (except for iStock, which makes up for it elsewhere) and multiple channels of access. Crucially, when testing customer support, we didn’t tell them who we were, so we got treated like every other customer. We took notes of the response times, contact options (live chat, email, and telephone), and the usefulness and kindness of the support teams.
Best stock photo sites FAQ
Which is the best stock photo site?
According to our research, some of the best stock photo sites are Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, iStock, and Depositphotos. The best stock photo site provides a good mix of high-quality stock photos, several pricing options, a free trial, outstanding customer support, and additional tools or integrations. We have also discovered that stock photo agencies that take good care of their contributors generally provide better customer service.
Is it illegal to use stock photos?
Stock photos are legal to use as long as you use them according to the license. That means you first need to acquire a license through payment and then abide by the license’s terms and conditions. Generally, you can legally use stock photos for commercial and non-commercial purposes within certain limits.
How can I legally use stock photos?
To use stock photos legally, you must first acquire a license. Which license you choose depends on your project requirements. A royalty-free license covers most projects, but an extended license is a must when you need resell rights or unlimited reprints.
Are stock photos free to use?
Some stock photos are free to use – these are licensed under a Creative Commons 0 license. For promotional purposes, royalty-free stock images are the best choice, as they guarantee safe use. An extended (or rights-managed) license is the best option for more extensive campaigns.
Where is the best place to get free stock photos?
The best place for free stock photos is Unsplash, with over 2 million free stock images. Other free options include Pixabay, Pexels, Burst, and Stocksnap. You may also get free stock images with free trials of paid stock image sites and their free collections.
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- Wikipedia contributors, Stock photography, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, July 7, 2022
- Kate Harrison, Picking Perfect Stock Photos For Your Holiday Ads: 7 Great Tips, July 8, 2022
- Stephani Clifford, For Photographers, the Image of a Shrinking Path, The New York Times, July 9, 2022
- Michael Keenan, 41 Best Free Stock Photos Sites to Get Free Images, Shopify, July 9, 2022.
- DeFiillippi, R.; Wikstrm, P. International Perspectives on Business Innovation and Disruption in the Creative Industries, 2014.
- Wikipedia contributors, Shutterstock, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, July 12, 2022.
- Shutterstock License Agreement(s), Shutterstock, Updated May 17, 2022. Retrieved July 17, 2022.
- Adobe Stock Additional Terms, Adobe Stock, Updated January 29, 2021. Retrieved July 17, 2022.
- iStock content license agreement, iStock, Updated January 2022. Retrieved July 17, 2022.
About your guide
Matic Broz is a multifaceted creative professional, with experience as a photographer, graphic designer, and business owner. He has a decade of experience in helping other creatives improve their craft and start their own businesses. His writing and research have been featured in notable publications such as The Guardian, PetaPixel, and USA Today. Additionally, his scientific research has been recognized with a cover feature in the prestigious MDPI-owned journal. In his leisure time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and spending time with dogs. Read more
Information provided on Photutorial is for educational purposes only. Your situation is unique and the products and services we review may not be right for your circumstances. We do not offer financial advice, nor do we recommend or advise individuals to buy or sell particular stocks or services. Performance information may have changed since the time of publication. Past performance is not indicative of future results.
Photutorial adheres to strict editorial integrity standards. To the best of our knowledge, all content is accurate as of the date posted, though offers contained herein may no longer be available. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone and have not been provided, approved, or otherwise endorsed by our partners.