16 Sep 2015 The Evolving Business Models of Free Stock Photos

It wasn’t long ago that every free photo website worked the same way: a searchable database of free images, supported by displaying ads or upselling paid images.

But now things are starting to change. From monetization strategies to delivery methods to content quality, free stock photo sites have evolved, and new models are becoming popular.

How It Was Then

In the past, they were basically online databases to search and download free photos. Libraries were massive, with hosts throwing in any free images they could find—donations, photos shot by site owners, public domain content—alongside a “premium” selection of images, often sourced through microstock agencies’ affiliate programs, that the site would try to upsell.

How It Is Now

Today, a new business model is emerging. It consists of delivering small periodic packs of free photos to subscribers, often via e-mail. The photos are either shot by site owners or sourced from other photographers, but in all cases they are high quality, well-shot images in popular categories, with a lot of commercial value.

Instead of distribution partnerships, this kind of system generates revenue through subscriptions for premium content or larger collections, and the free samples often serve as merely advertising for related paid services.

Popular Free Stock Sites

There is a large variety of sites in this space, from the ones still following the old model to the latest ones using the new structure explained above. Here’s a list of the most relevant free photo sites, qualified by their ranking in the Alexa top 100,000 and roughly ordered from old business models to new business models:

FreeImages.com: Over 390K photos available. They upsell iStock images.

Pixabay: Library of 450K images, and they upsell Shutterstock images.

Every Stock Photo: Huge collection of 39M images. They monetize through Fotolia’s affiliate program.

Morgue File: They have 361K images, with affiliate links to 6 stock agencies.

Free Digital Photos: On this site, only small images are free; higher-resolution versions are paid.

SplitShire: Free photos by photographer Daniel Nanescu. The site sells a $20/year Dropbox delivery service.

Death to the Stock Photo: Email delivery only. 10 high-res images per month for subscribers, grouped by a theme or category. All photos are shot by the site owners and one contributing photographer. $15 a month subscription for access to 400+ premium photos. Part of the incomes are used to fund new shoots from the owners and external photographers.

PicJumbo:  Images by Victor Hanacek. Free samples available on site. $10 monthly subscription for 30+ new photos a month, plus access to full collection via Dropbox.

Unsplash: 10 new high quality images every 10 days. Photographers are credited and have profile pages on site. It’s a great referral source for the owners’ graphic design startup.

StockSnap.io: They curate free photos from web, crediting photographers and linking to their business profiles. It was created to direct traffic to a graphic design business.

Gratisography: Small collection of 226 images, all by Ryan McGuire. The site includes a donation link, but it primarily serves as a promotion page for the owner’s design business.

StockVault: 60K images available. They’re partnered with related services companies, which they link to. For contributors, they process donations and share and Google Adsense revenue.

Stokpic: Offers 583 images and counting. Delivers 10 new photos fortnightly via email. Features and sponsors contributor photographers. Links to a paid stock photo site.

Pexels: Features 3,500 curated images,  adding 10 new photos daily. Provides a good search engine. Also includes a free stock video platform. Monetizes through ads via Carbon (premium ad service).

Life of Pix: Has very few images. Connected to a separate page for free stock footage: Life of Vids. Revenue is generated via ads only.

StartupStockPhotos: Specialized in startup office environment images. They don’t sell anything; all of their revenue comes from ads and donations. The site is hosted on Tumblr and doesn’t include a search function.

Jay Mantri: Has a very small collection, all photos by Jay Mantri. The site links to the photographer’s social profiles and has a commercial inquiries tab.

Magdeleine: This site is sponsored by Bluehost and monetizes through ads by Carbon.

As you can see, there are still plenty of sites leveraging the old free images strategy, but more and more are coming up with innovative new ways to both reach their target audiences and convert their traffic into revenue.

Which model do you think is the most effective?

  • Peter
    Posted at 17:40h, 16 September Reply

    Hey Lee, you forgot http://www.rgbstock.com which was started by some former SXC.hu members a few years ago 🙂
    (Alexa rank: approx 55k)

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 22:16h, 16 September Reply

      Thanks Peter, a great addition. And upselling StockFresh too! 🙂

  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 10:47h, 23 September Reply

    The problem with almost all free photos are:
    1) you dont have PR/MR and many such photos contain problematic content
    2) many free sites have very uncertain origin of photos which potentially could be stolen or redistributed illegaly
    3) many free stock sites have really awful photo quality.

    Actually, Im now testing the free websize resolution + paid packs of full res photos. We shall see how it works and it might be fine. However, I have almost 8 years experience in microstock and I do not offer any photos with trademarks, logos, persons without MR etc.

  • jonathan
    Posted at 16:57h, 08 July Reply

    I have a question:

    How do I make money by subtmitting my work to this websites that offer photos for free ?

    I have seen authors with thousands of pictures listed in their portofolio inside these online services.

    Do they really work for free ? I mean, some single HQ images offered for free, are usually sold for hundreds of dollars in paid sites (not the same pic but also ver HQ images)

    How is this possible ?

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