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RF Stock Imagery, Subscription-Style

Although few in number, subscription-based services work well for heavy stock users.

Big Picture

If you find your business using a lot of royalty- free (RF) stock imagery, a subscription- based service may be a good option. Although only a few stock providers currently offer this option"?most still only allow users to pay on a per-image or per-collection basis"?the economics of this makes sense when you compare a monthly or yearly fee to paying for multiple downloads within that same time period.

Generally, subscriptions are available in monthly, 6-month, and yearly options. Some companies also base their prices on the size and resolution of the images available; in these cases, print versions of images requiring higher resolution will require a more-expensive subscription than will a membership that comprises only lower-res images for Web and multimedia applications.

Once the subscription price is paid, subscribers can download from the company's website as many images per day or month as the contract will allow. Keep in mind that most subscription prices are for single-user licenses only; multiple users from a single company, for instance, usually must purchase multi-user licenses, which are more expensive.

What follows is a list of subscriptionbased RF companies that offer high-resolution stock imagery. We avoided companies geared more toward consumer/ low-resolution images and those focused primarily on multimedia applications.



A division of Hemera (see below), Able- Stock was launched in 2002. Its collection includes underwater images, retro images, Asian and Latin people, family, modern business, modern lifestyles, technology, finance, medical, and tasteful nudes. It offers stock photos as well as photo-object images (images with the backgrounds removed), raster illustrations, and vector illustrations.

AbleStock offers three different subscription options: $799/year, $599/6 months, and $179/month. All subscribers have access to more than 82,800 royaltyfree images, including the site's "superhigh" resolutions of 28 MB, which print at sizes of 8 x 12 to 9 x 13.5 in.

Although there is no limit to how many images subscribers may use, there is a maximum of 100 downloads per day (some exceptions may be granted). Each subscriber is provided with a single-user license. Agencies may purchase multipleuser licenses: A 1-year license for five users costs $1599; a 1-year license for 10 users is $2599.



A Swiss company, AbsolutVision offers its royalty-free images in JPEG2000 Pro file format with built-in clipping paths. The JPEG2000 file format (.jpx) provides high compression, 16-bit color, and a choice of lossy or lossless compression. To open JPEG2000 files, users must have available the Adobe Photoshop JPEG2000 plug-in or Adobe Photoshop 8.

Specializing in photo objects and characters, AbsolutVision has more than 5000 images for download and adds 100 to 200 new images each week. Its "low-res" images are 4 MB in size and its "high-res" images are 20 MB.

An annual subscription costs $99, or users can pay a monthly rate of $25; subscribers are permitted 200 image downloads per month maximum. Each subscription is limited to a single user.



Founded in 1997, Hemera sells stock photography, photo-object images, raster illustrations, vector clip art, and animation. Its collection includes health/healthcare, tools, business, nature, people, "Trailer Park Trinkets," and others.

Hemera offers two primary subscription download packages to its site members: Express Standard as well as its Express Premium.

  • Express Standard membership includes access to more than 281,000 stock, raster, and photo-object images (1- MB files) and nearly 270,000 vector clipart images. Price is $29.95/month or $99.95/year.
  • Express Premium membership includes access to the same number of images in the aforementioned formats, but also includes 15-MB files. Price: $99.95/month or $299.95/year.
  • All subscriptions are for single users only. Standard memberships can be upgraded to Premium at any time. Subscribers are limited to 1000 downloads per day (exceptions must be cleared by Hemera).



    Part of the Dynamic Graphics Group, liquidlibrary offers photos and illustrations as well as sound effects, music, Quick- Time movies, PowerPoint templates, Flash files, and more. Its search engine provides the usual parameters, but also allows searches by sex and ethnicity. Images range in size from 72 dpi to 300 dpi in TIFF and EPS formats and in both grayscale and color.

    Liquidlibrary's monthly "Creative Package" offers access to and unlimited downloads from 75,000 images available on the Liquidlibrary site. Also included is a 68- page monthly magazine with practical tips, ideas, and tutorials to inspire projects.

    Another possible package for designers is two downloads/month for $125 [plus shipping]. Users who purchase this package will receive two CDs per month that include 70 new photos [in high, medium, and low resolutions], 70 new illustrations, and a variety of multimedia offerings. The photography CD includes an Extensis Portfolio catalog with an index of all content in the entire "issue" [subscribers also can access images online]. Members with this package also receive the 68-page monthly magazine.



    Offering more than 100,000 royaltyfree stock images for download, Photos. com features image categories such as Modern Healthcare, Caribbean Ren- dezvous, Business, Tropical Day Spa, Religion & Myth, Social Issues, and Household Items, among others. Owned by Jupiterimages (which also owns Comstock Images, ThinkStock, and Clip Art.com), Photos.com offers subscribers access to photo objects as well as stock photos.

    One particularly interesting variance on the site's "search" function: Users can search by specific color or color palette for a particular image. In addition, the standard search filters apply, including color/black-and-white, vertical/horizontal, photos/objects, etc.

    Subscriptions range from $129.95 for a 1-month subscription, $249.95 for 3 months, $349.95 for 6 months, and $599.95 for a year. Subscription price includes three resolutions and file sizes: "multimedia" (1 to 2 MB), "medium"(3 to 4 MB), and "high" (12 to 16 MB). "Super" resolutions of 25 to 30 MB are not included in subscriptions, but are available for $179.95 per download. Users can download up to 250 images/day.



    PhotoSpin offers 100,000 royalty-free photographs and illustrations, as well as fonts, audio/video clips, and more. Resolutions available include 300, 150, and 72 dpi at sizes from 5 to 12 in. and 2 to 54 MB. Image categories include Animals and Pets, Children and Kids, Food, Military and Government, Technology and Computers, Travel and Vacation, and others. In business since 1996, the company offers four basic types of single-user subscriptions:

    • Plus, for $299/year, includes, photos and illustrations; fonts, audio and video; files in 300, 150, and 72 dpi; and files in 1024 x 768 screen resolution for Power- Point.
    • Print Designers, for $249/year, includes all the above minus fonts, audio, and video.
    • Web Designers, for $199/year, includes photos, illustrations, audio and video"?72 dpi only.
    • PowerPoint Presenters, for $9.95/ month, includes photos and illustrations in 1024 x 768-dpi format only (maximum 25 files/month).
    • Subscribers are allowed 50 file downloads per day. Multi-user agreements are available. A free trial subscription is available, allowing users to try all the site's file types.

      In addition, the company will create "SpinOffs," custom object photography on demand with any customer-supplied object that will fit on a tabletop. Cost: $199/object for 300 dpi, $99/object for 72 dpi (quantity discounts available).



      ShutterStock features royalty-free images in categories including Holidays, Industrial, People, Building/Landmarks, Religion, Science, Art/Travel, Technology, and Signs/Symbols among others. All images are 300 dpi.

      The company offers two standard subscription options: a 1-month subscription for $89.99, and a 3-month subscription for $229. Both options feature unlimited downloads; each subscription is for a single license. Six- and 12-month subscriptions also are available (request rates).

      Stock Photography Now


      Stock Photography Now offers its subscribers more than 7550 royalty-free stock photos in categories including Abstract, Mushrooms, Sunsets, Sky & Clouds, Yachts, Lakes, Water Plants, Autumn, and Ecology. Nearly all categories are nature-oriented. The company also offers 500 high-quality graphic backgrounds.

      Image resolutions are 300 dpi at 10 x 6.7 in. (3008 x 2000 pixels) in JPEG format. Subscription rate to Stock Photography Now is $39/month, which is automatically renewed until cancelled by the subscriber.



      Although primarily known for its 3D models, textures, audio files, and the like, TurboSquid also offers approximately 5000 two-dimensional stock-photography images for download with a paid subscription. Categories include Animals, Architecture, Money, Nature, Objects, People, Sky, and Vehicles. In all, the 1-year subscription allows access to nearly 80,000 royalty-free assets. Annual subscription price is quoted on request. Up to 10 users at one subscribing company may download with a single license. Turbo Squid provides each company its own download page, which lists all digital assets that have previously been downloaded.

      TurboSquid's images are sourced from artists posting their artwork onto Turbo- Squid's website. Artists receive 50 to 57% of all fees paid to TurboSquid upon a sale. Any artist opening an account (free) with TurboSquid can upload artwork.

      Stock Usage on the Rise

      Use and acceptance of stock imagery during creative stages is up for graphic-arts professionals in the publishing and Internet communities, says research firm TrendWatch Graphic Arts (TWGA). Because turnaround time for creative projects is getting shorter and shorter, says TWGA, graphic designers are more frequently turning to stock photography as a substitute for time- and budget-consuming custom photo shoots.

      The firm reports that use of all types of stock photography is up"?from traditional rights-managed images to royalty-free (RF) versions of all styles and price ranges. Each month, says TWGA, creative firms use an average of seven royalty-free images (surveyed in the 2003/2004 winter season).

      According to TWGA findings:

      • 64% of creative professionals plan to purchase RF images in the next 12 months.
      • 34% of creative professionals plan to purchase a stock illustration in the next 12 months.
      • 42% of publishers plan to purchase RF stock images in the next 12 months.
      • 32% of publishers plan to purchase rights-managed images in the next 12 months.
      • 17% of trade shops plan to purchase RF images in the next 12 months.
      • 13% of trade shops plan to purchase rights-managed images in the next 12 months.
      • Only 27% of all creative professionals say they have never used RF images.
      • The Ins and Outs of Licensing

        Keep in mind that when you purchase a stock image, even a royalty-free image, you are actually purchasing a license to use that image rather than buying the image itself. This means you are legally obligated to the license agreement, which nearly all stockimage providers post on their websites. Licenses vary broadly, so read the fine print in every case. Some factors to keep in mind:

        • You cannot resell the images as images (for instance, you cannot open up your own stock-image company using the images you just downloaded).
        • Some companies prohibit you using images on products that will be sold, such as T-shirts, mugs, or calendars. On the other hand, if you give these products away, the use is acceptable. (Note: You may be able to purchase a commercial-use license or subscription for an image.)
        • You may be limited to how many specific users at a company can actually use that licensed image. Ablestock and Hemera, for instance, limit that number of users to 10, while the Liquidlibrary limit is five.
        • Generally, you cannot utilize an RF image as part of a trademark, logo, or other service mark.
        • Many companies have a line in their license agreement prohibiting using the image in conjunction with projects that are obscene, immoral, or illegal (although only one company we found bothered to further define those terms)
        • Some companies allow you to use content you've downloaded only as long as you are a current subscriber; once your subscription has expired, so has your right to use those images (even though you have already downloaded them)
        • Stock Terminology

          Stock imagery sometimes has its own confusing language, so here are explanations of some of the more common terms.

          Clipping Path

          A vector line outlining the separation between an image and its background, enabling designers to "clip" or cut-away an image from its original background and insert it into a new context. Some stock companies provide clipping paths with their images.

          Comp Image

          A low-resolution, small-sized image used for evaluation or preliminary layout purposes. Typically digitally watermarked by the stock company.

          Digital Watermark

          An imprint used to brand images as copyrighted property of an online retailer.

          Exclusive Rights

          An exclusive rights license gives the image owner the sole right to the image in question "?often used for a limited period of time and with other limitations.

          Flat Rate

          Flat rate pricing allows a specific end-user to use an image in an unlimited fashion for a flat rate price.


          The license or reproduction fees that users are charged typically cover specific image uses. If the image is used for a purpose beyond the license, further permission must be requested.

          Model Release

          A signed release from the person/s depicted in a stock photo, giving consent for his or her likeness to be used for commercial purposes as described in the release.

          Photo Objects

          Photographic images of people, animals, plants, and objects that have been cut from their original background, allowing them to be quickly inserted into any project.

          Property Release

          A signed release from the owner/s of property depicted in a stock photo, giving consent for the image depicting his or her property to be used for commercial purposes.

          Rights-Protected Images

          These images may be limited to specific use, media, territory/geographic area, duration, or other. Also known as "traditionally licensed" images, the images typically may not be altered by the user, and a credit line may be required. Image exclusivity is guaranteed; pricing varies depending upon terms.

          Royalty-Free Images

          A single price is paid for an image, which can then be used multiple times for multiple projects. Pricing is based solely on the size of output and resolution required, not the specific image use. Images may be altered to accommodate the project.

          Vector Clip Art

          Drawn images that are 100% scalable, allowing them to be resized to fit designs but not lose their image quality.

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