Free vs Paid Stock Photos


Contributing Author: Woofy31

To buy or not to buy?

People love photos, plain and simple. No matter what project you’re working on, adding some visuals will increase its value and worth. You can hire a professional photographer to take the right photos, take your own amateur pictures, or you could use stock photography.

Stock photos are a common, cheap & fast alternative to expensive professional photography, making them particularly useful in small projects, self-published works, website designs, templates, mock-ups, etcetera.

The Problem with Stock Photos

The two most significant problems of stock photography are that someone else might be using the same photos and that the images are usually generic. By generic, I mean that they tend to depict perfect people, staged stories or situations not likely to exist or happen in real life. However, the benefit of being staged is that the stories they tell can get your desired message across.

You probably have seen photos like these every day while browsing the web:

  • a room of employees sitting around their boss, all laughing together while pointing at a computer screen, literally every one of them being happy and worry-free;

  • a group of customer support employees who are always cheerful even while helping the worst of customers;

  • a frowning person sitting on the toilet while they have their hand on their tummy to suggest pain; or that suited guy reading the newspaper on the toilet!

  • a suited boss sitting in a bathtub with a rubber duck on his head — you get the picture!

Because of these problems, stock photos have received quite the bad reputation over time as they’re usually easily identifiable as being stock.

Moreover, many people think they’re not worth the price because of that, which is why some tend to go to Google Images and search for a free photo, without knowing or caring that they might be stealing and risking a lawsuit!

So why should you ever consider using stock photos as opposed to ‘free’ images grabbed from a Google Images search?

The Case of Google Images

Google Images is not a place for people to download images from; it’s a search engine that allows you to search for visual content from across the Internet, and that’s all there is to it;

  • most of the time, images obtained from Google aren’t free because they’re found by crawling other people’s websites, so they’re usually someone else’s work; you’ll have no right to use them, and doing so would break several laws and make you liable for a lawsuit;

  • even if by some random chance you get away with the images you’ve grabbed from the Internet to design your website, Google could soon be penalizing it for duplicate content and potential plagiarism — this can mean a drop in rankings & traffic.

Paid Stock Photography

  • stock photos have high quality as opposed to many images you’d be downloading from Google Images (I bet you’ve seen plenty of websites filled with tiny, blurry & barely readable photos)

  • although stock photos are not free, they are a lot cheaper (and affordable) compared to custom professional photography, and in that massive pool of generic images there’s a high chance you’ll find one that doesn’t look generic and matches your needs;

  • the stock photo industry is continually evolving, trying to address its problems by making them useful and less corny;

  • however, stock photos still suffer from the fact that anyone can and might be using the same pictures as you (imagine two books with the same cover photo!)

The Rise of Free Stock Photography

If, however, you need to use free images because of budget constraints or the nature of your project, you should at least put a bit more effort and search for genuinely free stock photography.

The actual free stock photos are always licensed under the CC0 Creative Commons license, which makes them public domain. Public domain means they’re free to use for any purpose whatsoever, and most of the time without any restrictions, too.

However, even so, they are still stock photos, and most likely everyone else is using the same images for their projects and websites, too. More so, eye-tracking research has shown that custom professional photography (and even self-made photography) is still the best solution as it increases conversion by up to 35% compared to stock photography. You might want to keep that in mind for your next projects!