Ten Stock Photography Sites to use for References

photography reference stock website Jul 28, 2021

Author: Leigh Penner

Cover photo: Reinhart Julian  

Every stock photography site is slightly different.

Some let you download for free without requiring a sign up. Some free sites require you to sign up first. Others require you to pay to use their images -- some in monthly subscription fees, some per image, and some require both forms of payment. 

Stock websites can feature more staged images while others feel more authentic; still others aim to offer diversity in their photograph selections.

We think more options is a good thing for us artists! 

-photo by Alex Azabache

10 Stock Photography Sites to Explore:

1. Unsplash 

We offer up our most used option first!

Bold School students consume Unsplash content on a daily basis! We love it and didn't want to make you wait for our favorite!

Unsplash offers their services free. When you download one of their photos, they direct you to the creator's web links and recommend you say thank you. They do not appear to include Instagram in those links, which is unfortunate considering that the visual component of Instagram makes it an excellent platform for photographers and other visual artists. 

There is a fair bit of diversity and inclusivity on Unsplash, including faces with much character and of all ages and ethnicities represented. As well, they offer many categories of images. The website is easy to use and maneuver. They also offer long-term, non-exclusive commercial rights to their images. This means, many people may use the same images and may package the products (paintings) made from them without time-restrictions and for profit.

My favorite part of Unsplash is its visual search feature. They offer a feature which allows you to upload an image and they will find you similar images from their data base.

I tried this twice, once with a straight up, front-facing profile picture of my brunette sister, and once with an image of myself with my chin angled and titled down and the sunshine striking my eyes so they look startling and blue.

In Michelle's image, I was offered a series of brunettes (the first one could have been her daughter, they looked so similar). All were posed the same. If I'd been looking for a brunette to paint, they offered me many options.

My photo produced a wider range of options. Some focused on the angle of the chin, some on the sunbeams on the face, and some on the eyes of the model. Some of their images would have been very useful and others didn't really match. Still, from my two experiments, I have to conclude that this search feature could be extremely helpful. 

If you use their images it's a great service to their photographers to thank them and give them credit! 

2. Pexels

Or with donation! What I love best about Pexels is when you select a photo to download, it lets you either visit the photographer's Instagram to "say hi" or lets you give them a donation via PayPal. This is a great way to support a fellow artist without requiring you to overextend yourself financially. I love this.

There appears to be more racial diversity represented on Pexels than on some of the stock photography companies -- which is good -- and there also are a huge range of styles within the images themselves. 

Another great feature of the Pexels website is that they have clearly laid out the licensing terms for their photos. They provide a license tab which tells you what you can and can not do with their images. Basically, you can download every image on the site for free, and can sell what you create with the reference as long as you alter it first and do not sell the unaltered image anywhere.

One thing I find interesting about the images on Pexels is that I recognize many of them from using the Canva website. Unfamiliar with Canva? It is basically an online graphic design program which is accessible and simple to use for most marketing needs regardless of your skill level. 

3. Reshot 

Reshot is new to me and I have fallen in love. 

The images on Reshot are free to download for commercial purposes with some exemptions. These are clearly outlined and easy to find on the FAQ section at the bottom of their home page.

Intentional use of imperfect photography is a captivating aspect of their offering. Their images are deliberately designed to be less "stock-y." They are looking for images of real people doing real stuff instead of people posed against a blue screen and asked to simulate an activity. This has a few different effects.

The images on Restock are less "perfect" from a photography standard. Some of the images show the effect of blur on their subjects or background. They can be slightly out of focus, but in that good, artsy way that can make photography unique. They show real people in real moments with real expressions on their faces. Ultimately, there is a more authentic and less contrived vibe to the images on Restock. As a photographer who contributes to stock photography sites myself, I appreciate this about this site. I find their images more creative than on some other sites.  

4. Vecteezy 

Vecteezy has the type of photographs I, as an author, would use to make a book cover. Their images are crisp and often set against a plain color backdrop, and many images feature people in active moments. 

Their pricing structure is a bit misleading, as there is a button which says "Sign up for Free." However, you can only download some of their photographs without paying for a monthly subscription (paid in either one annual lump sum at a reduced rate or in monthly installments for a higher price). Their fees are nicely laid out and easy to understand. Attribution is required unless you sign up for the monthly plan, but they do show you exactly what they require (depending on how you intend to use the image) when you click on a link below the download button. Do be aware that unless you are signed up for a monthly subscription, there are limits on the usage quantities for each photo. You can sell your work, but only in limited amounts.  

5. Dreamstime

The Dreamstime website isn't exactly user-friendly. Their rights are COMPLICATED. Basically, you can use their images to create fine art prints but can not make items such as mugs, pillows, etc. If you are hoping to sell merchandise with an image of your painting printed on it, Dreamstime is not the site for you.

Their subscription plans are also complex. Rather than purchasing unlimited image downloads with your monthly subscription fee, Dreamstime sells punch cards. You are able to download a limited number of images per month based on the amount you choose to pay. They do, however, offer a one week trial of fifteen free images.

The other thing to know about Dreamstime is that the images on this site seem to be significantly weighted towards a Caucasian bias. Of the images on this site, my personal favorite are their food images. Those, in all honesty, will make you hungry even if you've eaten moments earlier (me!). 

6. Stocksnap 

Stocksnap is free but...

So, they really are free. I know, I downloaded to be sure. However, they are associated with Shutterstock. If you type in something that Stocksnap does not offer for free, they direct you to Shutterstock and give you all those payment options. 

The images on Stocksnap are licensed under Creative Commons licensing agreements, specifically a CCO license. This means all images on Stocksnap are free to download, edit, and share for commercial purposes as well as for personal use. 

7. Shutterstock 

Shutterstock is the company I was most familiar. Why?  I am a contributor, which means I sell them photos! Charla (Bold School founder) also sold to Shutterstock for a while.

The company is massive, with their website claiming more than 1 billion image downloads and 1 million contributors. They offer a one month trial where you are allowed to download ten images for free. After that, downloads either require a monthly subscription or a purchase of On-Demand packs. These packs currently being at $29 USD for two images for a standard license or $199 for an enhanced license. It is best to read the specifics of their licenses every time you download, because the site states that the agreements are subject to change and are also very specific in terms of usage and allowed quantity of reproductions. 

As you might expect, Shutterstock has a massive image library with a large range of variety in their images. I can personally attest that they are extremely particular about which images they will accept. They like crisp, perfectly focused, easily-identified images.  

With as many images as they provide, Shutterstock has developed excellent search tools such as filters. For example, if you type Faces into the main search engine, you can then go to a drop down menu on the left of the screen and filter your search for everything from age, to ethnicity, to number of people in the image. You can also filter for local or all artists. Local images will show you all images from your home country. The one thing I looked for and wasn't able to discover, though, was how to search by contributor name. 

8. iStock 

The images on iStock are are amazing, but they are not free. On the website, the images are separated into two categories -- Essential and Signature collections. The essential collection offers the content you may need on a daily basis, and the signature collection "features millions of premium handpicked stock files that you can only get from us" (https://www.istockphoto.com/plans-and-pricing). Pricing options differ depending on which collection you are choosing.

There are two payment options for users -- a basic subscription (starts at $29 month for 10 images from iStock's essential images collection) or a premium subscription with starts at $89 per month for 10  downloads from the entire library. It is also possible to purchase credit packs (starting at $13 for one credit). 

IStock is by Getty Images. The licensing agreement allows both personal and commercial business use, but there are restrictions so it is important to check for any restrictions on images you download. This mainly pertains to the numbers of reproductions which can be made for resale.

9. PicJumbo 

PicJumbo is the free branch of Getty Images. In fact, I was downloading accidentally even before I knew it simply by hitting the wrong button. They also offer you the opportunity to support the photographer through PayPal donations, but there is a minimum $1 USD threshold. They also offer the chance to provide artist support on a recurring, monthly basis. 

PicJumbo images truly are beautiful, but as you would expect, there are limited options. Then they have PicJumbo Premium, and you get thousands of download options. A one month subscription starts at $29. The licensing agreement allows you to use their photos commercially, but you may not redistribute the photos for file sharing. 

One thing I am unsure about PicJumbo is their submission process. It appears that all the images on the site may have been taken by a single photographer. This may or may not be true -- or relevant to your enjoyment of the site -- but it is something to consider. In my search, at least, I only found one named photographer on the site.

10. Getty Images 

Getty Images is the original online stock photography site. They started in 1995 when "Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein recognized that the stock photography industry was made up almost entirely of mom and pop companies and could benefit from capital investment in technology and consolidation. They formed Getty Images." (https://www.selling-stock.com/Article/history-of-the-stock-photo-industry-0

The company which has been around the longest is also the most expensive place to get your reference images. Adding it to this list, though, shows a range of site options if you need more selection. Getty Images pictures are fabulous. If you can afford them, they are definitely worth the price. You buy a package which lets you select from copyright-free pictures, but to get the managed photos (ones with complicated copyrights attached), you have to buy them individually and work out the rights -- not cheap.

One cool feature of Getty Images' website is that you can search through the photo classifications of Creative or Editorial. Editorial photos featured famous names such as Donald Trump, Mathew McConaughey, Queen Elizabeth, Jennifer Lopez and others. 


Sometimes in life you get what you pay for. This is not necessarily the case when it comes to stock photography. This list shows the range and diversity in some of the various sites existing today. Each site offers something of value, regardless of whether the images are available free or not. For the purpose of this post, no stock site which disallows commercial reproductions of their images was represented.

The author would like to credit Nick Le's January 3, 2021 article, "21 Amazing Sites with Breathtaking Free Stock Photos" (https://blog.snappa.com/free-stock-photos). His article did point me toward some of these sites -- although I checked them out personally before adding them here. 

As always, attention is required to legal permissions around the commercial application of image replication and distribution. This article is not intended as an endorsement of the products offered on these sites, nor is it intended to state value of one site over another. Neither the author nor Bold School accept responsibility for the misuse of any copyright licensing agreement by the readers of this blog. 

Creativity awaits!


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