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Stock Photo Subscription vs. Credit Based Stock Agencies


Since the beginning of stock photo agencies and microstock websites in 2002, buying options for the stock photo buyer have been credit based or subscription based choices. Recently, many of the stock photo agencies have combined these buying options to include individual and company purchases and open up the stock photo buying different markets.

The different buying options can be overwhelming but once the choices are understood and your needs are considered, the choice becomes clear.  The simple rule is this: Credit based purchasing is for the individual who buys few stock photos per month or year and a subscription buying option is for a company or designer that uses stock photos daily or monthly. The agency you choose to register with and buy credits or a subscription from will come down to a personal choice in 2011. Most stock photo agencies are created equal.  There are slight pricing differences, search options, or free photo options. For some people, these options secure the final decision. Credit verses subscription comes down to the amount of stock photos you need and the number of people in your company who require purchasing power.

Credit based buying option

Typical Audience: The blogger who contributes weekly to their blog, or a graphic designer who moonlights at night for extra money. These people will be paying more per photo when you compare prices to a subscription, but if you are downloading a stock photo once a week, there is a pricie savings overall as you can not maximize the subscription deal.

A small stock photo can cost you $2 to $4 under a credit system.  You can purchase the basic credit requirements to just buy the photo you need. If you had invested in the subscription option, the photo would be less, but you would have wasted stock photo options that you could not use. Your $25 investment for a subscription would be under utilized and one photo would actually cost you $25 as you did not maximize the subscription.

Most stock photo agencies offer a credit based option for buyers with the exception of Shutterstock, which only has a subscription buying option. Bigstockphoto, 123RF, Canstockphoto and Depositphotos all have credit buying options. Istockphoto, Crestock, Dreamstime and others have a combined system where their credit based buying options are divided into single credit purchases and credit subscriptions.

Credit Subscription based Stock photo agencies

Riding on the wave of both credit and subscription buying options for stock photos, many microstock agency websites have combined their credit system into a credit subscription buying system.  This bulk credit buying system enables the purchaser to;

  • buy credits in bulk amounts
  • use the one year expiry model for the use of credits
  • help buyers save money without confusing how they purchase photos.

iStockphoto, Dreamstime, Crestock all have this option for their buyers. What this option does not allow is the purchase of multiseat licenses, a must for employee based companies who have many people searching and purchasing stock photos for multiple clients and projects. On these sites, multiseat licenses are reserved for corporate accounts which are another option to basic subscriptions.

Subscriptions accounts on stock photo agency websites

Typical Audience: Corporations, graphic design companies, large companies that make multiple purchases per day, week or month

Subscription accounts are offered through Shutterstock (their only buying option) and Thinkstock. These subscription accounts are slightly different as they offer the buyer a certain number of photos in various sizes per day or week or month. The subscription is based on  the number of stock photos that can be purchased in a determined time-frame. Credits do not play in a role in these subscriptions and the subscription buyer is aware of their daily or weekly photo needs.

Unlike credit based subscriptions, the buyer can choose photos and purchase. With the credit subscription, the buyer needs to be aware of the number credits required to buy a photo and their subscription needs to be based on the average credit cost of their stock photos needs. A subscription is clear, 25 photos per day for $19.99.  Multiseat licenses can be purchased per subscription and as a company sees fit. Be aware that when your 24 hours is up, if you have unused photos you will not be able to use those photos left in your subscription.  Excess photos can not be transferred to a new subscription or another employee.

Making the decision

Your decision to use a credit based option, credit subscription based option, or subscription buying option is based on these questions:

  1. How many photos do you use per day
  2. How many photos do you use per week
  3. How many people require a membership to the stock photo agency website

If all of your answers are ‘ONE’, then  a credit based buying option is best. If you answer to the first two questions is ‘TWO or THREE’ a credit subscription may be best. If the answer is greater than those numbers a subscription based buying option may be the best option for you.


About the author

I am a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. I focus in providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry. I am the founder and editor of Stock Photo Press, one of the largest networks of online magazines in the industry. I am the founder of Microstock Expo, the only conference dedicated to the microstock segment. I created several software solutions in stock photography, like the PixelRockstar WordPress Plugin. Plus I am a recurrent speaker at Photokina Official Stage, and an industry consultant at StockPhotoInsight. I am passionate about technology, marketing and visual imagery.