As designers and bloggers, pretty much every project we do is going to involve photography in some way, form or fashion. With the way the internet is today, there are photos floating around everywhere and it’s very easy to grab one for use even though it may land you in some huge trouble. This isn’t a post on which is better so much as it is weighing in on the different uses for free and paid photos. I’ll interject some of my opinions in here but mostly keep it factual so the information is as correct as possible. What’s your opinion on free vs paid?
A Little About Free Photos
Free photos are awesome because they are, well, free. But, to be honest, most of the time they really aren’t that awesome at all. They are usually of lesser quality, require links or are far too small to use for anything practical. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Check out the pros and cons I’ve outlined below.
- They’re free
- They are sometimes very large photos like the ones you’ll find on Stock Exchange (see below)
- You can use them pretty much wherever you want, even commercial projects
- Occasionally you can find really good ones
- Can alter them if you need
- They are of lesser quality for the most part meaning less MP
- Also have bad or sub-par composition and color
- Often too small
- Will be seen in multiple places since anyone can get ahold of them
- Most likely you won’t find exactly what you need and you’ll have to settle
- You’ll also have to sift through ads to find the photos…they have to generate income somehow
- Sometimes require a link or attribution
I’m an advocate for using free photos during the composition of a client project. The reason why lies in cost. I’m not going to pay for photos for a client to change them anyway, it’s just not being smart with your money. That said, I definitely have to do some explaining as to why the photo isn’t exactly what they are going to end up using or why it has a watermark on it. Most clients are okay with it if you tell them the alternative was charging them for stock photos they may never use. However, I proceed to push the sale of professional photos for the live launch of a project. They will make or break or design no matter how great it is.
A Little About Paid Photos
Paid photos on the other hand are a whole different breed. They are usually the opposite of free photos but also come with their own set of pros and cons. Let’s check these out.
- Usually professionally shot
- High Quality
- Can purchase different sizes
- Good composition
- Plenty to choose from
- Can get a bit pricey
- Multiple usage restrictions
- Many times can’t be used in commercial projects
- Require additional research to find exact usage
Difference in Quality
There’s a definite difference in the quality you will get with free versus paid photos. Free ones are often shot by amateurs or as candid and it was an afterthought to upload it for use by others. You can tell in the composition, the coloring, and even the actual pixels or picture quality. That’s not to say that all paid pictures are fantastic, but you’re much more likely to find paid photos with better quality all around.
It would be my assumption that the people uploading pictures for free don’t take as much time or have near as much experience as those who upload to paid sites. I think it’s safe to say that. But don’t feel free ones are useless, they can serve their purpose and then be replaced by a professional image for the final product.
What are you using it for?
If you’re using photos for a personal project, you might be able to get away with using free or very cheap photos. And by personal I mean like a poster for your child’s classroom or something along those lines. However, if you’re a web designer building a site for yourself, I highly suggest you get some professional photos. These are going on your portfolio and whether you’re a photographer or not, clients will expect perfection from you for the most part.
Client projects nearly always require professional photos. Clients don’t always want to pay for them, but I urge you to do your best to explain to them the difference it will make for their clients. You don’t ever see major brands like Dell or Nike using cheap or free photos for their marketing. It makes a difference and it’s your job to translate that to your clients.
Photo Copyright Infringement
Copyright is a huge deal these days as well. It’s difficult to trace exactly where photos have gone once they’ve been uploaded to a site. Paid sites use watermarks but those are easy to cover up if you know Photoshop very well. And free photos have their own issues even though they may be considered “free.” For example, if there’s a person in a photo, that person is supposed to give a model release to the photographer so it can be used in any way. But I’ve personally come across hundreds of photos with many people in them that I know they didn’t get model releases from all of them.
On top of model releases, the photographer still owns the photo and all copyrights to it regardless of whether it’s posted on a free site or not. They have to sign a release to the person that wants to use the photo in order for it to be legal. I know it sounds crazy, but there are some very strict guidelines for photo copyright and people infringe on it everyday. And the thing about copyright is that it’s different from country to country, and in the US, from state to state even! So it’s best to contact the photographer directly before using the photo in any way such as client work or on your own site.
A Few Good Free Photo Sites
Stock Exchange is probably my personal favorite of the free ones. Some of it has to do with the fact that it’s the only one I really use. Like I said, I use these images for mockup purposes, not for the final launch of a project. Their search has always been pretty lame so you’ll have to deal with that should you decide to use them.
Flickr is another great resource for some free photos. You’ll have to give attribution for most of them but they definitely work and there are tons to choose from. Be sure to check out the copyright restrictions on this site as well as the other ones.
FreeDigitalPhotos has some great stuff as well. However, they only offer the small size images for free, the others are paid. Most likely you could use their photos for a small image on a project but they wouldn’t work for a large banner that would be on the homepage of a design…at least not without pixelation.
EveryStockPhoto is a great place as well. They’ve got plenty to choose from and most of them are actually very good shots. They come in a variety of sizes but many of them will work great for mockups.
A Few Good Paid Photo Sites
I’m pretty sure that mostly everyone has heard of iStockPhoto. They’ve been just about the only place I go to buy photos when I decide to. Over time their pricing has crept up a bit but they are still very reasonable and allow you to purchase small photos for as low as $1. Most of the web ready ones will run you about $3 or so, which is awesome for the quality you get here. They also have stock video, audio, illustrations, and a plethora of other things.
Ah, Getty Images. Seems these guys have been around since the beginning of the internet. They have some pretty awesome stuff, but it also gets a bit pricey and quick. If you can push the cost off on your client, which you should do if it’s for their project, they are a great choice to find what you’re looking for.
Yet another great resource for paid photos is ShutterStock. You’ll find what you’re looking for here for sure but again, it will cost you a bit to get the quality they provide. I’m not against quality but sometimes it seems they’re charging a bit much for it.
DreamsTime has some good stuff as well. I personally don’t use this one but it’s another place to visit should you not be able to find what you’re looking for at any of the above ones.
So In Closing…
Keep in mind that photos can make or break your design. Obviously it’s your choice as to whether you want to fork over the money to pay for them, but most of the time when working on a client project you can pass the cost along. Just make sure you thoroughly explain your stance on using professional photos and maybe give some examples comparing free versus paid photos. Point out some differences and let the client make that call, even if it is against your better judgement. What do you think of free versus paid sites? Are they truly worth paying for or just a waste of money? What other sites do you use?
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