Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Microstock and Royalty Free Images

There was a time in history when companies needing photos and illustrations for advertising and packaging had no choice but to hire photographers on a per-project basis to create the specific photos and/or illustrations which they needed. That was very expensive, since they had to reimburse the photographers for all of their related expenses (which might include model's fees). And they were gambling, to some extent, since they had to pay those expenses upfront before ever seeing the photos or illustrations for which they were paying. Consequently, they were only willing to take such chances by hiring professional photographers with long-established reputations for quality. That made it hard for aspiring photographers and illustrators to break into the business.

Later, someone figured out that many of the photos and illustrations used in the course of ordinary business activities were a bit "generic" in nature, meaning that they were not so specific that they couldn't be used and reused by numerous different companies. Photographers and illustrators began creating images without knowing in advance who the buyers of those images would be. That was the beginning of the market for "stock photography" and "stock illustrations". This obviously reduced costs considerably, both for the photographers and illustrators and for the buyers of those images. But such images could still be quite expensive, and the prices were often based on usage. I remember in the early 90's, I inquired into the possibility of obtaining a stock photo from the Image Bank. I was told that I'd have to pay $300 just to use that one photo on 1,000 business cards. Plus, if I printed up more cards in the future, I would have had to pay even more money to the agency (sometimes known as a "royalty"). Ouch!

Then digital imaging began to impact the industry. Companies such as Corel and PhotoDisc began to sell CD-ROM discs containing royalty-free stock photos and illustrations, and prices continued to plummet. For about $300, one could buy a PhotoDisc CD-ROM with 100 high resolution photos, so that a single photo which had once cost $300 might now cost $3. There was no need to keep track of how many times one had used that image, because the price was a flat fee. Sometimes, as in the case of the discs from Corel, prices for individual discs were much, much less than the $300 or more typically charged by companies such as PhotoDisc. Of course, quality also varied. Some images required a lot more cleanup than others.

That market is still thriving. One can buy such discs from companies such as Publishing Perfection, or directly from the agencies which publish such discs. (Click here in order to see the wide range of image collections available from Publishing Perfection.)

However, one drawback was that such images were always sold in the form of CD-ROM collections with related themes. If one only needed a single image, one still had to buy the entire CD-ROM containing that image. In the case of the relatively low resolution "photo objects" offered by a company known as Hemera, that wasn't a big deal, because one could buy a set of discs containing 100,000 images for a mere $100! But when it came to images with higher resolution, a better way was needed. As the Internet continued to develop, and as more and more people acquired high speed Internet connections, publishers of royalty-free images began to market images individually, in the form of files which could be downloaded online. Prices varied, but a new category known as "microstock" began to enable even the lowliest of buyers to obtain just the images they needed (at just the resolutions they needed) at extraordinarily affordable prices. Some companies offered individual images in the form individual purchases. Others offered "subscriptions" which enabled members to obtain unlimited numbers of images within the time periods offered by their various subscription plans. Some companies offered both options to those wishing to purchase their images.

Let's say that you want to obtain an image of a stained glass window, with a Christmas theme, to use on your own homemade greeting card. You might visit a site such as, whereupon you would use that site's search engine to find just the image you wanted. You would be presented with all of the images meeting your criteria, and you could review those images one by one to see if they had what you needed. You might select this image by photographer Robert Young. You would then be presented with a variety of options in terms of resolution and pricing and licensing. Prices are lower for images suitable only for websites (or for use as inset images on business cards) than for images with resolution suitable for reproduction as large prints.

Technically, you do not own a royalty-free image. The photographer still retains the copyright. But you're permitted to use the image once you've paid the fee, according to the wording in the specific license. Most license agreements are pretty broad. Even so, it's a good idea to read the agreement carefully, if there are any questions as to whether or not your intended usage is allowed. You have to be particularly careful whenever images of people are involved, because misleading usage can lead to lawsuits pertaining to issues such as libel and slander. For example, you wouldn't want to risk such a lawsuit by using the photo of a model you didn't even know in such a way as to imply that the person was a criminal or a drug addict, unless the model was playing a role in which he or she actually appeared to be a criminal or drug addict!

The great thing about the new market for "microstock" photos is that photographers and illustrators don't have to have established reputations in order to receive pay for their work. Even if they only have a few good images, they can market their images by signing up for memberships with companies which sell microstock images on the Web, and they have just as much of a chance of selling their images as any of the more established photographers and illustrators.

Probably the biggest drawback, when it comes to the microstock category, is that a lot of the images in particular categories tend to be very similar. Some sites offer better images than others, so it pays to shop around if you're a graphic designer or web designer.

It is even possible, in some cases, to legally download stock or royalty-free images for free. is one such web site. is another. In general, the selection isn't as good at such sites, nor is the quality as high, but it's always an option worth exploring before you shell out your money for an image which isn't free.

For example, here's a link to a free web-sized image of a classic Rolls Royce car. The image to the left shows that I was able to quickly convert it into an artistic interpretation which conveys the idea of wealth and status.

(Admittedly, the selection was a bit rough, because I was using a program which was decidedly inferior to Photoshop in that respect. If I'd taken more time, I could have cleaned up the thin white line separating the car from the artistic background. But for this particular purpose, it's OK, since it isn't intended to perfectly simulate reality anyway.)

I thought I'd end this blog post by offering useful links to a number of different companies offering royalty-free images. Be sure to check them out the next time you need images for web design or graphic design, or the next time you want to look into the possibility of making money by licensing your own images to others.

Absolute Stock Photo

Adobe Stock Photos
(Images are only accessible to people who have the Adobe Bridge program on their computers.)

Age Photostock


Animals Animals

Banana Stock

Beateworks (now a division of Corbis)

Big Cheese Photo

Brand X Pictures

Clip Art Image Gallery
A very good book/CD collection of premasked high-resolution photos of people.

Comstock Images



(Offers access to products from numerous different publishers)

Getty Images


Image Source

Independent Photography Network

Ingram Photo Objects


iStock Photo

Liquid Library
Focuses on illustrations and photography, not just photography. Some of the vector illustrations on the site are much better than what one would get from a typical clip art collection. Others aren't.

Media Bakery
Offers collections of images from Getty, Corbis and Jupiter Images.

Microstock Group
Not a microstock agency, but rather, a forum for photographers who sell their images via such agencies.
A site connected with Hemera. Images available online by subscription have higher resolution than the Hemera Photo Objects sold in packages of CDs in computer stores, but they're more expensive, and there are fewer of them.

Photo Stock Plus

PhotoDisc (now a division of Getty Images)




A "microstock" site operated by Corbis.

A site (associated with StockXPert) where images are "exchanged" without any money changing hands. The website says:

Browse through the categories of our huge gallery containing over 250,000 quality stock photos by more than 25,000 photographers! Need a wallpaper for your desktop? Need a pic for your commercial website design? Looking for inspiration? Have a look around.

Share your photos with fellow designers! SXC is a friendly community of photography addicts who generously offer their works to the public free of charge. If you have some nice photos that you'd like to share with others, join us!

Chat with other members in our forum! Looking for something? Need an opinion? Have a question? Post a topic, and someone will definitely help you out.

Stockbyte (now a division of Getty Images)

Potentially a great resource for restaurants. Of particular interest: "Our in-house recipe editors can supply the recipe for each and every image including, on request, additional information, such as nutritional values." So if you want to create your own custom illustrated cookbook without having to hire the photographer to take the pictures, this could be your best resource.


SW Productions


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