Credits is the name given to the pricing unit used by microstock agencies to offer buyers to purchase stock photos on demand, without any further commitment with the company.
Microstock agencies price their images in credits. And they sell you credits for you to purchase the images you want. Fotolia, iStock, 123RF and Dreamstime, among others, are microstock agencies using this system.
There is, however some agencies, like Shutterstock, Bigstock, Depositphotos or the newer Adobe Stock, that don't use credits, and they price their images in US dollars or Euros, selling them on demand individually or in image packages.
What's the Benefit in Using Credits?
Credit price varies depending on the agency, but they all usually offer discount credit packages that you can pay upfront. These packs reduce unitary credit price significantly, allowing you to buy stock photos cheaper, with a minimum upfront investment.
Microstock agencies use this system to allow small-to-medium businesses and individuals, and one-time buyers, the opportunity to buy stock photos at affordable prices and in a quick and simple manner.
With credit purchases you don't have to assume a commitment with the agency and you won't be charged with periodic fees, like you would be with a stock photo subscriptions. This gives you greater freedom and lets you control how much you want to spend and when. If you want to learn more about the pros and cons of the two buying models in microstock, and the best agencies to buy with each, read our Credits vs. Subscriptions full comparative review.
For all these benefits, the introduction of credits as a buying system increased the use of stock photography agency services, particularly in the small-to-medium budget buyers segment.
How do I purchase credits?
To buy credits (to buy stock photos) at a microstock agency, you will need to create an account on the agency's website. But don't worry: at practically all stock photo agencies, sign up for an account is free. You're not obliged to make any purchases.
After you get your free membership (that usually takes only a couple minutes), you can buy credits, with multiple payment options. Each agency offers their own discount credit packs, commonly starting at 3 or 5 credits and up to large packs of 200 or more credits. In general lines, the larger the pack is, the greater discount it applies.
Once you've selected and paid for a credit pack, the amount of credits you purchased are accredited in your account, and you can use them instantly to pay for stock photos, vectors, illustrations, video and all kinds of media types that the agency offers.
Credits that you haven't used remain in your member account, and are valid to use for up to one year from the purchase date. An exception to this happens in iStock microstock agency: their credits are valid forever, as long as you log in to your account once a year from the moment you bought them.
You must keep in mind credits are unstransferable: only the person who bought them can use them, they cannot be shared, gifted nor transferred to other members nor to third parties.
How Many Credits Should I Buy?
As said before, at most agencies, the more credits you buy upfront, the cheaper each credit costs, and therefore the less you pay for stock images.
And credits are valid for up to one year. This gives you great time flexibility, with such a long life span it's likely that you will have the chance to use all your credits before they expire.
But you must have your individual buyer needs in mind when deciding what credit pack size to buy, because sometimes although the larger packs let you save more, if you won't be using the credits in the end you'd be missing out in price.
If you think you only need to buy images this one time, then the best option would be to buy the credit pack that matches the amount of images you need, so you can use them all up.
If you want to taste the waters in stock photo buying, or in a particular agency, it's recommended to buy a small credit pack to explore the agency's offer in images and how the system works, and add larger packs or a stock photo subscription once you're sure the service works well for your needs.
How Much Do Stock Photos Cost in Credits?
This too depends on each individual stock agency. Most of them price their images per size/resolution, others price them according to the content value (non-exclusives and exclusives, like iStock).
XS size images usually cost just 1 credit, which depending on the agency and the credit pack you bought, costs roughly between $1 and $2, and can be much cheaper with the larger credit packs. And this size is often sufficient for a website, business card, banner add or 200×200 web sidebar advertisement, for example.
Larger image size/resolution have a higher price, and again, the larger the credit pack you have, the cheaper each individual photo will cost.
But you must keep in mind that stock photo subscriptions, although requiring a longer-term commitment and to assume periodic charges, are a great deal that takes price per image to as low as a few cents each. If you will need stock photos constantly and/or in large volume, it's worth for you to review and analyse the benefits of a subscription. Again, to confront the features in the different buying options, have a look at our Credits vs. Subscriptions comparative article.
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.