How to buy stock photos?

How to buy stock images safely explained by the industry expert

By Matic Broz, editor-in-chief of Photutorial covering stock media, Adobe, and design. He founded Photutorial while finishing his PhD in computational biosciences.

Updated on | 0 Comments

If you buy something from a Photutorial link, we may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.
How to buy stock images

Buying stock photos instead of hiring a professional photographer can save you money on production costs. You will also get immediate access to millions of high-quality stock images.

But in the stock photo market with dozens of excellent and poor providers, how do you choose the best one to buy stock photos?

Here’s a complete overview of buying stock photos and what to look for—whether you purchase from large stock photo providers, specialized niche platforms, or independent photographers.

1. Identify your needs

Before you even think about browsing a stock photo site, you should have a clear understanding of what you’re looking for. Begin by pinpointing the image requirements for your project. This process starts by asking yourself questions such as:

  • What’s the subject matter of your project? This will guide the theme of the photos you should be looking for. For example, if you’re working on a project about gardening, you might look for images related to plants, flowers, and gardening tools.
  • What’s the tone or mood you want to convey? If you’re working on a serious business presentation, you’ll likely lean towards professional and formal images. On the other hand, a blog post about a family vacation may require more casual and cheerful photos.

Understanding the style and theme consistency of your images is also crucial. If you’re planning on using multiple images, they should ideally have a similar style or color scheme. This helps to keep your project looking cohesive and professional.

Next, consider the resolution and size of the images you need. For web purposes, lower-resolution images (72 dpi) will suffice, but for print materials, you’ll need high-resolution images (300 dpi). In terms of size, if you’re intending to use the image as a background or on a large print, you’ll need a bigger image. If it’s just for a small section of a webpage or a presentation slide, a smaller image will suffice.

» More: What is DPI?

2. Set your budget

Once you’ve identified your needs, it’s time to determine how much you’re willing and able to spend on stock photos. Pricing models for stock photos can vary significantly, and it’s essential to find the balance between cost, quality, and license requirements.

There are three main pricing models you’re likely to encounter in your search for the perfect stock photo:

  • Subscription: Stock photo subscriptions are the most cost-effective option if you need a large number of images. For a monthly or yearly fee, you get access to a certain number of images each month. In addition to generous discounts, subscriptions also often come with a one-month free trial.
  • Credits: Most sites also offer a credit system where you purchase credits and then spend them on images. This system provides flexibility as you only pay for what you use, but it’s more expensive than using subscriptions.
  • One-time purchases: This model is typically most suited to those who need a specific, high-quality image for a single use. You pay a one-time fee and can use the image within the terms of the license.

Each pricing model has its advantages and disadvantages. For instance, while subscriptions offer the most bang for your buck, they may lead to waste if you don’t need many photos. Credits provide flexibility, but they can be more expensive per image. One-time purchases are the most pricey, but they’re often the best choice for high-quality, unique images.

After understanding these models, decide which suits your needs best. Do you need a large volume of photos regularly, or are you after one or two specific, high-quality images? Make sure to also take into account your long-term needs. Are you likely to need more stock photos in the future? If so, a subscription might be worth considering.

» More: How much do stock photos cost?

3. Choose a stock photo website

With a clear idea of your needs and a budget in hand, it’s time to pick the right stock photo website. There are a plethora of options available, each with its strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important to choose wisely.

You’ll likely come across well-known sites such as:

Choosing the right stock photo website isn’t a decision to take lightly. You’ll want to take into account several factors, including the quality of images, the size of the image library, the pricing model, and the user interface.

  • Quality. Quality should always be a priority. A website that offers high-quality images will ensure that your project looks its best. At the same time, a large image library gives you a broader selection to choose from, increasing the chances of finding images that perfectly fit your needs.
  • Pricing. The pricing model is another critical factor. You’ll want to pick a site that aligns with your budget, as determined in Step 2. If you plan on using a large volume of images regularly, a site offering a subscription model like Shutterstock might be your best bet. If you’re after a single, high-quality image, a site like Getty Images might be more suitable.
  • Licensing. The licensing terms govern what you can and cannot do with an image. They also set forth how much legal coverage you get with each image download.

4. Understand licensing terms

Understanding licensing terms helps you avoid legal pitfalls and ensures that you’re using the images in a way that respects the creators’ rights.

There are three main types of image licenses you’ll encounter when buying stock photos:

  • Royalty-Free: This is the most common type of license. It allows you to use the image as many times as you want, in various projects, after paying a one-time fee. Despite its name, “Royalty-Free” doesn’t mean the image is free of cost. It just means you don’t have to pay royalties each time you use it. More: Royalty-free explained
  • Rights-Managed: This license type is more restrictive. It limits the use of the image to a specific purpose, time frame, geographic location, or a combination of these. If you want to use the image in a different way, you need to buy another license.
  • Extended Licenses: Also known as Enhanced Licenses, these extend the rights of the basic Royalty-Free license. They’re typically required for uses that involve a large audience, like merchandise for sale or high-volume print runs.

Each license type serves different needs, so you understand what each one allows and restricts. Misusing a licensed image can lead to legal issues, so take the time to read the fine print carefully. If the licensing information isn’t clear, don’t hesitate to reach out to the stock photo website’s customer service for clarification. Understanding the license that comes with the image you’re purchasing ensures you’re using it correctly and ethically.

5. Search for the right images

Now that you understand licensing terms, it’s time to dive into the exciting part — searching for the perfect images for your project. This can be both fun and challenging, given the vast number of images available on most stock photo sites (2.3 billion in total).

Begin your search by using the site’s search bar and typing in relevant keywords related to your project’s theme. For example, if you’re working on a project about healthy eating, keywords might include “healthy food”, “fresh vegetables”, “balanced diet”, and so on.

Shutterstock image search
Shutterstock image search (Credit: Shutterstock)

Many stock photo websites also offer advanced search filters, allowing you to refine your search further. These might include filters for image orientation (landscape or portrait), color, size, and even the number of people in the photo.

While scrolling through the results, evaluate each potential image carefully. Consider its quality, relevance to your project, and how well it fits with other images you’ve chosen. Remember, consistency is key to creating a professional-looking project.

It’s worth noting that popular images can often be overused, leading to your project looking generic or unoriginal. Don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper into the search results to find unique images that still meet your needs.

6. Buy the stock photos

Having selected the perfect images, it’s now time to finalize the purchase. The process for buying stock photos is relatively straightforward, but here are a few tips to make sure things go smoothly.

Firstly, you’ll typically need to add the chosen images to your cart or basket. Most stock photo sites provide an “Add to Cart” or “Buy Now” button on the page of each image. Clicking this button will add the image to your virtual shopping cart.

Before checking out, it’s a good idea to review your selections. Look over the images one last time, making sure they meet all your needs and that you’ve selected the correct resolution or size for each. Next, proceed to the checkout process. This usually involves filling in your payment details, including your credit or debit card number or PayPal account. While you should always be careful about sharing your payment information, the stock photo sites we recommend are 100% safe.

Once you’ve made your purchase, you should receive a confirmation email containing the receipt for your payment and, in some cases, a copy of the image license(s). Save this email for your records, as it serves as proof of your legal right to use the images. Lastly, you’ll need to download your purchased images. They should be available for immediate download after purchase, typically in a high-resolution format suitable for both print and digital use.

7. Organize your stock photos

Having purchased and downloaded your images, you’ve nearly reached the end of your stock photo buying journey. The final step is to organize your new assets. Although, it might seem like a small task, keeping your stock photos organized can save you significant time and hassle in the future. Start by creating a dedicated folder on your computer or cloud storage for your stock photos. Within this folder, consider creating subfolders for different projects, themes, or dates of purchase. This will make it easier to locate specific images when you need them.

In addition to categorizing by folders, consider naming each file in a way that describes the image. Using descriptive file names can make it easier to find what you need, especially when using the search function on your computer. It’s also a good idea to keep a record of the license information for each image. This could involve storing a copy of the license or receipt in the same folder as the image or including the license type in the file name.

Frequently asked questions

Can I use a stock photo more than once?

It depends on the license you purchase. With a Royalty-Free license, you can use the image multiple times in different projects without having to pay an additional fee. However, with a Rights-Managed license, the use of the image is typically restricted to a specific purpose, and you would need to purchase another license for additional uses.

Can I edit the stock photos I buy?

Yes, in most cases, you are allowed to edit the stock photos you purchase. This could involve cropping, adding filters, or incorporating text overlays. However, some licenses might have restrictions, so always check the licensing terms before making significant edits.

Are there free stock photo websites?

Yes, there are several websites that offer free stock photos. These include Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay. However, the range and quality of images might be lower than on paid websites, and the usage terms can vary, so always check the licensing details.

Do I need to attribute?

Not usually for commercial stock photo sites, but it’s always a good idea to check the terms of the license. Some sites or licenses require attribution, while others do not. Free stock photo sites more often require attribution to the photographer or the site.

What if I use a stock photo without the proper license?

Using a stock photo without the proper license can lead to legal issues, as it infringes on the rights of the photographer or the copyright holder. These can result in penalties, fines, or legal action. Always ensure you have the correct license for your intended use of a stock photo.


Leave a Comment