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A beginners guide to free stock photos: Part One

Girl smiling on cell phone
Normally a stock photo like this will cost you $50 (Web) to $200 (print). At Dreamstime it’s selling for the everyday low price of . . . free.

Perhaps one of the most significant bummers of running a shoestring venture is that “free” is often the highest price you can swing. And in those rare times it isn’t, you still have to husband your dollars very carefully.

There’s little doubt that at some point in your business, you’re going to need some pictures or illustrations to liven up a brochure, print ad, Web site, or funky old PowerPoint. At that point, you’ll almost certainly turn to stock photo Web sites which offer photos and illustrations for use by anyone willing to pay an often modest fee. Sure, millions of other people are probably using the same photo or illustration, but at least you don’t put any great stress on your pocketbook. Because of this low cost, stock photos and illustrations are one of the great unheralded revolutions wrought by the Internet. Since the advent of stock photo sites (the first major one was Photodisc), we have been drowned in a Noah’s flood of stock images. Every time you turn your head you’re looking at some piece of stock pasted into an annual report or print ad (I, for one, am convinced that stock photos are aliens and they are infiltrating all our annual reports and Web sites in order to take over the world.)

Here’s how stock images work. You go to a stock image site (such as Getty or Corbis), register an account, search their images, find the image you need at the resolution you require, pay for the image, and then download it.

Stock images come in two types: royalty-free and licensed. When you buy a royalty-free image, it’s yours to use forever and ever and wherever. When you buy a “licensed” or “rights-limited” image, you only buy the rights to use it once, in one place, and for a certain time period. The cost of a rights-limited image is often determined by how many copies will be printed or how long you need to use the image on a Web site or presentation. With fees ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, only folks like Jeff Immelt routinely spring for them. (Rights-limited images do have one significant advantage: for a very, very hefty fee you can buy exclusive rights to the image, which means no-one else can buy rights.

Typically a Web or presentation quality royalty-free image disappears about fifty to seventy bucks from your bank account. A print-quality image will extort a couple hundred bucks or more out of your hide. You might finagle a bargain by purchasing a hundred or so images for three or four hundred bucks, but then you’re stuck with a whole bunch of images you didn’t need (unless you’re a designer, in which case you’ll probably end up using even the garbagiest images on the disc). The two images that we use on our book, Shoestring Venture: The Startup Bible, are royalty-free images costing $400 bucks each for the resolution we needed.

Fortunately, stock images seem to follow the same general law that affects all things Internet: “content wants to be free.” Discount stock images operations have popped up for the last seven years and a large number offer free stock. Just like video, digital photography has put powerful tools in the hands of rank amateurs. Whenever you democratize content production, prices drop to zero. You will often find completely fine images meeting your needs without putting any strain whatsoever on your wallet. The quality, however, is iffy — most of what you’ll find on the free sites are several cuts below the image quality on the pay sites. However, when you’re talking about either paying Getty or Corbis seventy hard-earned dollars or paying stock.xchng zero dollars . . . well, you do the math.

Before we tour the free stock image sites, let’s take a few minutes to compare quality and selection between a site like Corbis and a site like stock.xchng. For this purpose, I’ve chosen as my artistic theme the most tried, true, hackneyed, and unimaginative business stock image in the entire solar system: the HANDSHAKE:

Handshake picture

You’ve seen the HANDSHAKE a million times on the Web, in annual reports, brochures — it is, in fact, the commanding officer of the alien stock invasion of earth. Right now, as you read this, some designer — or client — is saying, “Hey! Let’s use a handshake image to show (pick one: business success, a successful deal, good customer service, teamwork, peace in the Middle East, or just make one up).” In fact, statistically, the HANDSHAKE is being comped into an annual report, brochure, PowerPoint, or Web site every 2.1 minutes somewhere in the world (I know this is factually correct because I made it up).

If you go to Corbis, the number one stock image company in the world (owned by Microsoft, of course), and look for a handshake picture, you’ll scare up something close to 10,000 pictures. Businesspeople shaking hands. Doctors shaking a patient’s hand. Realtors shaking hands with buyers. Bakers shaking hands with orangutans. If it involves two living things, then somewhere, somehow, Corbis has a picture of them shaking hands.

And here’s what the typical Corbis handshakes look like. Not, mind you, the best, just typical, average, run-of-the-mill:

We’ll start with your basic seen-it-a-million-times handshake image:

Handshake picture

And the ever-peppy “happy businesspeople in happy businessland” handshake:

Handshake picture

And let’s not forget the “Put ‘er there, partner!”:

Handshake picture

Admit it, you’ve seen this garbage from here to Memphis.

Each of these Corbis images will cost you $55 for resolutions suitable for the Web or PowerPoint presentations and about $250 for resolutions suitable for printing (say, in an uninspired brochure or one-sheet). All of them, I might add, are also available on Getty for about the same price.

But take the time to really look at the images. They may not be inspiring, but they are professional. Note the contrast, lighting, and the angle of the shots. In the first, the photographer isn’t coming at the image at a perpindicular, but from the side and slightly below. In the third, “put ‘er there” picture, not only is the photographer’s angle interesting, the model’s entire body is bent forward at an angle giving the hand momentum, forward movement, and drama.

Pay particular attention to the way photographers use contrast, that is, placing extremely light elements against extremely dark ones. Take the “put ‘er there” photo again. Light background, light hands and collar, but a dark, nearly black suit which completely frames the hands. This not only creates drama, it makes the forward-moving hand highly visible and the center of the viewer’s attention. The hand pops out of the photo because of the composition and the chiarascuro. Mosey on back to the first photo. Same thing. Dark background, dark suits, light hands. All you see is handshake popping out of the picture.

And note how the lighting is even throughout all three pictures. Look at the face in the second picture: evenly lit, clear facial features with no distracting shadows. Pros choose models that take light and shadow well on their faces (most of the rest of us hoi polloi do not photograph well because we don’t really light well). Then they take the trouble to get the lighting correct.

So what does stock.xchng have to offer? Is it the same quality?

With nearly 400,000 photos, stock.xchng will often get you pretty close on any of your stock image needs (however, many of those photos are istockphoto images, which aren’t free). However, the free photos are almost universally amateur photos and, if you’re a designer or a photographer, you can see that they’re decidedly a cut below the professional stuff.

But you decide. When you search “handshake” on stock.xchng, you get back 33 images, of which 10 are istockphoto images which require a small fee (usually a few bucks).

Here’s the best free image of your basic handshake:

Handshake picture

The white background is nice (it also has the virtue of making it easy to cut out the arms and hands to place them against a different background). The contrast is effective: light background, dark suits, easily visible hands, so the focus works well.

But compare it to the Corbis image. If it looks like it lacks the life and oomph of the Corbis image, you’re right. It is, for all practical purposes, just the bare facts of a handshake. Where does it go wrong? Why does it look like these two really aren’t shaking hands?

Well, for one, they aren’t. The models are loosely gripping hands. Breathe in the direction of these hands and they’ll come apart. But note the camera angle — the photographer is shooting the handshake straight on from a ninety-degree angle. That’s typical of inexperienced or untalented photographers. Amateur photographers tend to think in perpindicular angles only — shoot straight at the object. Pros almost never think in perpindiculars, but use the entire range of angles along both axes of a two-dimensional picture. (Go ahead, look at the angle the Corbis photog uses).

And if you want drama and life, the standard way to do it is to put light (foreground) against dark (background). Dark against light doesn’t quite swing it.

But don’t forget: as a free image (for both Web and print), this is a perfectly fine.

Let’s move on to a “put ‘er there” image (there’s only one)

Handshake picture

This isn’t bad. Contrast is nice, the angle is interesting, and the framing puts all focus on the hand. And the red tie is a very nice touch of color and interest.

But, again, compare it to the typical Corbis picture above with all its forward movement and “body drama.” Here, the model is rigidly straight and there’s no real forward movement to the hand. In fact, the model seems to be falling away from the viewer like he’s tipping backwards. It’s more like a “quick, grab my hand before I fall over!” picture. And check out his left hand: his suit doesn’t fit! The sleeve goes halfway down his hand! Is he wearing his dad’s suit?

And it’s never, ever, never, not once, not in a million years a good idea to shoot a “put ‘er there” picture at the level of the model’s crotch, unless you want your picture to also say, “thank you, partner, let me help you up off your knees.” (Even pros get this one wrong.)

But a perfectly good picture for the amazingly low price of free. It’s just, well, not as good as the Corbis or Getty lineup.

But look at the little treasures from two separate amateur photographers that came up in the search:

Baby and mother hands

Baby and mother hands

They are decidedly not handshake pictures, but they are simply wonderful in all the things that make photography wonderful (well, the first one is nice, but the second one is wonderful as a stock image). Framing, lighting, contrast, angle, composition, texture — they are dramatic, touching, and have feeling and life. The high contrast and use of shadows give the photos intense focus and definition. And compare the angles from which each photographer shoots the image — especially the second one. One of the major reasons the second photograph is so excellent, lively, dramatic, and emotional, is that the photographer’s angle onto the subject (the first is 90 degrees on one axis, but the second has no perpindiculars).

That’s the thing about free stock image sites — you wade through a whole pile of completely useless photos, find a few that are useful but a cut below the pros, and a few treasures that approach or exceed the quality of vendors such as Corbis or Getty.

To be continued
In tomorrow’s post, we go on a short tour of the better free stock sites. Keep your eyes peeled!

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One Response to “A beginners guide to free stock photos: Part One”

  1. Henry Rivers says:

    Lesson 2 – don’t forget free trials – a good way to get pro-standard content in bulk.

    Most well known one is http://depositphotos.com/ but there is also now a good one at http://www.ingimage.com – started in February I think.

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