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35mm-slide-loupeA picture speaks a thousand words and today, through online stock photo stores, we have access to thousands of excellent stock photos at very reasonable prices; US$1.30 (HK$11) for a web-quality photo to an average of about US$10 (HK$80) for a print-quality photo.

Selecting the right photo can transform a dull piece of work into an amazing marketing piece that will capture your audience’s imagination, communicate your message and perhaps make you a million dollars.

Here are some commonly asked questions about sourcing photos online:

Can I just download any photo that I find online?

No. You can be sure that someone owns that photo and with the secret meta data  contained in digital photos, ownership is traceable and some companies will hunt you down. I do know people who have been caught and had to pay massive fines.

In addition, online photos are generally low resolution (small file size) as high resolution images (large file size) slow website loading times, and low resolution photos look terrible on printed work. With legitimate photos being so cheap, why take the risk of a massive fine, or compromising your brand?

Where and how can I buy photos online?

There are many online stock photo shops selling royalty-free photos for you to use as you wish – google “online stock photos” to see. Generally, you buy credits using your credit card or Paypal, and then us the credits as you download photos. If you plan to use a lot of photos daily, you may consider the subscription packages that most stock photo suppliers offer. Here you pay a fee to download a certain number of photos per day.

Low-resolution photos, suitable for web use, will cost fewer credits than high-resolution photos which are suitable for work that is to be printed. You may also find that more interesting photos, or photos using models cost more.

Note that of the companies listed below, Shutterstock has a different purchasing model with with two packages, one for web-quality image, 0ne for print-quality images.

Online stock photo shops

Quality photos, on the expensive side but they do have sale items. If you have credits or if you subscribe,  you can download free photos, music clips and videos.
From $US49.99 for 30 credits ($1.66/credit). Most iStock photos cost more credits than other agencies for similar photos so tend to work out a little pricier.
Quality photos and because of pricing structure, this is only worthwhile when only seeking high-resolution images for printed work.
5 high-resolution downloads ($9.80), or 12 low-resolution downloads for US$49 ($4.08). There is a time limit to use your images. More packages available.
Mixed quality of photos but if you are looking for standard photographs, eg, a glass of wine, you will find what you need here. You may also find the same image in Fotolia and in iStock, but the Fotolia one will cost fewer credits.
Packages from 10 credits for US$14 ($1.40/credit) and 26 for US$35. Monarch butterfly image, 400px wide,  from 1 credit.
As Fotolia, mixed-quality photos, good for standard shots but some surprises. Tend to have more Asian photos which is important for us in Hong Kong
Packages from 11 credits for US$15 ($1.36/credit). Monarch butterfly image, 480px wide – 1 credit

What does “Royalty Free” mean?

Some people assume that “royalty free” means that the photos are free but this is definitely not true. Royalty free means that once purchased, you can use the photo as much as you want with few limitations. The few limitations are usually along  the lines: you cannot resell the image or distort it so that it becomes offensive, and you cannot imply that the model is endorsing your product. Most people can live with these rules. Note that some agencies (iStock), have standard and extended licenses which do put limitations on the number of impressions – 5,000,000 impressions for standard licence.

Licenced images: With licenced images, the use is very controlled. For example, you would need to declare where you plan to use the photo, what exposure the photo would receive, whether it is on the covers or inside content, and the size it would be used at.  Other criteria may apply. The seller would then give you a price that would probably make your eyes water.

Why buy licenced? Because it gives some degree of exclusivity, and usually the photos are pretty special. However, when you get to these prices,  you may consider commissioning your own photographer and  having something of your own.

What is the correct size to buy?

Most online photo agencies offer you a choice of photo sizes to purchase and the size is usually provided in pixels. If you are buying for web use, this is an easier calculation as the required size is measured in pixels (see below), but can be tricky if you are purchasing for print as the resolution for printing is usually given in “dpi”, or dots per inch. The table below will help you work out the correct sized photo to purchase for your work.

General guides for choosing the right resolution photo for your project

A full-width photo for a web page
Third-width photo for web page
Facebook cover photo
851px (wide) x 351px (tall)
Facebook timeline image
Office printing (250dpi is suitable)
A4 – 21cm wide
¼ page – 9.5cm
Office printing (200dpi is usually acceptable)
A4 – 21cm wide
¼ page – 9.5cm wide
Offset (professional) printing (300dpi)
A4 page – 21cm
1/4 page – 9.5cm
  • Exhibition backdrops and posters: Because the viewing distance is further away, a resolution of 150-200dpi is acceptable.
  • Roadside billboards: A resolution of 100dpi is usually acceptable.

You will rarely be able to purchase a photo at the appropriate size for banners or posters, so purchase the largest photo you can and resize it upwards using Photoshop.

Can I purchase a lower resolution photo and resize it, or stretch it upwards?

image-resolution-display You can purchase a lower resolution, cheaper photo, and resize it upward but the results can be horrible. However, it you purchase a medium, or higher resolution photo, it is usually possible to resize upwards and get reasonable results. If you are purchasing for a banner, you have no choice.

Buy the best photos you can afford. In most cases you are producing a piece of work that will be used to market your company, so spending the extra dollars to show your company in the best light is surely worth it?

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