A Guide to Stock Image Sources

Photography is one of the most important elements when it comes to establishing and communicating your brand effectively. Chances are, if you’ve ever had to design a website or put together a brochure for a client, you’ve needed to gather images from a variety of sources, and investing in stock photography gives you a wealth of options without needing to break the bank by doing your own photoshoot.

During my time at Cloudberry, I’ve had many requests come my way to find stock photo options, both for clients and for internal work, and I wanted to share some of my findings for anyone else looking to research stock images.

Types of Stock Image Websites

Stock images are essentially photos that have been licensed to be purchased and redistributed for commercial and personal applications. When searching for the right stock photos, it’s important to note that there are three main types of sources for stock imagery:

  • Traditional paid stock image sites
  • Free stock image sites
  • Archive sites

Paid Stock Image Sites
These types of stock photo sites are the ones you’ve probably seen most frequently when doing an online search. Popular names include Getty Images, Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, and iStock, and that’s only a select few. Most of these traditional stock image sites sell work using a credit system or a subscription plan—both of which are popular purchasing models, but the selection you make depends widely on how often you plan to download content.

Something I’ve learned over the past year is that some stock image sites can come at a much higher cost, and that doesn’t necessarily correspond with quality. Before blindly choosing a stock photo website to search on, it’s important to do your research to understand what you’ll be getting for the price. I found this resource to be incredibly helpful in terms of knowing what companies were out there and what corner of the market they’re trying to fill.

Free Stock Image Sites
As one might expect, free stock images have had a bad rap for a while—it was implied that in order to get high quality stock images, you’d have to pay a high price.

But that’s not the case anymore, as free stock photo sites such as Unsplash and Pixabay have been growing rapidly over the past few years. The artists and photographers behind the images on these sites license their work under Creative Commons licensing.

In order to assess whether or not you should source stock photos from free stock image sites such as these, it’s important to first understand the application for the photo itself and consider what the business needs are. If you are looking for photography that will be a central component to your brand, it may be worth paying the price for the perfect image that will play a significant role in many applications. However, if you’re looking for a complementary image to use in a one-off social media post, you may not need to break the bank to find something that will do the job.

One consideration to note is that some free stock photo sites will require source attribution, so it’s very important to do your research before downloading and using free stock photos.

Archive Sites
Photos found on archive sites tend to be from sources such as libraries and university archives. Many of these images have copyrights that have expired and are therefore available in the public domain, meaning that the image or graphic is free to use in both commercial and personal applications without the need to purchase a license.


I’ve learned a lot about sourcing the right stock photos as a Visual Designer at Cloudberry, and so I’ve summarized it down to a few key takeaways:

  • Always ask if the client already has photos at their disposal first
    If you’re sourcing stock photography for a client, check and see if they already have a library of images—either ones they took themselves or stock photos they’ve already purchased. If they have stock photos available for use, make sure the licensing is appropriate for your specific use case. You may find effective photography solutions using assets they already own, saving you time and saving them money.
  • Be sure to understand the different stock image websites and which ones meet your specific needs
    Different stock photo websites serve different purposes, and it’s important to use a site that best addresses your project needs. For instance, some sites offer stock photography, illustrations, video, and audio, whereas others may offer just photos and illustrations, and that breadth of selection may be reflected in the pricing model. You may also find that certain sites are better resources for digital media, and that others are better for traditional print media. Take a look at this resource to get an idea of the companies that exist and what they add to the market.
  • Don’t be afraid to use free media!
    I’ve been able to find some particularly stunning stock photography on sites such as Unsplash, and while those photos tend to have a more unique, artsy look-and-feel, they also feel less staged and can add a lot of personality to work. These sites definitely don’t meet all needs, but they’re a great starting point if you’re looking for inspiration and don’t have a big budget to work with.
Categories: Visual Design
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