The Hidden Cost of Free Stock Photos

Lists of free stock photo sites are always a popular resource. I've posted a pretty decent list of sites myself and Graphics N Graphic Design recently posted about the most comprehensive list of free sites I've seen.

However, although the photos on these sites won't cost you any money, they do come with a big hidden cost - your time.

It's easy to spend hours surfing around the web looking for that perfect photo without having to pay for it. But what is that costing you in terms of the time you could be spending doing something else? Something profitable, even.

An hour spent writing content for your site, improving your site design, or driving traffic to your site is likely to be a far most cost effective use of your time than trying to save a few dollars by searching all over for a free photo.

As far as I'm concerned, time is the resource of which I have the least. That's why when I need stock photography I might check one free site such as stock.xchng before falling back on the larger of the cheap stock photo sites like iStockphoto.

These 'photo community' sites, as they are known, offer a selection and quality of photos that cannot be equalled by 99% of the free photo sites. With downloads ranging from $1-3 on average, is it really worth going anywhere else? I, for one, get pretty much all I need from iStockphoto.

As for searching through Flickr for free photos, it's hard enough to actually find a photo you'd want to use. But then you have to check the Creative Commons license to see if you are allowed to use it? I mean, come on - this is a really poor way of finding photos.

So, do yourself a favor. Clear out that huge list of free stock photo bookmarks and just keep your top five free or cheap sites. The time you save will be well worth any extra money you have to pay in download fees.

Posted on: January 20, 2006 | 7 Comments

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7 Comments Posted

Great point! I'll admit that I'm a sucker for "free stock photo" web sites, but there is no doubt that finding that perfect image usually requires too much time. Recently I have been trying make more effective use of my time, and your absolutely correct that I'd probably be better off just using iStockPhoto and saving myself 2-3 hours of work, even if it costs me $3 for the photo. I'll remember this the next time I'm searching for a picture.

BTW, what are you using to do the "Live Comment Preview" on your site? I've seen this sort of thing before and I really think it's a great idea. Is it something you created, or some kind of program/plug-in?

Richard - glad to be of help! In addition, with sites like iStockPhoto, the more people download photos, the more photographers will be encouraged to contribute high quality photos, and the better a resource it will become. A sort of 'virtuous circle', I guess.

I use Jeff Minard's live comment preview script . It's pretty easy to get up and running, even for a non-developer like me!

Actually, there's a hard-to-find page at Flickr where you can limit your search to a specific Creative Commons category, "attribution" being the most useful one. I have attribution-only set as the default for all my photos; heck, I don't even care if anyone bothers with attribution.

Paul - thanks for the tip; that would certainly help. Perhaps you can post the link if you ever find it.

This is great advice. I also only checkout one free site before turning to the paying sites. Especially if my clients don't have deep pockets, I can't spend 1-2 hours even looking for the right image.

Checkout my new website that ranks the top microstock photography site: Micro Stock Sites compared (It is pretty new, but I hope to get all the details to help stock buyers and sellers not waste to much time on the wrong sites.)

While it's true that sites like stock.xchng can be a huge time sink, when you're strapped for cash they can be very handy. Every so often, with a little trouble and time, you can find exactly what you need.

I found the perfect image for what I consider my best design to date on stock.xchng. It took me almost an hour, but I did find it. Eventually. :-)

Adam - I've nothing against stock.xchng as it has such a huge collection of good photos (like the one you chose, by the way).

I'd just recommend avoiding surfing all the smaller ones - this is where you time really starts to get sucked away (especially me, as I get distracted way too easily).

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