Closeup of digital camera to represent stock images

The smart guide to using stock images

7 min read
Scott Yates

We’ve all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words — but more importantly, a picture is worth money. Studies have shown that blog posts with images get 94 percent more views than those with pure text, so you’re leaving money on the table if you’re not using lots of exciting, eye-catching imagery.

Of course, the money you can make from using images is only half the story. The other half is how much pictures can cost you — in the form of copyright infringement lawsuits.

Paying for a stock photo can feel like a real drag , especially when it sometimes seems like every big website on the Internet is just using free images they stole from somewhere else. Even the largest sites in the world aren’t immune from repercussions, however — and it can be very expensive indeed. (You can certainly use free images, just be sure to play by the Creative Commons rules.)

roulette wheel

So what are bloggers to do? Play blogger roulette with great stock images, or forego imagery all together and watch as their sites fall behind the competition?

The short answer is: you’re going to need to pay for at least some of your photos. Now, I know what you’re thinking — that sounds expensive. It doesn’t have to be, though, if you’re smart about it. With that in mind, here is the smart guide to using stock photos.

When should you pay for stock images?

You should pay to use any copyrighted image on your site. Or, to put it more bluntly: you already know when you need to pay, and you know you’re pulling a fast one when you try to get a photo for free unless you are very carefully following the rules for photos in the public domain.

This is especially true if you know where a photo you want to use comes from. You’ve tracked down the real owner, and you’ve discovered a way to pay them what they’re owed — and you should do it.

Paying for stock images also has other advantages:

You’ll find you have a much larger selection to choose from, including some truly outstanding images. This can mean your blog gets the absolute perfect picture, as opposed to an image that seems almost random.

It can also save you massive amounts of time, especially if you need an image of something specific. Searching a stock photo database will turn up hundreds of results for almost any search term, while looking for free alternatives will often bring nothing but frustration.

Veer search results page

Of course, even if you decide you’re going to pay for a photo, it can still be confusing as to how you can legally use it. That’s why you need to know the difference between…

Royalty-free and rights-managed photos

It seems like it should be so simple. You see a stock image you like, you pay for it, and then you use it however you want. So why is there more legal jargon to contend with? It all comes down to how you want to use the image.

Royalty-free basically means you can pay a one-time fee and use it as many times as you want — but other people can use it, too.

Rights-managed gives you exclusive rights to the image, so you don’t have to worry about seeing your beautiful picture on your competitor’s blog. You have to pay a separate fee each time you use it, however, and your ability to use it will be restricted. And it will cost you much more.

Which route you should choose will depend largely on what you need the photo for. If this image is going to be prominently displayed on your website — if it’s something you want people to associate with your brand — then you’re better off getting a rights-managed image. If, however, it’s just another image in a blog post, and it’s not hugely important to you, you will be able to save a lot of money by getting a royalty-free image. Just be prepared for the possibility that “your” image might be on some other sites!

Where can I find stock images?

Because images have such a big impact on a company’s success, storing and selling stock images has become big business. As a result, there are several major players in the stock photo game.

Getty Images

One of the most prominent is Getty Images. Their library is absolutely massive, with more than 80 million images for you to choose from (including 35 million that are public domain and therefore free to use with proper attribution). And these aren’t plain-Jane pictures, either; you’ll find some of the most interesting and dynamic photos in the world in the Getty Images library. Beyond photos, they also offer video, audio and other types of media.

The downside is that Getty’s royalty-free images are expensive. You might not be able to afford to use them for daily blog posts, but you might find a great image here to serve as the face of your website.



Like Getty, Corbis has been around forever, and is loved by some industry veterans for the depth of its library and the current images added every day. Also like Getty, you’ll pay a lot for each photo. With both of those sites, you’ll want to budget at least $50 per image.


Another heavy hitter is Shutterstock. They have more than 28 million images that you can use on a subscription-based plan ; you pay a monthly fee and get a certain number of photos. Shutterstock is especially helpful if you need large, high-resolution images.

The downside is that the pricing model can make it difficult for you to get the most bang for your buck. You run the risk of paying a premium for extra photos that you won’t use, or finding yourself restricted by monthly quotas. However, if you need a lot of high-quality content for your website, then Shutterstock can work.


Bigstock, which Shutterstock acquired a few years ago, is an option to help you save some more money. It has more than 26 million stock images, videos and vector images. The site also recently shifted to a subscription-based service, except it has a daily limit instead of a monthly one. Bigstock does offer a seven-day free trial, though, so you can give it a test drive and see if it will work for you.

Other options with good selection and good prices include Veer, 123RF, Depositphotos and Fotolia.

You get what you pay for

If you’re serious about your online presence, then you’ll end up paying for stock images sooner or later. It’s simply easier than scrounging around for free options, and it provides you with better results.

The ways to buy the pictures from all of the sites listed above can seem frustratingly obtuse, and they are. But with nearly all of them they typically boil down to one of two options: subscription or credits.

  • With a subscription, you pay a flat monthly fee, but you get to download all the photos you’ll need in any given week or month.
  • With credits, you buy a chunk of credits, and then spend them down on photos. The bigger the photo, the more credits you’ll need. The more credits you buy, the bigger discount you’ll get, but the more money you’ll have tied up in the account of a stock photo agency.

Now that you know how (and where) to find great stock photos, you can start getting the best images for your business — without breaking the bank. After all, nothing is worse for your image than getting sued for being cheap.