Microstock started in around 2002 but took until about 2005/6 to gain acceptance and really start to take off. Rather than sourcing images from professional photographers, the advent of digital cameras meant that a lot of hobbyist photographers were able to easily take some great looking stock images, microstock photographers, sometimes professional and sometimes amateur are able to sell these images direct to you via microstock agency.
Most microstock websites operate on a credit based system where you pre buy credits which allow you to make downloads of images. Although microstock images are not free, they normally cost between $1 and $5 depending on the resolution you need, once you have registered with a microstock site (a few minutes) it's quick and easy to find and download an image to suit your needs. Most agencies have several million images to choose from. With this in mind it's often a better option to use a microstock image than spend 30 minutes searching for a free image with no guarantee that you will find something suitable. Of course because you pay for the image then there is usually no need to attribute / credit link the image where you use it, making everything look a lot more professional.
While 'cheap' might be a good term to describe the agencies listed here, our guiding principle is "quality discount photos", how to get either more or better quality images for your money. Most of these sites will offer low resolution images from about $1, the guide prices listed show prices for a typical medium resolution purchase.
Most of the major microstock agencies have some form of unique selling point, and while you can probably find an image to suit your needs from any agency, some of the sites we have listed cater for different buyers' needs better than others - it's depends on your circumstances. Be it a one off purchase, an obscure subject or location, a high resolution photo for print use, a regular need for lots of small images etc. - there is likely an agency to suit your needs.
The Venn diagram above highlights of the differing ways that some microstock sites have tried to sell to different market segments. While many sites sit in the 'middle of the road', several have carved out their own market segment suiting some buyers requirements better than others. Find out more below in which agency is best?
Download Options - Guide Price (typical 3 Megapixel image)
License Types - Number of images in collection
|visit site for search||RF+ Editorial||17? Million|
|istockphoto was the pioneer of the microstock revolution, now owned by traditional stock photography company Getty images, painful search system peppers results with expensive images that cannot be filtered out. Images are high quality, with a large collection of exclusive and premium content|
|123RF||Credits + Subscription||$5|
|visit site for search||RF+ Editorial||45 Million|
|Great value images, and free link code to paste images into a blog, 123RF have a premium microstock collection called EVO|
|Fotolia.com||Credits + Subscription||$5|
|visit site for search||RF||44 Million|
|combines one of the largest collections in microstock with reasonable pricing, Fotoila also have a premium price "infinite collection" and offer exclusive images|
|Another massive selection of images , but more expensive than fotolia.|
|One of the best for value, but limited choice for more unusual subjects.|
|Higher prices, more limited selection but certainly king of quality in microstock - stunning images!|
|PhotoDune / Envato Network||Credits||$3|
|One stop shop, the envato network offers a wide range of digital sales as well as photos, including video, templates, sound, 3d objects|
|Visit site for search||RF+Editorial||28 Million|
|reliable stock agency, in business for 5 years+, now owned by subscription site shutterstock|
|relatively new on the scene: the (autodesk) creativemarket is predominantly a place for completed designs but has a growing photo and "packs of photos" collection.|
Subscription vs Credits ?
Credits allow you to buy images on a casual basis, whereas a subscription offers better value for those who regularly require images (usually professional designers and design groups, but perhaps also newspaper and media websites).
|RF+ Editorial||65 Million|
|Shutterstock was one of the first microstock agencies to offer a subscription service, much copied but still one of the best. Offer excellent value if you need regular access to high resolution images|
|Dreamstime.com||Subscription||$44.99 weekly (up to 70 images per week)|
|Monthly subscription from dreamstime, allows images to be downloaded any time of the month and also allows extra credits to roll over to next month meaning that you never lose unused credits|
|Stock Photo Secrets||Subscription||<$2 per week, $99 per year)|
|Download 200 Maximum sized images from a smaller collection (4 million images) but great value alternative to the higher priced collections of the bigger sites.|
Our guide prices are based on obtaining an average resolution image of 3 megapixels or more, in most cases the websites advertise images from $1, this will only buy you a low resolution image (sub 1MP) suitable for a webpage or a blog. 3megapixels allows more flexible online use, cropping and printing at a modest size. Of course you can obtain higher resolutions, these typically cost between $5 and $10 dollars. You can get significant discounts by buying large numbers of credits, but sometimes you need to spend $100 or even $1000 to obtain the lowest price, in calculations we have taken the cheapest starter option which invariably means that individual credits cost more than buying in bulk.
What is RF+Editorial? See our Glossary of Stock Photography Terms
Recent startups are offering lower priced photos or regular special offers, credits back, discounts etc. to carve a share of the microstock market.
|Visit site for search||RF||30 Million|
|launched in 2009, with low prices, also offers subscription plan|
|Stock photo site from the people who originally brought you stock.xchng and stockxpert|
With many of the microstock sites selling a similar image collection, (photographers upload the same image to several sites) the stock agencies differentiate themselves in various ways. The question should perhaps be restated which agency is best for my individual needs?
Value: CanstockPhoto.com have one-off high res images for a low price, but a smaller image collection, but much cheaper than other agencies with similar sized collection.
Subscription: Stock Photo Secrets, coming in at less than $2 per week with 200 downloads per year included (extra downloads @ 99c).
Bulk Buy: Shutterstock offers a flexible subscription, providing value to volume image users. A month subscription can easily be paid for by downloading 10 or so high resolution images which might cost 15-20 dollars each elsewhere. 123RF provides flexible subscription/credits to volume buyers. Prices from as low as $0.21 per image.
Coverage: The number of images each site has on offer: if you require specialty stock images then choose a site which more images to increase the likelihood of your subjects being covered - use the tables of comparison above.
Style: iStockphoto.com offers premium images and a general collection of more stylish images, prices are much higher than average. The images at Dreamstime and several of the other sites have a noticeably more 'clean' and minimal look.
Quality: No matter what the search terms are the results at Crestock.com are always of the highest quality.
Search: Not all sites are alike when it comes to the quality of their search engines. When choosing a microstock site you might also check how good the search engine is.
For great value and low prices without a doubt we think depositphotos.com is the best all rounder. choose from a range of subscription packages or buy individual images under a flexible royalty free license
If you are a regular microstock buyer and have more than one account you can integrate microstock search into firefox with the picniche buyers toolbar (currently in beta) see picniche.com/toolbar for more details.
shotspy.com another a search engine that lets you search multiple microstock agencies on one go
MicrostockPhotography.com - microstock photography industry information & news
Free Resource Book listing the best of Free and Paid Stock Photo Libraries