First off, why use a paid service at all when so much free stuff is available? My main reason is that I know for certain that if I paid to use the image (these are all royalty-free image sites), that I will not have copyright problems down the road. This assurance is particularly important for print, but copyright problems can undo the best intentions of bloggers and website owners as well. So for book covers, both my own and those we design for Five Directions Press, I prefer paying a small amount now to avoid possible trouble and large amounts later. I do check places like Wikimedia Commons and the WANA Commons Group on Flickr; and if I'm very sure of the terms, I will use what I find there, giving due credit to the photographer or noting the status as public domain. Same goes for the sites (libraries, museums, government agencies, etc.) listed in my previous posts.
But if there is any ambiguity, I look for alternatives. For example, a gorgeous photo of a swan on a dark lake that I planned to make the basis of my cover for The Swan Princess appears on two different photo sites with two conflicting sets of copyright information: I stored them both for future reference, but to be safe, I will substitute a purchased photo when the time comes.
The three sites I'm discussing today differ in terms of price, availability of images, resolution, and requirements. As a result, each of them works well for different purposes.
Web (Blogs, Sites, Social Networks)
The least expensive is Clipart.com, which is great for blogs, websites, and posting to social networks. For about $12.50/month, if you sign up for a year at a time, you can download a ridiculously large number of images (up to 1,000/day), including photos, illustrations, vector images, clip art, and more. You don't have to sign up for a year, either. Subscriptions start at one month.
In addition to Photos.com, which I'll discuss in a minute, Clipart.com has an affiliated video site (Getty Images) and a link to Animation Factory, both available on the home page. I haven't used either, but they could be useful to bloggers and site designers.
Clipart.com also has fonts, although not many and not particularly interesting ones. It lets you search for multiple formats (GIF, EPS, JPG, PNG, Photoshop files, color vs. black and white, and more), categories, and creators. It has a lot of images and maps scanned in from old publications of various types, which is nice for historians and historical novelists. Almost all the images are low-resolution, which is fine for the Web, since computers don't care. And the selection is pretty good, although finding obscure things like "Tatars" can take a while.
Downloading's a snap. Click on the image, click on Download, and you're done. If there is copyright information, it appears on that download page. Often there isn't any. The site will produce a list of previous downloads on command, and the list includes all your Photos.com downloads. The link is on the home page whenever you're signed in.
Interior of Batu Khan's Tent
When you need a higher-resolution photograph, or even want to see what else is available that won't break your budget, try Photos.com. The Clipart site announces that images at its affiliate start at $1.99, but you have to buy a pretty big package for that. Ten images cost $34.99, which seems pretty reasonable, and you can choose high or low resolution. Twenty-five images cost $80.00, fifty images $134.99 ($2.70/image). One will set you back $7.99. You have twelve months from the time you sign up to download all the images you've paid for. Photos.com offers subscriptions, too, but they seem pricier than the Clipart version. Most images come in two sizes for the Web and one for print, but some are Web only.
I've found a couple of great shots on Photos.com: a fine alternative for the swan problem mentioned above; this great shot of a Kazakh tent, destined to adorn my cover for The Winged Horse (sequel to The Golden Lynx and about 1/5 of the way through its first draft); and another beautiful shot of Hampton Court for the back cover of Courtney J. Hall's soon-to-debut novel Saving Easton.
Tent on the Steppe, Kazakhstan
The site has illustrations and clip art as well as photographs. The main drawback for me is that the photographs themselves are often not as dramatic as Shutterstock's, nor is the selection as wide-ranging. You have to search several times with different combinations of words to ensure you've identified all the options. For a cover image I'd check Shutterstock as a backup, just to be sure. Photos.com excels in terms of flexibility and affordability, though.
Again, downloading is simple. Click on the image you want, and a page opens with full copyright information (I print the page and save it to PDF for future reference, not least so that I can match the file numbers to the images). Choose the resolution you want and click Download. When you cite the image, you say © <Photographer>/Photos.com.
Shutterstock has low-resolution images as well as high-resolution ones, but at $7–10 per image, who can afford to subscribe just to feed a blog or a website? Sure, you can get a subscription—if you happen to have a spare $249/month ($2,559/year). I don't, so I buy the 5-image/$49 pack and let it auto renew. I download the large size and reduce it as needed with Photoshop's phenomenal "Save for Web and Devices" feature. And while I have a few Shutterstock downloads floating around that I decided didn't work as well as I'd hoped, I try to avoid that problem by making extensive use of the site's wonderful light boxes (Photos.com has a light box, too, but everything goes in one place, whereas Shutterstock lets me set up different light boxes for different subjects).
Shutterstock has, without a doubt, the most beautiful and most varied photographs of any site I've tried, and it's blissfully easy to browse, search, and use. There's a free iPad app if you happen to be an iPad owner. It works great for browsing and adding photos to light boxes for downloading onto your computer next time you're signed in.
Shutterstock also has a quirk not found on the other two sites: you have not only to download all the images in your pack within a year but also to use any individual image within six months of downloading. Once you do, you confirm your right to use it thereafter. If you don't, you lose it. Why a site that charges per image objects to stockpiling downloads, I can't figure out. Maybe the problem has to do with the subscription plans, where you can download 25 images a day, and I misunderstood the small print. In any case, I am safeguarding my right to use the photos below, since the books they're intended to illustrate may not see the light for a while.
Horse on the Steppe
Mute Swan, Swimming
Shutterstock also has two kinds of licenses: Standard, which lets you reproduce an image 25,000 times; and Enhanced, which allows unlimited reproductions. Enhanced costs an additional $199. If I ever sell 25,000 books, I figure I'll have no trouble justifying the cost for the Enhanced license.
Downloading is easy—similar to Photos.com, as is obtaining a list of prior downloads. Copyright information is readily available, although the exact wording the service expects is not clearly laid out. I settled on © <Photographer>/Shutterstock, although earlier I used Shutterstock and the image number.
So that's my take on these three services. If you have experience with others, please leave a comment. I'd love to know about them!
All these photographs are copyrighted, so please do not borrow and use them without permission: Kazakh tent © Konstantin Kikvidze/Photos.com; Hampton Court © Anthony Baggett/Photos.com; Horse on the steppe © andreiuc88/Shutterstock; Pegasus © Nataliia Rashevska/Shutterstock; Swan © David Benton/Shutterstock; Olive trees © Anna Subbotina/Shutterstock. Many thanks to all the photographers and to the services that host them.