How We Test Stock Media Sites

At Photutorial, we assess and evaluate numerous stock media sites monthly to help you select the best one to enrich your content, be it images, videos, audio, templates, or fonts. Here's our rigorous testing methodology and how we derive our conclusions.

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

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How we test stock media sites

First, let’s clarify what we mean by “stock media sites”. It’s an umbrella term meaning any website that offers royalty-free or rights-managed stock photos, videos, and audio files. These sites can be a great resource for creative professionals who need high-quality, affordable images and media for their projects.

Too many stock media services bank on ignorance, ambiguity, and anxiety among customers and the media. Concurrently, giving a positive review of a deficient product endangers creative projects and may even impact businesses. This is particularly applicable to stock media sites. When we test these platforms, we consider their content quality, variety, pricing, licensing terms, user interface, customer support, and additional features, aiming to write accurate and beneficial reviews for our audience.

This is more challenging than it might seem. If we depended solely on objective measurements, such as the number of available images or the video resolution, it would be straightforward for a provider to manipulate the system by inflating specific statistics. If we relied exclusively on subjective perceptions, we’d overlook the unique features that set each platform apart. Fusing the two—objective evaluation and subjective insights—may be more complex, but it results in a more thorough and insightful analysis.

Our readers may not always concur with our findings, but we make an effort to include enough information in our reviews so that they can formulate their own judgments. Indeed, we actively encourage them to do so.

A Note About Ethics

In an era of misinformation, fabricated reviews, and growing skepticism toward sponsored content, we believe it’s crucial for our readers to understand how our organization generates revenue and how we craft our reviews. At the start of every review on Photutorial, whether it’s about stock photo sites or other photography-related services, we prominently display the following statement:

Photutorial reviews products independently, but we may earn affiliate commissions from purchasing links on this page.

In practical terms, this implies that Photutorial might earn a commission either from the company whose product has been evaluated or some other entity. This is a widespread practice among review websites. All handling of affiliate commissions is entirely segregated from our editorial procedure and managed regardless of potential earnings. For example, we could make 4× times as much money by promoting bad stock photo sites, but that’s not how we operate.

It’s important to clarify here that our reviews are not written by random freelancers with minimal knowledge about the subject matter. In fact, we don’t hire freelancers or external reviewers. Our lead reviewer, Matic Broz, is a seasoned creative professional with rich experience as a photographer, graphic designer, and business owner. With a decade of experience under his belt, he has been instrumental in helping fellow creatives hone their skills and kickstart their own businesses. His writing and research have graced prominent publications such as The Guardian, PetaPixel, Forbes, and USA Today. On top of that, his scientific research has earned him a cover feature in a prestigious journal owned by MDPI. When he’s not working, Matic loves indulging in photography, hiking, and spending quality time with dogs.

Why are we placing so much emphasis on our editorial ethics? Firstly, we’re proud of it, and it warrants repetition. Secondly, it is particularly pertinent to discussions of stock photo sites. Photography-related services draw in readers who are deeply concerned about fairness and transparency. The stock photo market seems to be filled with distrust, some of it fueled by unfounded fears, some caused by pay-for-play “review” sites, and some allegedly stirred up by stock photo companies themselves. Rest assured, we take note when our readers express concerns about the ethics of stock photo site reporting, and it matters immensely to us as well.

Stock Photo Sites Are For Visual Content, Everything Else Is a Bonus

To properly assess a product, one must initially understand its primary purpose. For instance, a high-end DSLR is an excellent tool for photography but probably a lousy paperweight. When it comes to stock photo sites, we regard them as visual content providers first, and evaluate them predominantly on those grounds.

Visual content platforms are distinct from creative tools. While the two concepts have areas of intersection, a visual content platform provides images that enhance your projects or marketing initiatives, whereas a creative tool helps you create or edit that visual content.

It’s critical to highlight this difference because of potentially misleading marketing from stock photo site companies. A stock photo site cannot address every creative need. While we see these platforms as useful resources, their usefulness has boundaries, and to imply otherwise can mislead users. We emphatically urge readers to utilize standalone design software, avail themselves of educational resources for improving their creative skills, and use a digital asset management system to organize and keep track of their visual content.

Our Testing Criteria

When we evaluate the visual content providing capabilities of a stock photo site, we focus on:

  • Image quality and variety (25%),
  • Pricing options (25%),
  • Licensing (25%),
  • Customer support and user experience (15%)
  • Platform bonuses such as free trials and additional resources (10 bonus or negative points).

Lastly, we reserve 10 bonus points for platform extras, such as free trials, educational resources, image editing tools, or any other additional features that add value to the user experience beyond the basic requirements of a stock photo site.

While many of our readers are likely interested in a stock photo site’s ability to offer niche or specific types of content, that’s not our primary concern. We test each site’s ability to provide high-quality, diverse, and inclusive content, and sometimes compile that information into comprehensive features for readers interested in using a stock photo site for specific purposes. But if the best stock photo site we’ve ever seen doesn’t cater to a particular niche, that’s a minor issue at most.

Some stock photo sites now include an integrated design tool, usually claiming to allow editing and customization of images directly on the platform. In general, we believe that the job of designing and editing is better left to dedicated design software, whether it’s a paid service, a free tool, or software that’s bundled with your OS. We’re also wary of the privacy implications that go along with editing files on a platform that also hosts them. Generally, we do not test the efficacy of integrated design tools in stock photo sites but will sometimes use industry-standard tools to verify that the design components are functioning as expected.

In summary, if a stock photo site doesn’t provide high-quality and diverse visual content but is decked out with unnecessary features or is built primarily to cater to a specific niche, we don’t consider it to be a good stock photo site.

Image Quality & Variety Assessment

Image quality vs quantity

The quality and variety of images available on a stock photo site are of prime concern to our readers. The users of these sites are looking for stunning visuals that can elevate their projects, be it for a blog post, marketing campaign, website design, or any other creative endeavor. Assessing these elements, however, requires a detailed examination.

While we invest considerable time and effort into performing a comprehensive review of image quality and diversity, we see it as an essential criterion, not an optional one. Exceptional photo platforms that provide high-resolution, diverse, and unique images are rewarded, while those falling short are rated lower.

To gauge image quality and variety, we perform in-depth manual assessments. We download numerous images from the platform, examining their resolution, clarity, color balance, and overall aesthetic appeal. We also look at metadata such as the image’s dimensions, format, and size, which all contribute to the final quality. The variety is assessed by exploring different categories and subcategories of images available on the platform, to ensure a wide array of themes, styles, and subjects are covered.

Our image quality and variety tests are not without limitations. The subjectivity of aesthetics can lead to varied perceptions of what constitutes a ‘good’ image. Similarly, the depth and breadth of categories and subcategories examined may not encompass every possible niche or subject matter. Despite these limitations, we do our utmost to provide a balanced and objective assessment.

Moreover, our image quality and variety tests should be seen as snapshots rather than comprehensive evaluations. They aim to provide an overview of how the platform performs at a specific time and may not necessarily represent its future additions or improvements.

Our reviewers continuously monitor and revisit platforms to keep track of any updates or changes in their image libraries. This regular review process is particularly vital in a rapidly evolving field like stock photography, where new images are added, and existing ones are updated continually.

Additionally, the ongoing pandemic has impacted how we carry out our tests. Previously, our reviews were conducted in a sequential, back-to-back manner over several days. However, with the shift to remote work, we now perform our evaluations in batches, enabling us to keep our reviews current and timely.

Pricing Options Assessment

Paying for stock photos

When evaluating stock photo platforms, our attention to the pricing structure is both meticulous and comprehensive. We firmly believe that understanding the cost dynamics of a platform is essential for our diverse readership, who range from solo creative professionals to large-scale corporations. Consequently, transparency, flexibility, and fairness of pricing form the bedrock of our evaluation criteria.

We ensure to report on the monthly costs associated with various plans offered by the platform. Most stock photo platforms extend substantial discounts for long-term subscriptions or bulk purchases, but we underscore the base-level price of each service, which serves to provide our readers with a clear picture of the initial costs involved before delving into any potential discounts.

Our assessments extend beyond just subscription prices. We examine all the buying options available – subscriptions, image packs, unlimited subscriptions, single image purchases – to provide a holistic perspective of the platform’s pricing structure. Additionally, we keep tabs on other financial aspects such as discounts, coupons, bulk, and annual discount offers, as well as the availability of free trials.

We also recognize the importance of keeping up to date with the changes in the industry, and we do this diligently. The pricing structures, available options, and discounts can fluctuate frequently, and we continuously monitor these changes. By doing so, we ensure our readers are always equipped with the most current, accurate, and comprehensive pricing information.

Always remember: we recommend starting with a short-term subscription. We’ve heard from many readers who’ve regretted making significant yearly subscription commitments only to find the platform unsuitable for their needs. It’s always prudent to start on a monthly basis, then decide on long-term commitments once you are fully satisfied with the service. Consider the initial cost of an investment against potential buyer’s remorse.

At the end of the day, our goal is to help you find a stock photo platform that aligns with both your needs and your budget. And we strive to provide you with the most comprehensive and up-to-date information to make that decision easier.

Licensing Evaluation

Understanding licensing agreements is crucial when choosing a stock photo platform, as it directly impacts how, where, and for how long you can use the purchased or downloaded assets. Therefore, we thoroughly assess the licensing terms provided by each platform as part of our review process.

Our licensing evaluation considers several key factors:

Permissiveness of the License: We look into the extent to which a platform allows the usage of its assets. This includes the number of impressions and prints allowed under the standard license. It’s important for our readers to know if they can use the images in high-circulation print media or extensive digital campaigns without breaching the terms of use.

Indemnity: Indemnity is the assurance that the platform will cover certain losses or damages that may occur in relation to the use of its assets. This is particularly relevant in cases of copyright disputes or claims related to the content depicted in the images. We explain the importance of indemnity coverage and verify whether the platform offers it as part of the licensing agreement.

Usage for Merchandise: Depending on the platform, some licensing agreements allow you to use the purchased assets for creating merchandise for sale, such as t-shirts, mugs, or posters, while others restrict this use. We confirm whether this option is available, as it could be a crucial deciding factor for many of our readers.

Extended Licensing: An Extended or Enhanced License typically allows for more expansive usage of the assets, such as unlimited prints, the use of assets in products for resale, and more. We scrutinize the terms of the Extended License, if available, and compare it to the standard licensing agreement. This evaluation includes the cost associated with upgrading to this license, as it can significantly impact the overall price consideration.

By rigorously analyzing these factors, we ensure that you have the information needed to choose a platform with licensing terms that align with your specific usage requirements and budget. We strive to present this information in a way that’s easily understood, even if you’re not familiar with the often complex terminology found in licensing agreements.

Customer Support & User Experience Assessment

A vital aspect of our evaluation process is the examination of customer support and user experience offered by each platform. Excellent customer support can greatly enhance user experience, and a user-friendly interface is critical for efficient navigation and utilization of the platform’s features.

Our analysis of customer support considers several factors:

  1. Availability: We look at the various channels through which support is offered – email, phone, live chat, or support tickets, for instance. Platforms offering 24/7 support score higher due to their ability to cater to clients in various time zones and with diverse schedules.
  2. Response Time: The speed at which customer service queries are addressed is another crucial measure. Prompt, efficient service can significantly impact user satisfaction, especially when dealing with urgent issues.
  3. Quality of Support: Beyond response time, we evaluate the quality of the assistance provided. Support staff should be knowledgeable and capable of resolving issues effectively, as well as communicate in a clear, polite, and professional manner.

In terms of user experience, our focus is on the intuitiveness and functionality of the platform’s interface:

  1. Usability: We assess how easy it is for a new user to navigate the platform and use its features. This includes everything from searching for images, making purchases, to managing account settings. A steep learning curve can deter potential users.
  2. Design: We also evaluate the aesthetic aspect of the platform, as a clean, visually appealing interface can enhance user engagement.
  3. Functionality: Finally, we examine the platform’s features and tools, such as image previews, lightboxes, image resolution options, and download speeds. These should work seamlessly to ensure a smooth and productive user experience.

Lastly, we consider any unique platform bonuses that enhance customer experience. These may include resources such as tutorials, webinars, design tools, or forums that provide additional value to users.


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