shirtless buff japanese man sitting at laptop with coffee

paid stock images vs. free stock images

September 28, 2020

written by
Bri Martinez

Photo: Muscle Plus

Let’s face it: photography makes a huge impact on your brand.

Whether you’re using it for marketing campaigns or for your website, the type of photography you use helps further accentuate your brand’s voice. Ideally, we all should pay for a professional photoshoot to be worry-free about pesky copyright lawsuits. Plus it has the bonus of then being original content that no one else can use. However, the reality is we know you can’t always do a photoshoot every time you need an image for a blog post or a new special offer.

Today we’re going to get into the pros and cons of free stock photography vs. paid stock photography.


free stock photography

Surprisingly there are plenty of resources now that offer free stock photography. Sites like Unsplash and Pexel have been growing in popularity over the years for their high quality images. Whenever possible it’s always good to credit the photographer as well. A little reciprocity is good for the soul after all.


  • Obviously the big pro in free stock photography is that it’s free. You don’t have to worry about large fees, re-upping your license, or digital asset management.
  • The image quality can still be high and look professionally done.
  • Can be a “quick fix” if you need an image fast (and if you aren’t super picky).


  • Most of the free stock photos are abstract; if you’re looking for a specific photo it can be time consuming to find the right image. After one client has us searching for hours and rounds upon rounds for one image, we had to put a stipulation in our contracts that if using stock photos, we only do two hours of image search.
  • While there are a lot of high quality images, the amount of low-quality and poorly taken images outweigh the good ones. This can also add time sifting through until you find a good picture to use.
  • A lot of images are being overused since they are free on these sites, so it can be hard to stand out from other companies if you’re using a photo that’s from the first page of selections you find. We once found the exact water image that we used for a high-end resort on a box selling toys.
  • You may not always know where free images are from. Sometimes they come from the original photographer, and sometimes someone else can upload those without their permission. It’s important to make sure that you’re protected from any copyright infringement that may happen.


paid stock photography

There’s a reason paid stock photography hasn’t gone away yet. With companies like iStock, Getty, and even newer ones like Dissolve, you’re guaranteed a wide and diverse range of photography that can easily suit the needs of what you’re using it for.


  • Licensing is upfront and you know that once you’ve purchased it, you’re welcome to use it however you need with full infringement protection. Just be sure you know the difference between editorial and creative licensing.
  • High quality images are always guaranteed.
  • Usually paid stock sites are easier to search and navigate through. Their filters are also more specific. They have the money to spend on infrastructure because they charge a fee.
  • Creating an account on these sites usually helps keep an archive of images you’ve purchased, and once you’ve already purchased it you can download it as many times as you need.
  • Most of these sites offer affordable subscription services that are well worth the money if your business needs photography year-round.


  • Images can sometimes be very expensive. You’ll need to be mindful of how much an image will cost. We found clients get upset when their favorite concept hinges on a great photo that’s out of their price range.
  • While there is a largely diverse range of photos, there are also a lot of very overly-produced and kitschy images as well.
  • Stock photos aren’t always very original and the same image can often be found on multiple sites; it can make it hard to find photography for your company’s visitor’s guide if every tourism company is using the same image and you’re trying to be unique.
  • Even though you’re paying for an image, you need to make sure you’re following that image’s terms and licensing requirements. You will need some sort of digital asset management system to keep track of all of the rules; how many page views, how long can you use it, etc.


so which is better?

Ultimately you’re going to run into similar (not all) problems with both choices. However with the growing popularity of copyright infringement lawsuits happening, it’s a safer bet to know that you’re licensing your images from a reputable source. Our best (and favorite) suggestion is to get as much original photography for your business done, and build your library out from there.

BONUS: Don’t forget, if you do your own photoshoot that you can always sell or offer for free your own photos as stock too! You never know when someone might need a buff shirtless man working in an office.