Last time, we looked at some of our favourite free stock image sites so you can source photos and other media types easily and economically. This time, we’re putting the two biggest brands in stock images head-to-head: Shutterstock versus iStock by Getty Images.

Both these sites allow users to source royalty free images. iStockphoto was launched in 2000, which opened the floodgates for a host of stock image competitors from around the world, such as Shutterstock and iStock by Getty Images (since iStockphoto was acquired by Getty Images in 2006).

Of the two sites, Shutterstock has the largest library, offering 90 million stock items, and adding new content every week. However, Shutterstock doesn’t offer exclusive content – unlike iStock, which offers photo collections from exclusive contributors.

Shutterstock and iStock don’t carry images alone. Both stock image sites offer various types of media, depending on what you need.

Photos: Shutterstock and iStock offer photography for use on websites, print, or other purposes. These include photos that are taken by others for resale or reuse by others.

Illustrations (or Vector Images): These computer-generated and artist-drawn images generally cost more than regular photographs due to the amount of work that goes into creating them. Vector images are generally utilized for printed projects because you can resize them without distortion. These images are costly to use but often the best choice for printed media or promotional use.

Video: While not all stock image sites offer video clips as part of their services, they are becoming increasingly popular. Video clips can vary in size and quality and generally cost the most of all media forms available on stock photo websites.

Audio: As with video clips, audio clips aren’t available on all stock image sites. Unlike video clips, audio needs are often particular to the intended use, which is why some of the stock photo providers are not pursuing it.


Stock Image Sites: Usage

Whether for imagery, illustrations, video, or audio – it’s critical to understand the license type offered for each media to avoid the potential of a legal. Most large stock photography companies have detailed information available on their websites.

If a company does not offer this information, it’s best to contact them directly to find out about usage regulation. Here are the most common stock image usage types.

Public Domain: Free to use without a license for commercial or personal use.

Royalty Free: A copyright license to use a photo or illustration without restrictions after paying a one-time fee (in some cases, royalty-free photos can be free).

Rights Managed: A copyright license to purchase a photo for a specific, one-time use. You will need to buy additional licenses if you intend to use it for multiple applications (can be exclusive, meaning others cannot use the photo).

Creative License: Photos that will be used for selling goods/services. Generally, these photos are staged by photographers, an art director, and often involve people/talent.

Editorial License: A photo that can be used for non-commercial purposes, such as a blog post or presentation.

Media Usage Licenses: Defines what a particular photo may or may not be used for.


Stock Image Sites: Credits vs Subscriptions

If the stock image service isn’t free, most companies allow two different ways to pay for your media.

Subscription Services allow users to pay a set fee per month or annually to receive a designated number of credits, daily downloads, or a total number of downloads. Subscription services are generally the best option for bigger companies, advertising agencies, designers, or other individuals looking to download high amounts of content. Note that different companies offer different download options (limited number of images per week, month, etc.), which you should consider along with your purchasing needs.

Many stock image sites also offer the option to buy credits to purchase a set number of images instead. Depending on the type of photo and license, this will vary. The price per image usually goes down the more credits you get. Also, note expiration dates whenever you purchase credits to ensure you will be using them in time.



Shutterstock is a great resource for high-resolution images, particularly for large-format designs such as billboards and other print media since the site provides extremely high-resolution images.

Shutterstock is a world leader in stock photos, editorial, celebrity photos, and more. With their huge library of images and resources, you won’t be disappointed in the selection. Shutterstock carries stock photos, videos, illustrations, vector, and audio files. Shutterstock is a great choice for agencies, publications, and companies with the frequent need to use high-quality photos and illustrations.

Shutterstock offers various subscription plans to meet different user needs, making their pricing model more flexible than most other high-res photo options. Price per image: minimum of two images for US$29 or Shutterstock Subscription (access to all images): 350 images/month for US$169 or 750 images/month for US$199.

While Shutterstock offers a variety of plans and flexibility, the site is more expensive compared to other stock image providers. Customer reviews have noted examples of poor customer service and the fact that Shutterstock doesn’t sent auto-renewal notices for subscriptions.



iStock is operated by the highly reputable Getty Images, which offers royalty free, exclusively licensed media for use. Graphic designers and small advertising agencies find iStock to be a great resource due to the site’s fair prices for the quality, affordable subscription plan, image variety, and versatility.

iStock is one of the stronger choices for those needing lots of online, royalty free, low-resolution images for websites or e-newsletters. The iStock website can be a bit challenging for users who prefer to browse without a keyword in mind, although its search function is easy and intuitive enough for users.

iStock is a good service that offers great images at a decent price, offering 1 credit for US$13 (cost per image is 1 – 28 credits, while exclusive images begin at 3 credits. iStock Subscription (access to all images) provides 50 images/month for US$199, 100 images/month for US$259, or 750 images/month for US$333. Basic Subscription (which includes basic images, no exclusives) offers 50 images/month for US$89; 11 images/month for US$129; or 750 images/month for US$166. Unlike Shutterstock, iStock also allows subscribers’ unused downloads to rollover.

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