4 best stock photography websites for graphic designers

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March 15, 2021
5 minute read

Visual content critical. You might even argue that pictures are more important than words. According to one report, two-thirds of online shoppers rate high-quality images as “very important” to their purchase decision—above “product specific information,” “long descriptions,” and “reviews and ratings”.

The demand for visual content isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and that’s good news for graphic designers. But, it can be hard to keep up with production. That’s where stock photography comes into play.

What is stock photography?

Stock photography is images that are captured to be sold and used for various uses. It’s what businesses turn to when they need imagery, but don’t have the resources to arrange their own photoshoot. Some stock photography is free to use for any purpose, while other stock photography comes with limitations. You might need to pay for a license, have a limited time to use it, or be restricted in business vs. personal use.

However, these restrictions are typically a lot easier and more affordable to work around than hiring a professional to shoot your own custom images.

Stock photography has a time and place. For example, one test from Marketing Experiments pitted real photos against stock photos to see the implications on conversions. Users who saw images of real customers were 35% more likely to convert than those who saw stock images.

And this eye-tracking study from Nielsen Norman Group found that users prioritize visual content that features images of real people over stock photos—the latter is “pure filler.”

Stock photography is also helpful to use versus custom designs when you need to meet tight deadlines for clients.

You won’t want to use stock photos as your main product images, but they are especially useful for marketing and website visuals. Many businesses aim for a healthy mix of stock and custom shots.

Tip: You can categorize stock photography membership fees and purchases as office expenses when doing your small business accounting.

Stock photography licensing need-to-knows

Every stock photo comes with some sort of licensing agreement. And the terms in these licensing agreements vary greatly.

Stock photos may require a credit back to the photographer and sometimes include a link as well. Other photos don’t require such attribution and offer more flexible terms of use.

Essentially, stock photos are categorized one of three ways:

  1. Public domain: Public domain stock photos come with the least amount of restrictions. You don’t have to give attribution, and you can use it as many times as you like across whatever mediums you choose. Because of the accessibility of these images, they’re often widely used and can dilute your brand and its impact.
  2. Royalty-free: A step above public domain stock photos, royalty-free images require payment for usage. You pay a fee to license the image and can then use it multiple times for however long the license is valid.
  3. Rights managed: This type of stock photo is ideally what you want to look for. With a rights managed licensed photo, you can license exclusive access to the image. This means your stock photo is less likely to be used in a different context, unassociated with your brand. Keep in mind you can only use a photo one time with this type of license. If you want to use it in an email and then later a Facebook ad, you’ll need to re-license for the Facebook ad.

If you’re unsure, check the website you’re browsing. There should be a detailed page that outlines the licensing requirements and guidelines.

Best stock photography websites for graphic designers

These websites have royalty-free and rights managed stock photos you can download to use in your graphic design business:


Shutterstock specializes in royalty-free stock photography for all kinds of brands and businesses. You can browse more than just stock photos, too. Shutterstock also has royalty-free vectors, illustrations, footage, video, and music to help you develop all your creative assets. You can find 3D imagery, abstracts, lifestyle, backgrounds, and more. Browse by collection, creator, theme, and other filters to find the right content for your needs.

Shutterstock pricing: Subscriptions start at $49/month for 10 downloads or in packs of 2, 5, and 25 for $29, $49, and $229 respectively. You can download 10 Shutterstock images for free to try it out first.

Getty Images

Another royalty-free stock photo site, Getty Images has assets tailored to creative, editorial, video, music, and blog content. They offer strong legal protections with straightforward licensing, promising “unlimited indemnification.” You can request Premium Access to get iStock photos as well.

If you’re looking for something a little more specific, you can also take advantage of Getty’s custom content options. Getty Images sources from a global team of creators to fulfill your creative brief, and you get exclusive access to completely unique photos.

Getty pricing: Images start at $150 per download for a pack of 10, and prices go up as volume goes down. There are no monthly subscription plans.

Adobe Stock

Adobe is well-known in the design industry for its powerful suite of graphic design tools, including Photoshop and Illustrator. With Adobe Stock, you can easily search for stock photos while using their Creative Cloud software. You can get images, photos, illustrations, vectors, videos, audio clips, templates, and 3D assets without ever leaving the platform. They also have some free stock photos you can use at no cost.

If you need to add text to your images, you can also check out Adobe Fonts to find the perfect typeface for your design.

Adobe pricing: Subscriptions start at $29/month for 10 standard asset downloads. You can also purchase credit packs for one-time use.


Unsplash has “photos for everyone” on their site—more than 2.5 million of them. There are a range of stock photos, including everything from wallpapers to nature to abstracts. They have an extensive selection of free images, and while attribution isn’t required, it is appreciated.

Unsplash has slowly been launching new features and tools targeted towards businesses, so it’s a stock photography website worth keeping an eye on.

Unsplash pricing: Free, really!

Moving forward with your stock photography

Finding the right mix of stock and custom photography is a practice in balancing budget, customer experience, and design philosophies. While custom everything is always ideal, stock photography is useful for reducing budgets, creating quickly, and expanding your own design capabilities. These four stock photo sites have high-quality, royalty-free images perfect for graphic designers.