With budgets growing ever tighter, the ability to hire photographers for custom photo work is virtually gone for many designers, especially freelancers. Sites like Getty Images made a name for themselves by offering high-quality stock photography at an affordable price, those prices have gone up significantly over the years, and reached a point where they’re nearly out of reach again.

Enter the era of affordable stock, and user-contributed photo sites. With digital camera prices reaching all-time lows, and the quality more than adequate, the average person can provide some very good shots. There are now hundreds of sites on the web that offer fantastic photography for little to no cost.

Affordable stock photography sites

Some fantastic sites for affordable photography

I’ve put together a brief list of some of my favorites below, check them all out.

Probably the first place to search for your photo needs. stock.xchng offers photos contributed by amateur and semi-pro photographers all over the world. The quality of the photos ranges from decent to excellent, and while some photos require you to notify the photographer if you wish to use the image publicly, most images are completely free.

Photocase is a community made up of creative, ambitious users and photographers. Started by a small handful of designers, Photocase has gained a reputation for creative and high-quality photography. Images can be purchased using a credit system, not my favorite way to buy images, but they are affordable. (Photocase is an advertiser here at The Graphic Mac)

Freerange offers a high-quality photos with a focus on quality and creativity. Because Freerange is so particular by the photos they shoot themselves, and receive from photographers all over the world, their collection is much smaller than competing sites. But if you’re looking for vibrant, interesting photos, Freerange is worth checking out.

With one of the world’s largest photo collections, it’s unfortunate you can’t just use any old photo you find on the site. But you can use a decent amount of them free of charge, you just need to know how to find them. Back in 2008 I wrote a brief article letting you know exactly how to find images on Flickr that use the Creative Commons license. If you read the article, it’ll explain the various license options (they’re all free, but some have restrictions on use). Restrictions aside, Flickr is a great place to look for photos, especially since the keyword use makes it so easy to find what you’re looking for.

I originally found Crestock because they offer a free stock photo every day. This eventually led me to making Crestock a regular visit whenever I need stock photos. Crestock allows you to buy individual images, monthly subscriptions or credits to purchase multiple photos. I’ve found the images at Crestock to be of very high-quality, and I suspect it will remain that way since they were recently acquired by Masterfile Corporation, an old-school stock photo house known for superior images. (Crestock is an affiliate here at The Graphic Mac)

Morguefile is a small stock photo archive, meaning photographers contribute the photos and allow them to be used by anyone for virtually anything. While they have a small collection (less than 10,000 images), I’ve found them to be particularly useful when you’re looking for photos of local areas. Doing a search for a city name usually yields at least a few shots worth using.

Probably the most popular microstock photography site on the web, iStockphoto offers a huge collection of images, vector art, video and audio files to choose from. iStockphoto also offers a free stock photo every week just for signing up. Most of the free images are extremely useful images! Prices range between $1 and $24 each.

With just under 20,000 images in its collection, Stockvault isn’t the largest stock photo site around, but it’s about the only one I’ve come across that doesn’t force you to register in order to download their images. The site is very well designed, making it easy to find what you’re looking for. Most of the images are not suitable for high-resolution commercial printing, but they’re great for web and multi-media work.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a great start. Of course, a quick Google search will yield plenty more to choose from.