Should You Use Free Stock Sites?

Photography: PsychoRatDog

Not everyone likes microstock sites. In fact, lots of professionals, both buyers and photographers, say very rude things about it.

They argue that microstock underprices images, devalues the market and makes it harder for professionals to earn a living. They also complain about the quality of the photos on offer.

We’re not convinced. Although we see microstock as just one way for amateur photographers to get paid for their photos, we don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. We like its open access. We like the fact that dedicated, talented photographers can make a good living out of it. And while microstock will affect stock photography, we don’t think it’s going to destroy it.

If Microstock Sites are for Low-Budget Buyers, Free Sites are for…
That’s because the Internet has broadened the market and increased demand. Stock can’t meet that demand; microstock can.

There will still be a market for the sort of top-end stock images that companies like Getty sell for large sums of cash. Large advertising companies tend to buy from Getty; small Internet publishers buy from iStock. While there will be some overlap, we do think that there’s room for both types of market and both types of product.

So what about free stock sites?

There’s a fair selection of these sorts of sites too, from, which “is dedicated in the proposition of free thought and exchange” to stock.xchng, a subsidiary of Jupiter Images which uses its free images to promote its microstock offerings.

What they all have in common is that they let publishers find photographs for free.

There are, presumably, two kinds of pay-off for photographers: the satisfaction that comes with someone finding your photo useful; and the marketing benefits of spreading your name across the Web so that buyers with budgets can seek you out.

In fact, both of those benefits are dubious.

Seeing your photo on someone else’s website or product is always flattering. But if they’re making money from it, you should be making money from it. And when it comes to promoting the names and sample images of photographers, stock sites are perhaps the weakest option available.

MorgueFile merely asks photo users “that you credit the photographer when possible.” Stock.xchng points out that “in some cases you may need to notify the photographers about using the photos and sometimes you need to credit them.”

As rewards for giving away valuable images, neither of those is particularly promising.

And then there’s the company. Although it may be possible to find quality photos on free sites, you’re more likely to see your image offered alongside the sort of shots that microstock rejects. That’s not likely to do your branding power much good at all. You want your name shown with excellent photos not mediocre to poor ones.


Spot the difference between the free shots and the microstock photos on in this screenshot from stock.xchng.

When You Should Give Your Photos Away
Free stock sites might have had a use once. Before it was possible to sell your images multiple times at a price that Internet publishers were willing to pay, putting samples in front of buyers could have generated further sales.

These days though, those sorts of images — and those sorts of buyers — have shifted to microstock sites.

But that doesn’t mean that providing free samples no longer brings any benefits at all.

It can work… on Flickr.

As the responses to our post on getting paid for Flickr photos show, photographers are selling their images on Flickr. But most photo users still search for Creative Commons-licensed images first. It should be possible then to follow stock.xchng’s model by providing lower-quality photos for free but offering higher quality photos for a fee.

Frankly, we can’t see any reason for photographers to give away their images through free stock sites any more. Microstock has made it possible to sell them and Flickr has made it possible to market them.

You can see stock.xchng here and morguefile here. And let us know what you think of free stock sites.

[tags] free stockphotos, free stockphoto sites [/tags]

4 comments for this post.

  1. ashok pai Said:

    i find that nearly all professional photographers very possessive about their work and earnings. its simply not true that free stock will drive down the prices of good stock images. free stock will never put the professional guys out of work. come to think of it - with equipment getting cheaper and the digital media enabling anyone to shoot - what will they do with all those photographs ? they need appreciation, some find it fulfilling to give away their photos. some others simply like to share, because they have benefited from others who have shared other resources. sharing is good. sure there's a quality difference. the ones on stock.xchng are more or less amateurs. so, why do professional guys get un-nerved ? there are other areas they can concentrate and make money.

  2. Walt Dietrich Said:

    I agree with much of what ashok pai has said already... and appreciate your article. You finish off in a very calssy way, asking [and linking] folks to take a look at what are arguable the best [free] stock image sites... depending on your needs and interests.

    One point you don't quite cover, is the use of images by students, Photoshop enthusiasts and digital artists... let me simply get to the point—the "perfect" photograph does not beg to be transformed, manipulated or added to anything. the "perfect" photograph screams at folks to leave it the hell alone... too many stock images are simply too complete and too perfect—if not overthought. these two free sites provide a very fertile field of images on which to graze and feed one's creativity.

    yes, there is great value in the eye, skill and experience of talented professional photographers... they should be paid well for their work and for their images.

    but, as an artist, I would rather buy a folder of 'seconds' or 'throw-away images' from a talented photographer [before they are deleted] than use any part of one of his or her 'keepers'... it is the very 'imperfect' photo that can be found at stock.xchng and morguefile that begs, no, screams "use me" "I would look perfect there... or here"

    thanks for the opportunity to comment



  3. jerz Said:

    Worse yet -- major media companies ask viewers to do their job for them -- for free -- asking viewers to send in news photos and video, and not paying a nickle.

  4. Steve Said:

    Not all photographers want to make money, some do it for the fun. 🙂

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