Cage Match! Stock Photography Sites Go Head-to-head: Part 1

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A couple enjoying masterworks at a gallery
Photo : ** RCB **

Finding great images for our projects is a task that many of us devote much time and money to. With that in mind, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the more popular stock image sites today and putting them head-to-head to see which, if any, come out on top.

There are a lot of decent stock image sites out there, and we may very well review others in future posts, but for now we’re going to be looking at some of the most used. We’ll give them each a rating based on each site’s strengths and weaknesses, scoring between 1-5.

We’ll look in detail at each element of each site, including:

  • Usability/UI design
  • Value for money
  • Available range

We’ll be searching just for illustrations and images and leave out video for this article, it’s all but guaranteed that we’ll get plenty of results back on each site, so let’s get started and see how each performs.

Site #1: iStockphoto

iStockphoto's front page

iStockphoto released its first collection of images online over a decade ago and unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before eager creative types were flocking to its virtual door. Of course, the service was free back in the day, so it was always going to be highly popular with designers, illustrators, bloggers and the like.

Users responded in kind and before long, were uploading their own images to the site to share the love. However, with such a huge increase in media files being uploaded to the site, iStockphoto soon found itself with a monthly bandwidth bill in excess of $10,000 – something had to give.

It was clear that there was a potentially large and lucrative market for stock images, so iStock asked its users if they would be willing to pay for the service.

The answer was a resounding yes, and the rest, as they say, was history. iStock began selling images through the now familiar credit purchasing system, with high-quality images being sold for less than a dollar and the image’s creator receiving a small royalty payment.

This marked out iStockphoto as an innovative leader in its field early on and it now has millions of images available to its users, who can still also sign up for free.


iStockphoto offer a credits system, but you can also sign up for a subscription if you require a constant supply of images.


These vary price wise depending on how many credits you purchase at any one time. You can buy credits in ‘packs’ of 10, 30, 60, 150, 360, 650, 1000 and 3000 and the individual price for each credit is lessened the more you buy. The most you will pay for one credit (which doesn’t necessarily add up to one image) is around $2.34 USD and the least around $1.65.

I feel this is relatively high considering that you may need to use ten credits in order to purchase a single image.


There are four subscription options and these range from around $220 USD per month or $2035 per year for the iStock Essentials plan or $560 per month or $4072 per year for the iStock Signature plan.

This means that if you choose the latter plan and pay for a year up front, then you will get images (not credits) for around $0.45 each.

This is clearly the better option but one that you only need if you’re a very heavy duty user – with the Signature plan you can download up to 750 available images (99% availability on this plan) per month. With the Essentials plan you can download 250 images per month, which is around 66% of iStock’s assets.

iStock is without doubt one of the more expensive sites for stock images, with pricing variable depending on the image and its quality. They do now offer the subscription model, rather than just the credit system and this allows you to save some cash. If you pay monthly however, you’re only allowed 250 downloads per month, whereas if you pay annually, you can download 750 images per month.

It’s also worth pointing out that the subscription images are still somewhat limited, with 66% of the site’s images available on the Essentials subscription and 99% on iStock Signature.

Signing up for the site itself, with or without a subscription, allows you to access selection images, illustrations and video clips for free each week too.

Rating – 3/5

Search functionality

The search feature on the iStock site is quite nice. You can choose to search for photos, illustrations and videos, or deselect any that you don’t want to include. The side panel for refining your search is also handy as the site has such a huge selection of images, it’s useful to be able to search within a certain price range using the slider to the left of the main page on the sidebar menu.

You can also use the left sidebar menu to refine your search if you’re on a subscription, so none come up that you’ll have to pay an additional fee for.

Further search refinement features include:

  • Search by creative or editorial license types
  • Search for iStock images only or include Vetta Collection
  • Search by shape – portrait, landscape, square
  • Include color with a box for entering HEX values>
  • Image size – XL, XXL, XXXL
  • People
  • Files for various time periods such as those added in the last 24 hours, week, etc.
  • Category search

There’s also a menu at the top of the search results which allow you to choose, best match, fresh match, newest or most popular.

Search performance: keyword ‘business’

On entering the search term, the results – of which there were 1,429,421 (take a while to go through that lot, thank heavens for search refinement!) – were returned quickly with no glitching on the site whatsoever. The results were also all very relevant to what is admittedly a broad search term.

Images were displayed in a pleasant tiled manner (note that you can change these so that they are displayed in large or small tiles) and on hovering on an image, a larger image appeared.

Taking the price slider down to its lowest available setting still returned 908,759 results, so plenty of choice there in the lower and higher price brackets.

A further search for ‘tablet PC’ returned 88,049 results in all results and 36,421 in low priced results – still pretty good.

All-in-all, the search function was easy to use with no issues or glitches and overall, I was impressed with it. The only thing that might deter me from using the site is the sheer volume of images that are returned, making it a laborious process trawling through them all. But that’s really being pretty fussy — as they say, you can’t have too much of a good thing.

Rating 4.5/5

User Interface


I really like the way that the site is laid out, the ease of using the search function and the actual functionality that it gives. The interface is clean and uncluttered and simple to navigate. The front page has a modern feel with a large search box dominating it and a tiled display below.

I have nothing negative to say about the look and feel of the site, nor the usability of it. I found it clean, simple and very easy to get around with no confusing navigation links and a dropdown navigation menu that did what it was supposed to.

Rating 4.5/5

Selection of images

iStock has a huge selection and it’s unlikely that you won’t be able to find what you need. However, if I’m being picky, as mentioned earlier it can get a little tiring ploughing your way through 1000s of pages to find an image that you like.

Perhaps some kind of ‘Netflix-like’ algorithm that learned your preferences and surfaced more likely image candidates would be the ultimate killer feature.

Rating 4.5/5

Overall rating 4/5

iStock is a great site and one that’s extremely popular amongst the design community and photographers alike. It has a large community of its own too and this is what it was founded on.

There was some controversy last year with regards to one of its most respected members effectively being kicked off the site due to an issue surrounding the Getty Images/Google Drive licensing scheme.

There’s a chance this may put off some users who may have wanted to contribute imagery to the site.

Site #2:


Again, 123RF has a large collection of images, illustrations and video clips available to its users and has been around since 2005. The site boasts over 24 million digital assets and 100,000 content contributors. Around 35,000 new images are uploaded daily, so there’s always something fresh on the site for those that use it often.

123RF’s mission statement says it wants to:

  • Collaborate with photographers
  • Make content affordable for everyone
  • Provide innovative world-leading solutions to simplify both selling and purchasing of stock images


You have the choice of three plans upon joining 123RF and these can be purchased as daily subscriptions, download ‘packs’, or ‘on demand’.

Daily subscriptions work by allowing you to choose five or twenty-six EPS/XXL jpgs per day and then you pay for 30, 90, 180 or 365 days. If you choose twenty-six images per day for 365 days, then you will be paying around $0.22 per image, which is pretty reasonable.

Alternatively you can choose a download pack, which allows you to choose 100 EPS/XXL images per month or 1200 per year at around $112 per month and $1200 per year respectively. Downloads that are not claimed within that month are rolled over to the next, so you don’t lose out if you have a quiet month when you don’t need many images.

Finally, you can also buy credits on 123RF in packs of 20, 40, 90, 200 and 400 or you can choose a custom amount at a minimum of 10. Like iStock, credits are not equal to one image and you could find yourself using as many as 10 credits for one image.

All-in-all, 123RF is great on price and beats iStock hands down when it comes to pricing for individual images. There’s plenty of choice too but obviously, the more you use the site, the less you pay.

Rating 4.5/5

Search performance

This was similar to iStock in the way that it was laid out and results were returned equally quickly when I searched for the term ‘business’. Again, there is an additional sidebar menu to the left of the page, although this had slightly less in the way of choice when compared to iStock.

On 123RF, you can refine the search using the following filters:

  • Freshness – search ‘anytime’ to ‘within the past 3 months’
  • Collections – ‘all’, ‘standard’, ‘collections’ etc.
  • Orientation
  • Model preference – Caucasian, Asian, etc.
  • Number of people
  • Color
  • Other options – cut-out, without nudity, open in new window

Again, to the top of the page there are further option tabs to search for relevance, popularity, georank and so on. The search results are also set out in a tiled format with a larger image appearing on hover. The search for ‘business’ returned a whopping 2,933,223 images, so more than iStock did and again, giving you a long, long list to look through.

A new search for ‘tablet PC’ returned 61,251 results so again, plenty there and all of these that were displayed on the first few pages were highly relevant.

Rating 4.5/5

User Interface


123RF is laid out in a similar way to iStock, but with a slider to the top of the page and tiled images and categories below. Personally I preferred this layout; despite its similarity to iStock it felt to me like it had a fresher, more contemporary feel than its counterpart.

Again, using the site was no hardship, it’s simple to find your way around with all of the navigation options in the logical places and unlike iStock it didn’t have a dropdown menu, which is always preferable in my opinion. The site responded well, with no glitches or issues and all-in-all was nice to look at as well as simple to use.

Rating 4.5/5

Selection of images

123RF has a huge selection of images and these are refreshed daily so that there’s always something new for the designer who uses a lot of them. Again, perhaps I bore easily but there’s something I don’t like about having to go through lots of pages to find images I like, but perhaps this is because I don’t need images on a daily basis like some designers do.

Rating 4.5/5

Overall rating: 4.5/5

When it comes to it, I suspect that the amount of images that are on both sites is something that those involved in image intensive work welcome.

For me, 123RF just about pipped it on all counts. Whilst iStock has a large amount of images, the fact that 123RF refresh these daily gives the site the edge over iStock for me, as there’s nothing worse than going through the same old photos each day when looking for new ones.

So there’s the first two on our list and as I said, overall I preferred 123RF for it’s stock, the look and feel of the site and importantly, its pricing, which is much cheaper than iStock.

It’s worth a mention that both sites allow photographers and illustrators/graphic designers to sell their work through the sites. 123RF offers up to 60% off the selling price to those contributing work but it’s less clear what iStock offer.

The latter also asks you to apply to be a contributor and this involves taking a quiz after you’ve read the training manual, whilst 123RF just says that all you have to do is begin uploading images.

Given the issue with the Getty/Google Drive thing as mentioned above, you may want to investigate further if you wish to become a contributor to iStock, but do bear in mind that it was founded on its contributors to some extent.

When it comes to selling your work through any of these sites, it’s as well to see what all of them offer and choose the best option for you.

Next time I’ll be looking at Fotolia and Shutterstock, two players which are also recognisable names when it comes to stock images.

Kerry ButtersKerry Butters
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Kerry is a prolific technology writer, covering a range of subjects from design & development, SEO & social, to corporate tech & gadgets. Co-author of SitePoint’s Jump Start HTML5, Kerry also heads up digital content agency markITwrite and is an all-round geek.

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