The word “free” has an inherently positive connotation. It can’t be helped. Free software trials, free samples of food as you walk through the grocery store. Free always sounds like the best deal.

So why would we ever debate free vs. paid stock photos?

We’re smart business professionals, so as great as it sounds, we know that free doesn’t live up to our expectations. At the outset, free sounds like music to your ears, but then you have to stop and ask yourself what the catch is.

While price can seem like a black and white label, we know there is much more that goes into making the choice between paid and free stock photography. There are tangible consequences to either side – for better or worse – and as a professional seeking to market your business on the web, you need to understand what you’re getting youself into.

Businesses can really end up tripping over their feet when it comes to stock photography. The internet has become an endless library of free and paid marketing resources, and it’s up to you to make the decision to save some cash or make an investment in paid stock media.

Where is the line drawn between choosing free or paid stock images? Let’s start with the obvious difference.

Price

Okay, free is obviously free. Or is it?

Whatever free service you might be looking at, always double-check to makes sure you know what they are offering and what you get out of it. Free images may have unexpected usage restrictions, or alternatively, the paid side might help you have more freedom and less anxiety. We’ll talk about this more further in.

On the other hand, paid can be pricey. And I’m talking $500 or more for the license to use a single photo. Might sound crazy to you, right? It’s actually very normal, especially in the editorial world, where you want access to exclusive photos.

Free vs. Paid Stock Photos: Which Should You Use?

Before you go flipping any tables though, take comfort knowing that image providers understand that everyone has different needs and different budgets. They want it to be easy for you to understand and find the subscription or payment option that works for you, because they want you as a customer. There are plenty of paid stock resources out there that offer very reasonably priced services, and I’m talking around $1 to $5 a photo – royalty-free, too.

If for some reason you aren’t finding all of the answers you need on stock photo websites, there is a world of articles out there to help you find the resource that fits well for your business. It takes a little research and reading on your end, but it’s worth the effort.

Rights and Permissions

Let’s make this super clear: If you didn’t create or photograph an image yourself, you do not own the rights to use that image.

Got it? Good.

Whether a stock image service is free or paid, always make sure you know, first and foremost, what the usage rights are for the photos you want. Otherwise, you will end up paying more in the long run.

Free

Free images vary widely in the rights and permissions they are bound by. A few sites, like Unsplash are Creative Commons 0 (CC0), making them 100 percent no-strings-attached. It’s wonderful, but know that this is not the norm.

For instance, Death to the Stock Photo, provides free photo packs to subscribers on a monthly basis, but they do have a few rules for anyone wanting to use their resources. Their license explains that you cannot redistribute or claim photos as your own, amongst other details.

Meanwhile, websites that curate user-uploaded creative commons images, like Flickr, can be a dangerous landscape for businesses to navigate. Don’t simply trust that a Creative Commons label means an image is safe for you to use.

Too often, bloggers and businesses wind up in trouble for using a free image they believed they had license to use, when it actually had been uploaded by a user who had taken it from another source without permission.

If you’re truly in love with an image you’ve found online, do some digging to make sure you are, without a doubt, allowed to use that image the way you plan.

Paid

If you are paying for your images, licensing ends up coming down to Royalty-Free (RF) or Rights Managed (RM). There are other variations, such as extended and multi-use licenses, but these options simply build upon a base RF or RM license.

RF licenses mean that you get to pay once to use the same content over and over again – so long as you keep an eye on any restrictions around production numbers. RM licenses, on the other hand, are purchased for one specific purpose. If you need the image for another project, you’ll have to buy it again.

This makes RF sound like a much better deal, but it all depends on what your needs are. If you’re looking to redefine your brand and stick out from your competitors, an RM image can offer you more unique and exclusive images for your next big campaign.

Another thing to note is editorial vs commercial images. Editorial images are of specific people, places or events are most often used in news articles.

Since your website and marketing materials all have the ultimate purpose of selling your brand and services, you will need to rely on commercial images and stay away from editorial. And yes, blog posts can fall under the editorial category, but you’re safer going with commercial photography if you tend to write posts that appear to sell and promote your services or product. Plus, if you purchase an image with an RF license, then you’ll have more flexibility to use an image in a blog post as well as a CTA or other content piece.

Overall, it’s always a good idea to double check the sources of your images to make sure you can use those images the way you intend. If you aren’t sure whether you can use an image or not, don’t.

Quality

Is there a quality difference between paid and free stock images? It depends on the skill of the photographers, both in shooting and editing the photos, and it depends on your needs. In terms of style and variation, many of the free photos I see tend to be more natural, or conceptual. They aren’t pristine photos of well-groomed businessmen high-fiving in front of a line graph.

And to be honest, I think this is a great thing. I could do with fewer cheesy stock photos.

Paid stock photo sites offer greater variety in their selection, though, so you are more likely to find the right image for your project. And depending on the websites you use as a stock resource, you can begin to become familiar with the photographers whose style aligns with your brand.

Size and Resolution

Often, free images will only come in one size, which may limit how you can use it, depending on your needs.

That being said, the images you can find on free stock photo websites tend to be fairly large, around 3,000 pixels high or wide, which is enough for most digital projects – and some smaller print work.

Paid stock photography sites offer a much greater variety of sizes for purchased images. Every website has their own way of providing these images, so keep in mind that you may have to pay a certain amount to get the larger, higher resolution graphic compared to the 200 pixel one you need for your new blog post.

Some sites only offer photos via a subscription, rather than paying per photo. Assess your own photography needs and determine what kind of plan works for you before purchasing your photos.

Media Options

Free or not, searching for the right stock photo can be a major headache. With better quality and greater quantity though, you’ll save time and will be able to find the perfect photo, faster.

Resources like Stokpic can be free and easy to search and browse through, but often it’s much more difficult to find the image that you were envisioning. It’s tough when you have a specific image in mind, but your resources are limited by the availability and lack of choices.

Freebies are great, but when it comes down to it, your business needs a resource that offer photos, vectors, audio and video, all in one place, all under the same licenses and prices.

Many paid stock resources not only supply photos, but many of these other media types that you may want to utilize in your marketing campaigns. Having all your resources in one key place will allow your employees to save time finding the perfect graphics and additions for their content.

Organization

One feature I find helpful is simply being able to find the images I’ve already purchased. Yet, as far as this goes, I can say that paid stock sites barely do any better than free.

Paid stock sites will require you to have an account, at least. Having all of your downloads saved to one place allows you to look back through your history and find images you already used and have rights to. That’s what RF licenses are all about anyway, so take advantage of it.

That being said, neither paid nor free make it easy to find images that were downloaded in the past. Too often, I’ve gone back to look for a purchased image a month or two after I downloaded it, and I have to try to figure out the exact date of the purchase to find it.

This is definitely something both groups could stand to work on, but at least paid stock sites take advantage of heavily tagging their photos to make them more searchable.

Make a Choice and Stick to It

In the end, businesses are much better off paying for their stock photos. Yes, it doesn’t sound as good as “free,” but it saves time and headaches down the road.

This doesn’t mean free resources need to be completely cut out, but it means you need to know, without a doubt, how and when you can use those photos, and to make sure that info is clear to your employees as well. Don’t let stock photography become a stumbling block for your business.

Becoming comfortable with one or two paid stock resources allows you to know their licenses and permissions like the back of your hand, and to be confident in how and when you use your purchased media. It’s well worth the investment now to not have to worry about license disputes and trouble down the road.

If you’re using a paid stock photo resource already, do you go Royalty Free or Rights Managed? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to message me on Twitter if you have questions.