As a designer I probably use photo library sites a few times a week. What is great nowadays is that most images only cost a few dollars/pounds and some are even free, affordable enough to be used in visuals as wells as finished artwork. I have on several occasions looked into the possibility of joining an image subscription site, but as yet have not found one that I feel offers a worthwhile options as compared to pay as you go. I decided to have another look round to see if there had been any improvement in subscription based royalty free image sites compared to pay as you go web sites.

Pay as you go Royalty Free Images

I think Getty Images has some really stylish looking royalty free images but unfortunately at £200 – £300 an image this is often too much for smaller clients especially the more computer savvy ones who have an awareness of the cheaper photo sites.

Istockphoto
Istockphoto must be one of the most well know of the cheaper royalty free image sites, I probably started using their images about 3 years ago, when there were significantly less images and the quality of images really varied. Prices of images vary from 50p – £7.50 ($1-$15) and there is a large selection of images including vector, photos, flash and video. I have to admit istockphoto is always my first port of call when I am looking for inexpensive images.

Fotolia
Fotolia claim to have 2,539,873 stock images online and is one of the secondary sites that I look at for images. Images cost from £1 – £3 ($2 to $6)

Big Stock Photo
Big Stock Photo is a website I use occasionally. They claim to have over 1,457,000 stock photos to search from from 50p – £1 ($1 – $2). In the past I have found their site a little slow, but hopefully this has now improved. One of the things a bit different about Big Stock Photo to many other royalty free photo sites is with a standard license they allow you to use their images in web templates.

Pay as you go and Subscription

123RF
If I can’t find what I am looking for at istockphoto 123 Royalty free is usually my next stop. 123 Royalty Free claim to have over a million images, not as many images as istockphoto I am sure but I quite often find something here small images from 60p to high resolution at £1.80. 123 Royalty free also offer a subscription service (some images are limited to subscribers only) but I find their packages a little odd. They have a basic subscription plan for £49 ($98) a month but this only allows you to download a maximum of 5 images a day. I don’t know about you but when I am working on a design job and need images, chances are I will need more than 5 images on one day. If this was changed to be a maximum amount of images a week (35 images a week) or on a monthly limit I would definitely be more interested and I think others would be too. A premium subscription plan costs £129 ($158) month which allows you to download up to 26 images a day.

Subscription Photo libraries

As I said before I currently don’t use subscription based services so I can only tell you of the sites I have found. Please feel free to leave a comment with your opinion on any of the royalty free services you have used.

Photos.com
Photos.com claim to have 350,000 professional quality stock photographs. Flicking through some of the pics they look like they have been shot by professional photographers but some look a little cheesy, especially some of the corporate ones. The subscription prices seem pretty reasonable at $99.95 per month which allows you to download up to 250 pics a day.

Liquid Library
Liquid Library claims offer unlimited access to over 100,000 exclusive, high-resolution royalty-free images. I months subscription is $199.95. Like photos.com some of the images look a bit cheesy to me, but this could just be the searches I tried.

Ablestock
Able Stock claim to offer 120,000+ High-Res Images & Photo Objects. The photos at Able Stock look OK and 1 months subscription is $229.95

Jupiter Images Unlimited
Jupiter images unlimited definitely seems t give you a choice of images from several different image collections including Ablestock and Photos.com (mentioned above) but you do have to pay a premium for the choice of £729 per month. This would perhaps be worthwhile for an agency but far too much for a freelancer like myself

Shutterstock
Two graphic design blog readers who both use Shutterstock have been kind enough to share their experience of the subscription service:

Lauren from Creative Curio says:
I use Shutterstock at work. It’s a little expensive, in my opinion, at $199/mo (cheaper per month if you commit to a longer subscription), but you do get up to 25 image downloads/day. The resolutions range from about 800×600 at 72ppi to “Super,” which are 20+ inches wide at 300ppi, all for the same price (there is no “credit” system where some images are worth more credits than others and you get x credits/day). We have been downloading as many images as we can each day, even if we don’t have a specific purpose for them yet. We download generic things like abstract backgrounds, photos of business people, cute animals, stuff like that.

I don’t think they have as wide of a selection as some other sites I’ve looked at, like Masterfile (although Masterfile says they only have about 1.3 million RF images, while Shutterstock boasts over 2.4 million). I have never subscribed to Masterfile, though, so I can’t comment on that. Overall, I would say I like Shutterstock, but I’ve not had experience with any other subscription stock photo sites.

Chris Coyier from CSS Tricks says:
Personally I am a fan of Shutterstock. It’s 200 bucks a month (with discounts if you buy multiple months). I buy it one month at a time when I need a shot for something. I charge clients for stock photography, and most of them are more than happy to pay $200 for great images on a project. So it pays for itself with one project a month, and everything after that is gravy. I try to remember to pop in there as many times as I can during the month and grab nice looking stuff I think I may be able to use later to make the most out of every month.

Advantages:

Great selection
Good search
Lots of vector
Fairly inexpensive
Lots of nakedness, also potential disadvantage =)

Little annoyances:

Many images have little restricted rights still (like images of sporting stadiums and such)
You have to enter a CAPTCHA for every download
Large images have to “generate”
The super-high resolution images are obviously just upscaled and need to be reduced a bit anyway.
You are limited in number of downloads per day (25 I think)
Lots of nakedness, also potential advantage 🙂

Conclusion

For me I think for now I will stick with pay as you go images for my graphic design work. I generally spend between £50 to £100 ($100 – $200) and although this would pay for a subscription at some of the sites it would then have to be my only image source. This is fine if the photo site has everything you need but I know this will not always be the case. For design companies or freelancers who spend more on royalty free images it would perhaps be a more attractive option.

Also see www.abouttheimage.com which has a breakdown of subscription photo sites.