Cheap royalty free photos of a suitably high quality are a relatively new phenomenon. In the not-too-distant past, image research was a time consuming, costly exercise. Images would generally be delivered as transparencies or prints which would then have to be sent out to a reprographic house for drum scanning, because the in-house flat bed scanner wasn't nearly good enough.
If you want a quick answer to the question: "Where do I find cheap royalty free photos", visit Dreamstime.com. I find what I need there 9 times out of ten. They supply good quality and very cheap royalty free photos. If you want to explore more libraries, read on.
Things have changed a bit since then. Like so many other things the Internet has transformed the way we search for and purchase images. The time it takes to find the right image for a job has been slashed, and we now have the added convenience of the royalty free download - but the price has not necessarily gone down as a result.
Some of the big image suppliers like Getty and Corbis still provide fantastic imagery, but at a high price. The royalty free route is still less expensive, but often the pictures that are of the best quality will be 'rights managed', meaning you'll be more restricted in their usage and they'll carry a much higher price tag.
I've used all the images libraries listed here at one time or another; there are many more out there waiting to be discovered! Below are some very general libraries; others specialise in niche areas, like the excellent Science Photo Library.
Most royalty free image suppliers will offer collections or bulk orders with significant discounts, so if you're looking for a single graphic it usually pays to buy a CD of images which includes the one you want. This'll cost a little more but will be a massive saving should you use any of the other images on the CD for another project.
Some image libraries offer a subscription service, allowing you to download as many images as you like for a fixed monthly or annual fee. Again, this can be great value if you're going to use those images for financial gain. Otherwise you'll just end up with a bunch of photos that'll never see the light of day.
If you need a very specific image, you may need to commission a photographer to create it for you - or take it yourself if you're so inclined. In our studio we do a lot of product photography in-house (for catalogues, brochures, ads etc). For this we found a great solution in the Lastolite Cubelight. This fabric cube creates a completely white environment, allowing us to poke a lens through a hole in the zip-up door and take photos of well-lit objects. The results are excellent.
In our opinion though, the best value you'll find for cheap royalty free photos and images are through our two favourite image libraries:
Dreamstime is one of the best we have found for cheap royalty free photos and stock images. Anyone can submit photos or graphics - whether they're amateur or professional - but the quality is high overall because all images go through a selection process. The principle is sound - photographers will supply according to demand (you can see what the most popular searches are). They get a percentage of the sale of their images which are sold as cheap royalty free photos or more expensive rights managed images depending on the buyer's requirements. This means that there's an enormous and ever-expanding library of cheap royalty free photos available, starting at absurdly low prices when compared to some of the big hitters.
You might even like to submit some images yourself. Here are some of the images I've had accepted to Dreamstime: Tinstar Dreamstime Images.
Every time one of my photos sells on Dreamstime I get the commission added to my account which I can either convert to credits (to buy more images), or which'll be paid to me by cheque. This means that this site is not only useful, but profitable and fun!
If you find any more good sources for cheap royalty free photos, let us know by e-mailing email@example.com. Good hunting!