Credits vs. Subscriptions: What’s the Best Buying Option?

Almost since their dawn, microstock agencies have worked with two main buying options: on-demand (or pay-as-you-go) credits, and subscriptions.

In general lines, credits allow you to buy stock photos without assuming a periodic commitment with the microstock agency, and subscriptions enable you to buy lots of images at very low prices.

But as a buyer sometimes it's not that simple to choose which option to use. The pros and cons of each system are not always that clear at first.

In this article, you will find info and observations about credits and subscriptions that will help you have a clearer picture and be able to make an informed decision about how to buy stock photos and get the best value for your money.

Credits: The On-Demand Microstock Pricing Unit


The concept of microstock photography is essentially to buy low-priced stock photos via a minimum purchase (in fact, many people believe the “micro” in microstock refers to the super low prices of the images when it refers to “micropayment”: the minimum purchase requirement).

When iStockphoto inaugurated microstock in the early 2000s, they also introduced credits: the microstock pricing unit for single images. To get more detailed info, check our explanatory article on what are credits. 

Many of the big and most popular microstock agencies replicated this, and they all price their images in credits. Others like Shutterstock, Bigstock, or the newer Adobe Stock, don't use credits and price their images in USD instead, selling image packs on demand (that work similarly, cutting price per image the larger the pack is).

Credits help shape the micropayment system: microstock agencies set up the monetary price for their credit unit, and offer “credit packs”: different-sized bulk purchases for credits, that commonly apply a discount over regular credit price: the larger the credit pack, the lower the price per credit.

To buy photos, you must buy a credit pack, and then use the credits to pay for them.

Best Credit-Based Microstock Agencies

As said, many microstock agencies use the credit system for buying stock photos on demand. Here are the best stock photo sites selling images with credits.

fotolia by adobe logo 1 > Credits vs. Subscriptions: What's the Best Buying Option?
Individual credit price starts at $1.40. Image prices depend on image size, going from 1 to 10 credits each.
Learn more about the agency in our Fotolia review.  Sign up with Fotolia to start buying photos. And get our Fotolia Promo Code to get free credits!

Credit costs from $12 and down. Image price depends on type: non-exclusive, everyday needs images are 1 credit each. Exclusive, high-quality photos are 3 credits per image. Read more about the company in our full iStock review. Get your iStock membership to buy photos. And remember to grab our iStock Promo Code to save in your purchases!

Their credit price starts at $0.97. Their price per photo is between 1 credit and 10 credits depending on size. Know more about their offer in our full 123RF review. If you're ready to buy their photos, Sign Up for 123RF here.


DreamstimeTheir credit price starts from $1.36. Their cheapest single image prices are from 1 to 6 credits each, depending on image size. Find out more in our full Dreamstime review. To buy stock photos now, Sign Up for Dreamstime here.

3 Myths on Credits Revealed

3 myths > Credits vs. Subscriptions: What's the Best Buying Option?

There is a lot of inaccurate information out there about credits and how they work, that can easily confuse you and even discourage you from buying stock photos with credits. Here are the most common myths around microstock credits revealed and corrected.

  1. “Credits cost the same at all microstock agencies.” This is false. Although in general lines most companies try to level up their prices with the rest of the market, credits are not a universal-priced unit. Each agency sets up the price for their credits, as well as the minimum credit pack purchase and the discount applied to larger packs. You may of course find similarities and coincidences, but they are just that.
  2. “Credits expire.” This is only partially true. For many years, stock agencies' credits had an expiration date. As time went by this expiration date got more and more permissive. At the moment, some agencies make their credits expire one year after the purchase date. But at other agencies, like iStock for example, credits no longer expire. iStock's credits are valid to use forever, as long as you log in to your iStock account once a year.
  3. “Credits are way more expensive than subscriptions.” Not always. It depends on what credit pack you buy, and the on-demand and subscription prices at each agency. For example, large credit packs (of 200 or more credits) take the individual credit price to fractions of a dollar, and most large-volume subscriptions do the same with the price per image. If you take into account that at most microstock agencies a web resolution photo costs just 1 or 2 credits each, buying one image with a large credit pack wouldn't be that much more expensive than buying it with a subscription, but it would imply a much larger upfront payment.

Benefits of Using Credits

The main benefit of using credits is that you can control exactly how much you spend buying stock photos, without being further bound to a microstock agency.

You decide how many credits to buy, how many and what type of images to buy with them, and when to download them. It's a very straightforward system where you pay for your credit pack upfront and that's it. No periodic fees nor extra liaison between you and the company.

Now that credits have a longer life span, and in the case of iStock they never expire, they also offer you extra flexibility in time frames. With iStock you can use credits whenever you want, they never expire as long as you log in to your account once a year. With others, you have one year to use up all your credits before they are invalid, and although not unlimited that is still a very long time. This allows you to buy credits now and use them up at any time you need, without worrying about missing out on downloads.

Plus, agencies that sell other media besides still images, like video for example, commonly sell them on demand with credits too. iStock, for example, does this. So you get access to more content with credits, and you can decide whether to buy photos, footage, or both.

Credits are a great way to buy royalty-free images (stock photos) and control how many you want to buy, how much you'll spend, and when you'll download them. But it's a system that works better when you only need a few images, or when you only need to buy stock photos once or very sporadically.

Stock Photo Subscriptions: The Solution for Large Volume Buyers


When you need cheap stock photos constantly, and you need lots of them, the best option is to get a stock photo subscription.

Shutterstock was the company that pioneered this buying model in the early 2000s, and soon other microstock companies adopted it too. It's a system where you pay the agency a flat monthly fee to get to download a certain number of photos during that month. Learn more about this option in our dedicated article about what are stock photo subscriptions. 

This option takes image price down to fractions of a dollar and gives you hundreds of photos at a very affordable periodic fee. You pay once a month and you can just select and download all the images you need when you need them.

Subscriptions can have daily, weekly, or monthly limits on how many photos you get to download. Nowadays the most popular options are the ones that come with monthly limits, as they give greater flexibility.

At Shutterstock, as at several other agencies, you can also choose for how long you want to hire the subscription plan. The longer you commit, the better price you get. Commonly the longest plan is annual, and cuts a nice percentage from the monthly price (you can save around 20%), among other bonus features.

Best Subscription-Based Stock Agencies

Most microstock agencies offer subscriptions. Their offers may vary. Download limits can be daily, weekly, or monthly. And plans come in different volume sizes. Here are the best stock photo subscription sites.

Stockphotos Logo Tight Club Offers: The Club Easy plan gives you 200 XXL images for $99 ($0.49 per image) per year, with no monthly limits. The Club Plus offer gives you 500 XXL images for $199 ($.039 per image), also for one year. Finally, the Club Ultimate membership comes with 1,000 XXL images for $299 ($0.29 per image) to download in one year. These are great options if you have a small-to-medium-sized business and need stock photos cheap and fast. Even better, all of the plans have bonus image downloads during your first year, additional video downloads, image upscales, and vehicle templates at no added cost, and unlock an exclusive member's discount for Extended Licenses! And the ultimate good news? Our special coupon gives you 10 free photo downloads on top of your subscription!

Read more about the Club Easy subscription here and the other annual plans here. If you are ready to buy one of these great subscriptions, head over to now!


Shutterstock:Their most popular subscription is $249 a month for 750 photos ($0.33 per image). Their cheapest plan is annual, at $199 for 750 images monthly. Read our full Shutterstock review here. And you might also want to check our comprehensive review on Shutterstock Pricing. To buy a subscription, Sign Up with Shutterstock here. And remember to grab our special Shutterstock Coupon Code to save in your downloads!

Their cheapest subscription is $189 a month for 200 images monthly ($0.85 per image). But it's a month-to-month offer only. They have options with daily limits that can be hired annually too, 5 images per day for one year cost $639 ($0.35 per image). Read more in our full Bigstock review. Sign Up with Bigstock to choose your best subscription plan. Don't forget to redeem our special Bigstock Coupon Code to save more on your purchase!


iStock: Their recommended subscription is 100 everyday budget images a month for $149 ($1.49 per image). Their cheapest option is for 750 budget images per month with an annual plan, at $166.58 ($0.22 per image). They also have monthly and annual plans including exclusive, high-quality images. Learn more about it in our full iStock review. And you might also want to read our iStock vs. Shutterstock comparison. To buy a subscription, Sign Up with iStock here. And grab our special iStock Promo Code to save more money!

For more options, you might want to have a look at our Top 7 Cheapest Stock Photo Subscriptions comparison. 

3 Myths on Subscriptions Revealed

myths on subscription 1 > Credits vs. Subscriptions: What's the Best Buying Option?

Just as with credits, there's a lot of false or inexact information that can mislead a buyer when considering getting a stock photo subscription.  Here they are, revealed and corrected.

  1. “Subscriptions are only worth it if you need thousands of images.” This is false. First of all, as you read above, there are different volume sizes for subscriptions, some are just for 10, 25, or 50 images per month, and they still improve on-demand price significantly. Secondly, even if you won't get to use up your entire quota completely, in a lot of cases you are still paying less per photo than you would buy on demand. Plus, the rollover feature available at some stock agencies ensures you can keep your unused downloads, which also connects with myth #3, as you will soon read.
  2. “Only lower-quality images are available.” This is also false. Subscriptions give access to all kinds of images from the agency's library. iStock, which curates their library into non-exclusive, budget images and exclusive, high-quality images, has subscription options for both.
  3. “If you don't use up all your downloads, you're missing out on price.” Not always. Best stock photo subscription takes the price per image down to fractions of a dollar. Even if you miss out on a few images from your quota, you're still paying less compared to buying with credits (unless you buy a very large credit pack). Ultimately, most agencies offer annual plans that avoid the monthly expiration of downloads. For example,'s annual subscriptions eliminate monthly limits, meaning you can use up all your downloads from 12 months at any time you want within that period! iStock offers rollover of unused downloads with any automatically renewed subscription. Adobe Stock lets you roll over up to 120 downloads from month to month with an annual plan.

Benefits of Using Subscriptions

The main pro of stock photo subscription services is price. Depending on your stock subscription plan, you can get hundreds of photos for only a few cents each.

Plus, it makes buying stock photos simpler and faster. You just choose the best volume size subscription for you, set up payment and that's it. From then on all you need to do is to log in and download images every time you want.

Extra Benefits for Longer Commitment

As said above, the longer you are willing to commit to a stock photo agency, the greater value you get for your money. Longer-than-one-month subscriptions come with a discount in price and improve or eliminate download limits.

Annual subscription plans are commonly around 20% cheaper than monthly plans, sometimes more. Even better, they improve the month-to-month download limit. When hiring a subscription for one month, all the downloads you didn't use expire at the end of that month. But most agencies change this when you have a longer subscription, letting you include your unused downloads from one month into next month's quota.'s Club subscriptions give you a great deal with annual plans, by eliminating monthly download limits: you get 12 months' worth of downloads with no download limit within the year of your subscription.

Sometimes annual plans also include promotional discounts on other services. With a Club subscription, you get additional media downloads, access to AI tools, and special discounts on other licensing types. Adobe Stock offers their subscribers extra photos on demand at a cut price. And there are more similar bonuses at other agencies.

To buy stock photos with no membership can give you more control over your expenses, but to assume a longer commitment with a stock photo agency gives you better prices, and extra benefits, and eases your workflow.

Credits vs. Subscriptions – In the End, Which One is Best?


From all the above, the conclusion is that the option that suits you better depends on your needs and preferences as a buyer.

If you only need a couple of photos now and then, credits are a much better option for you. This way you can get exactly as many photos as you need, and credits are valid for one year and sometimes, like with iStock, forever.

Even if you need more than just a couple of photos, credits are a good choice if you don't want to be bound to one stock agency and you prefer to control exactly how much you spend on stock photos. And if you are willing to invest in large credit packs (that normally cost thousands of dollars) you will also get photos for less than a dollar each.

Now, if you need lots of photos periodically, then a cheap stock photo subscription is your best choice. This way you can get all the photos you need fast and easy, and you pay as little as fractions of a dollar each. The wide offer across different stock agencies assures you will find the right amount of photos per month you need, and annual plans will let you make your money count with greater benefits.

On the side of image price, subscriptions are the right option if you want to buy photos not only cheaply but easily too. If you don't mind assuming a longer-term commitment with a microstock company, you get much more for less money.

And you must keep in mind that subscriptions are not a super restrictive commitment. Most agencies work with very reasonable terms, allowing you to cancel your plan at any time with minimum costs.

Are you ready to buy stock photos? Which will be, credits or subscriptions?

Amos Struck
Amos Struck

Amos Struck, a renowned expert with over two decades in the stock photography industry, is known for his profound expertise in both stock imagery and artificial intelligence (AI). He is the founder of and a driving force behind the innovative AI-driven platform, His pioneering work in visual AI is marked by co-founding Ximilar AI. Amos also established the Microstock Expo Conference, a key event in the stock photography sector. As a regular speaker at major industry conferences like DMLA and a prominent member of CEPIC, he consistently contributes to the industry's growth and evolution through a blend of technological innovation and market insight.

  1. Nice summary Amos thank you! I have a question: As you wrote, at some agencies credit packages are valid for a year. So what if eg. 8 months later although I still have some credits but I decide to buy extra credits. Will my one year expiry date start again for all the credits I have including the old credits? Or will the system make difference between old and new credits by expiry date?

    • This is very hard to answer since every stock agencies have their own rules about their credits. iStock for example will not let them expire when you login ONCE a year. Others switched from expiring credits to non-expiring credits. But generally speaking I would say that credits you bought later will expire later. I hope that helps.

  2. Both options are stupid.

    If I’m going buy 4 images, I’ll pay for 4 images. If I’m going to buy 11 images, I’ll pay for 11 images, and how they decide. The credits option assumes I need 5 or 25 images, when I actually don’t. To subscribe I’ll have to pay monthly for ALMOST NOTHING.

    Sadly, most stock photo sites have this idiotic system.

    • Hi Igor, thank you for your opinion. While it can be “simpler” to buy images by the unit when you need only a small amount, the credits/download packs or subscription buying methods offer a way to save money, as they both cut the individual image price down and get more photos for the same price. Both of which are desirable for a lot of buyers.
      If you need 4 images, buying them individually would cost you, let’s say, $15 each, so $60 total. If you buy a pack of 5 images for $45, you’re paying $9 per image, saving yourself 15 bucks AND getting one more image simultaneously. With a subscription, the savings are more significant. (This example is made up, the prices don’t necessarily correspond to any particular agency).
      It is not ideal for everyone, that’s for sure. But those are the main benefits of the system for buyers.
      Thanks again for your comment!

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