So you need some high-quality photos for your upcoming social media post –or your blog post, graphic design for your marketing campaign, or graphics for your apps….–. You go to one of the best stock photography sites to buy photos cheap and easy, but once on it, you see the words “credits” and “credit packs” everywhere. What in the world?
Stock photo credits may at first be a bit confusing to work out. But it’s actually a rather straightforward system with interesting benefits for you if you’re into buying a small number of images at the lowest possible cost, or if you want to buy pictures outside of a time frame.
Next, we explain everything there is to know about credits in the stock photo industry and how to use them wisely. Let’s go!
Simply put, stock photo credits are fictional money. Each agency assigns the individual monetary value they want for this currency unit and prices their images in credits, then you pay for credits to download photos.
These are the main agencies that sell stock photos under a credits system:
For more details on them and more options, have a look at our big guide with 20+ Best Stock Photo Sites!
The average credit program usually works like this: Agencies sell you the credits in the form of credit packs of different size. Like this, they establish a minimum purchase limit, essential for their business.
You then select and download images of your choice from their library, and the corresponding credits are deducted from your pack. Plus, credit packs apply a discount over unitary price, the bigger the pack, the greater the discount.
Yes, we know: the stock photo credit program adds an extra step to the whole buying photos process. But it’s actually as simple as we described and you’ll find it has some nice bright points for you!
Buying stock images with credits has three main benefits for you:
- It saves you money and lets you control your spending: The credit pack you choose will determine how much each individual credit will cost you, and thus how much you’ll pay per image. By deciding how much to invest upfront, you can manage your budget and save money all at once
- It gives you time flexibility: Depending on the agency, credit packs are valid for one year and sometimes they directly never expire. So you make an upfront investment but get a lot of flexibility regarding when and how to use your downloads
- It allows freedom in the purchase and makes stock photos accessible for small and one-time-buyers: Cheap stock photo agencies work with volume deals so you can struggle when you need only a few files or you have a limited budget. Credit packs mean you can spend the minimum and download even just one or two photos if you wish, without further charge, and still get a great price for them instead of having to invest in a subscription plan and pay for downloads you don’t really need, assume commitments you don’t want, or be left out if you can’t afford it
See? It might mean a couple of extra clicks here and there but in the end, the credits system has its perks!
Are Credits the Only Way?
Of course not! If you don’t wish to buy stock photos with credits, you have three alternatives.
Stock photo subscriptions – These are monthly or annual plans with a preset number of downloads for a fixed fee. Mind you they’re considerable better priced than credits (annual subscription tends to have the lowest rates of all) but they imply a long-term commitment with an agency and plans usually come with a large number of downloads. Check out our useful Credits vs. Subscriptions comparative article for more insights on this.
Image packs – Some agencies simplify the transaction a bit by using image packs, which are virtually the same as credit packs but instead of using a fictional currency they just sell you a number of “downloads”. Agencies like Stock Photo Secrets Shop, Shutterstock, Depositphotos and Bigstock operate like this.
Single image purchase – Very few agencies actually let you buy just one photo, paying it in “cash” without further ado. Adobe Stock enables this option, for example, but photos bought like this are much pricier in comparison.
The way to buy stock photos at microstock, top stock photo sites takes a few steps, but it’s really nothing complicated.
First things first, you will need to create a member/user account in the chosen agency’s platform. Don’t worry, though, as practically all the best stock photo sites offer free signup with no obligation to buy anything. Creating an account is as easy-peasy as to enter a valid email address, username and password, and confirm the registration (usually by clicking on a confirmation email).
Once you’re signed up, you can check the site’s plans and pricing page to find all the credit pack options they offer. Most agencies display details on the total savings for each pack, sometimes including how many photos you can buy with each. So simply select the pack you want and hit the “buy” button to launch the payment process.
This is a pretty standard online purchase: you will be required to enter your personal data and payment information – most agencies today support all main credit cards as well as PayPal for your convenience. Complete the info and confirm the transaction like you normally do.
Once the payment is processed (today this shouldn’t take more than minutes) you receive your newly acquired credit pack in your account, ready to use immediately. From that moment on until the expiration date (if there is one) or until they’re consumed, you can use your credits to download pictures of your choice and their cost will be deducted from your pack.
Must-Knows to Buy Photos with Credits
- In most cases you can buy more than one credit pack at once, as well as credit packs and subscriptions simultaneously
- When buying credits you will be charged only once, for the amount you selected. No further charges, no longstanding commitment to the agency
- Credits are non-transferable, meaning you can’t share them, gift them or transfer them to anyone else. They are to be used by you only.
- At many agencies, with the same credits, you can download images (photos) illustrations (vectors), sometimes also templates, footage, and other media assets for your creative and commercial projects, instinctively.
See some examples on this last point:
iStock – Their assets are priced according to collection (content value) and media type:
In this agency, a package of 36 credits would buy you:
- Up to 36 Essential images
- Up to 12 Signature images
- Up to 6 Essential videos
- Up to 2 Signature videos
EXCLUSIVE: 25% OFF LARGE CREDIT PACKS AT ISTOCK – Our new and exclusive offer from iStock lets you save 25% off the regular price in packs from 18 credits and up. Don't miss it!
For more information, read our guide with iStock pricing explained
Do keep in mind that credits are one of the ways to download iStock images without watermarks to use in your designs!
Adobe Stock – Their files are priced according to collection (content value), resolution, and media type. On their pricing page, you can clearly see what you could buy with each credit pack. A bundle of 40 credits affords you up to 8 premium images and as many as 5 HD videos.
You can use credits whenever obviously. But there are a few instances when it definitely makes sense to go for this buying model.
You only need stock photo(s) this once – Say you’re studying graphic design in college and you need an image for an important class assignment but you’re given visual material for everything else. Or that you are penning a guest post for a blog and they asked you to include a high quality image in your text. In these and other similar cases, you’ll want a stock image with all the appropriate rights for commercial use. Credits are a good way to get said image without overspending.
You don’t know exactly when you’ll need photos – What if you are marketing your new business but are not yet sure how often you’ll need new visuals? Or you want to see how your social media channel performs by adding a photo here and there but you aren’t ready to get full on with it? You’ll likely need photos every now and then, but predicting exactly when that’ll be is tricky. So a subscription is not the best option for you as you’ll be risking to miss out in non refundable downloads. If you buy a credit pack, you’ll have access to freshly new pictures for at least a year and you’ll save some money by buying a bigger credit pack. All-around convenient.
You work with a small or irregular budget – Perhaps you know you can only allow yourself to spend a little amount in quality photos, be it because that’s all you have, or because you’re not certain when the next cash injection will come along (this can be the case for a beginning artist or creative, a student, a startup entrepreneur..). In this circumstance, buying credits is a good way to access the pictures you need without investing too much and without worrying about recurring charges.
You like to keep a tight grasp on your expenses – If you’re the type who likes to watch every cent in and out of your account like a hawk, credits are a good fit for your stock photo budget because they’re very easy to track and control, allowing you to always know exactly how much you spend, and when.
The answer to this question resides in your individual buyer needs. As you just saw, both the number of photos you require and the amount of money you’re willing to pay for them are relevant factors to help you decide how many credits you should buy to make the best out of your purchase. In general lines:
- If you only need photos once, buy the minimum necessary. It is pointless to buy more credits than required. You’d either spend in something you have no use for, or even worse end up losing unused credits after they expire.
- If you want to test the service in an agency, buy a small credit pack. That way you can experience the full functionality of the site (search engine, image collection, download system, photo quality) for a small investment and if you like it you can move onto bigger credit packs or a subscription for extra savings.
- If you are in for the usage flexibility, go for a big pack. If you know you’ll use stock photos but you don’t know exactly when you can take advantage of the bulk purchase discount to save in the long run. Invest in the biggest credit pack you can afford and download images for less throughout a whole year or even without time limit.
This answer is also variable, as it depends on each individual microstock agency. Each of them has different criteria for pricing, both for images and for credits.
Commonly, stock photos are priced according to resolution/size, or content value (non-exclusive, exclusive, premium, etc.).
And as we mentioned a couple of times, credits have a base unitary price with the minimum purchase pack, that tends to go lower the more you invest upfront.
Like this, stock images on demand can cost between $1 and $35 in average, depending on which agency you used, which resolution and content value the photo has, and what credit pack you selected.
Keep in mind nowadays most agencies offer HD quality photos at really low rates, but a small image is often sufficient for a website, business card, banner ad or 200×200 web sidebar advertisement, for example.
Are These the Cheapest Stock Photo Prices?
No, they aren’t. Buying stock photos on demand, be it with credits or other alternatives listed above, is actually the most expensive option in microstock photography sites.
The lowest per-image rates are found in stock photo subscriptions. There we are talking about as little as $0.25 per download, depending on the plan you get. However, that buying model means acquiring a long-term commitment and assuming periodic charges.
It certainly makes sense if you need a fair amount of stock photos constantly, so it’s worth for you to review and analyse the benefits of a subscription if that’s your case.
You can confront the features in the different buying options, in our Credits vs. Subscriptions comparative article.
If you want to make sure an agency's service is right for you before investing in credits, make use of any of these stock photo free trials.
So this is all the basic knowledge you need to have to understand what are credits, how they work, and how can you use them in your favour to buy stock photos at the best possible prices and in the most convenient way for your needs.
If you're you opting for buying stock photo credits, your best choices are:
And make sure to check out our list of the 20+ Best Stock Photo Sites Ever too!