Always Low Prices

Top picks of some of the cheapest stock sites on the Web

by jinna hagerty

Traditional stock art sites, such as Getty Images, have an impressive collection of images, but even the royalty-free ones can cost hundreds of dollars to use. Is it possible to find great images at bargain-basement prices? Maybe. Now there’s an alternative — microstock sites.

These sites sell incredibly low-priced royalty-free images — some for as little as a dollar an image. How do they do this? They’ve harnessed the incredible power of Internet distribution to collect the work of thousands of photographers — amateur and professional — who are willing to sell their work for pennies an image. [FPO] took a look at the burgeoning microstock market, and the bottom line is that it provides designers with a surprisingly impressive combination of quality and ease of use.

How We Graded

To see how they stack up against their more pricey counterparts, we tested a number of these sites for ease of use, consistency of image quality and search relevance. Excluded (for now) are microstock sites with exclusively subscription-based pricing models.

We used the same keywords on a variety of sites, timed the results, noted the number of returned images, and evaluated the relevance of the results, as well as the quality of the images. We judged the sites on their ease of use and the community-building tools that improved the user experience. Then, we created ratings from 1 (most annoying) to 5 (most valuable).

In the end, we found that while image quality with microstock sites can sometimes fall short — no surprise — most more than make up for it with their community-building features, surprisingly thorough search options, and, of course, price. Ultimately, these images cost next to nothing. And what publisher doesn’t love that?


Ease of Use=5; Image Quality=4; Search Relevance=4; 1,800,000+ images

What we like We couldn’t help but give a nod to the big, friendly giant that was one of the first to offer decent $1 illustrations and establish a solid online community. It offers a superb variety of mostly consistent quality.

What we don’t Everyone already knows about it. You’ll meet few people in the industry who haven’t heard of this site already. That includes Getty Images, which purchased this site in 2006 for $50 million.

Go to


Ease of Use=3; Image Quality=4; Search Relevance=5; 100,000+ images

LuckyOliverWhat we like LuckyOliver provides a great space for photographers and designers alike. Hard-working and earnest, LO staff members really do pay attention to relevant keyword matching and image quality. Oh, and the really big type is easy on the eyes.

What we don’t Maybe just a little over the (big) top, the site is extremely user friendly unless you aren’t familiar with the lingo. In terms of stock photography, what are “carnies” anyway?

Update: went bust in June, 2008. Doh.


Ease of Use=4; Image Quality=3; Search Relevance=3; 1,400,000+ images

What we like This site offers users easy control over very specific and well-categorized search options. Users can choose parameters that span from model age to image license type. Don’t see what you’re looking for? Time permitting, you can test out the photo request thread on their message board.

What we don’t The opening page doesn’t impress and a number of images we reviewed were uninspired. But there are definitely valid reasons to try it out yourself.

Go to


Ease of Use=3; Image Quality=2; Search Relevance=2; 100,000+ images

What we like Judge Ross, the Crestock baby and articles like “10 Stock Photos That Just WON’T Sell!” add a sense of humor to a site that is very serious about photography. Crestock clearly focuses on building great community.

What we don’t Not the best organized interface, but it works. As for search relevance and image quality, they’re spotty. However, as microstock sites expand, there’s more room to purge underqualified images. Crestock is doing just that.

Go to


Ease of Use=1; Image Quality=5; Search Relevance; 95,000+ images

What we like Or in this case, what we love — Photocase. It’s daring but not all that practical. This site emphasizes the availability of exceptional images, and if we were fluent in German, we’d love it even more.

What we don’t Photocase is not for the print designer... yet. This is a place to keep in mind for your next hip Web project.

Go to


Extra, Extra

Here are some other sites that we found to be worthwhile. The following may be new, unusual or difficult to categorize, but they’re still inexpensive sources.


Limited database, but the proceeds go to charity. Go to site.


This site offers moderately priced historical and contemporary images. Go to site.


By contacting the individual photographer, you might be able to sort out a good deal on this image-sharing site. Go to site.


This one’s a stock image database, not a microstock site. Go to site.


This is a good microstock site, but only uses a subscription-based pricing model. Go to site.


Recognizing the potential of microstocks, Corbis has come up with its own entry that allows photographers to choose their price. Just in beta version, this site oozes potential. Go to site.

This article originally ran in the Winter, 2008 issue of FPO.