Six years ago, we excitedly announced that we’d signed up for our first Shutterstock subscription. Previously, we’d pretty much exclusively been using iStock for our commercial-use presentation photos. We asked, which is best? Shutterstock vs. iStock.

We concluded that, in the epic battle between Shutterstock and iStock, Shutterstock was edging ahead. Why? Shutterstock was cheaper, it had better model continuity, and Shutterstock’s Spectrum search was a super easy way of finding coloured images. But, six years later, do we still prefer Shutterstock?

Well, after an informal survey (asking the office during a coffee break) it turns out that things have changed. Spoiler alert: we’re pretty big iStock fans these days, but Shutterstock still has a place in our hearts!

Read to the end to discover where we find our favourite free stock photography too!

Shutterstock vs. iStock: Pricing

Let’s start with one of the most important things, pricing. Because, let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how much you like a service if it’s way out of your budget!

Shutterstock has a range of pricing options, from 10 images a month at £19, to 750 images at £119. Teams of 3-10 users can access 750 images for £369 per month (these prices are for an annual plan, charged monthly). Shutterstock often has a free trial offer on, so you can try before you buy.

iStock also has a range of options depending on the number and type of images you’re after. The iStock Essentials collection contains budget friendly high-resolution images; you can get 10 images a month for £19 and 750 images a month at £99.  Their Signature collection contains higher priced, higher production value images exclusive to iStock. If you want access to both collections, you can get 10 images a month for £45 and 750 images a month for £119.

You can also buy credits if you want to purchase images on a more ad hoc or one-off basis, 3 credits are £20 and 60 credits are £310. An image from the Essentials collection is just 1 credit, a video 6 credits, an image from the Signature collection is 3 credits and a video is 18.

Depending on what you’re after, iStock is either slightly cheaper or a bit more expensive than Shutterstock. So, do you own maths before you reach for your wallet.

Shutterstock vs. iStock: Model continuity

Model continuity was a major plus point for Shutterstock 6 years ago. Often in a presentation, when trying to tell a visual story with lots of relevant images, our designers want photos that work well as a sequence. A doctor with a patient, then the same patient in bed, then the patient now back at home with family. A businesswoman in a meeting, then in a car, then in a restaurant with friends. Finding the right images for that sort of sequence was hard with iStock, but easy with Shutterstock’s ‘Same Model’ feature. Well, that’s still the case!

Searching for ‘woman in hospital’ on Shutterstock then choosing an image and clicking ‘Same model’ brings up lots of images of the same person in different scenarios: in hospital, talking to a doctor, on holiday, with a partner. This means that we can easily use Shutterstock photos in presentations to tell stories.

With iStock you have the option to view the whole series of pictures, which is useful, but not to see more images of the same model. Shutterstock still has the upper hand in model continuity.

Colour search

A few years ago, we were waxing lyrical about how Shutterstock lab’s Spectrum feature helped us find images in certain colours. This feature has now been added to Shutterstock’s main search functions. And it’s still great. Want an office but with blue accents?

Or maybe pink is more your style?

This feature is helpful as it can help you fit images to brand guidelines or a design scheme.

With iStock you can filter by colour, but the filter is too precise – it feels like a game of Battleships… You select 6eb342, hit apply, and the top images are often odd because it looks for that specific colour, rather than ‘green’ more generally.

Corporate vs. lifestyle: Image selection

In many ways the image selection these two stock photography sites offer is similar. Shutterstock has a larger volume of images which means there is more choice, but you often have to do more digging to find what you want. Our designers find that Shutterstock images tend to be more traditionally corporate – which could be great if that’s what you’re looking for. Shutterstock is also helpful when you need quite specific photography, like product images.

iStock, on the other hand, has much nicer lifestyle images, particularly if you’re browsing the Signature collection. This collection contains more natural scenes that are not over edited and cover general themes like family, outdoor activities, friendship etc.

Top tip: If your searches are bringing up the same results again and again, both Shutterstock and iStock have an option to have the newest content appear at the top of your search – you can see this in the screenshots below. This feature is great if you’re making lots of decks on similar topics, but you don’t want repetitive visuals.


Shutterstock is generally our go-to for vectors – though this may be through force of habit! We like their huge selection and find it easy to get our hands on exactly what we need. Check out this video browsing iStock and Shutterstock’s vector offerings.

One small niggle is that there is no easy way of reporting poor quality vectors. Though the vectors are meant to be vetted, the quality is occasionally less than we’d expect.

Where to get free stock images?

If neither Shutterstock nor iStock are right for you, or you don’t have the budget to subscribe to their services, then there are plenty of free options out there. Here are a few we’d recommend:

Pexels – Free stock photos and videos from lots of creators in various styles.

Unsplash – A BrightCarbon favourite, lots of free, beautiful imagery, organised into collections.

Moose – Stock photos that ‘go together’. You can filter based on model attributes e.g. age, hair, gender, body type and more.

Freestock – A charming collection of fresh stock photography created by a small team of photographers in their spare time. Images are usually part of series so you can use several to help tell a story.

New Old Stock – This site won’t be for everyone but it’s super fun to browse through! A collection of vintage photos from public archives that have no copyright restrictions.

Freepik – A bunch of free vectors, images and icons from a range of categories – great resource for icons.

Icons8 – Another good resource for free icons, helpfully organised into 32 styles so you can keep your presentations consistent.

For more suggestions on where to get free stock images, check out this list of free stock photography sites or this one!

So, that’s our 2019 round up of Shutterstock vs iStock. Both stock image websites have pro and cons, and we use them both regularly to support effective storytelling and create beautiful slides. What stock imagery websites are your favourites? Let us know in the comments below!

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Written by

Vincent Thompson

Principal design consultant

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  1. Image of Nolan Haims Nolan Haims says:

    I’ve been a huge fan of Shutterstock for a few years now and they are absolutely my go-to site for stock–especially for presentation. All the reasons you mentioned are good, but for me the biggest plus is that I don’t have to think about purchasing each photo and I can easily experiment with a lot of photography and vector graphics without using watermarks and having to later swap them out.

    Most stock houses like to think that designers are very deliberative in choosing stock, getting client approval, yadda yadda. But presentation workflows often mean quickly putting in a half dozen image options for a slide or putting together 50 slides, a dozen of which might get cut the next day. With Shutterstock I don’t have to worry about watermarks or paying for imagery that ultimately gets cut. Try explaining to a client why they have to pay for that photo that’s no longer in the final presentation…

  2. Image of Vincent Vincent says:

    Nolan, I totally agree, being able to integrate full scale images into your workflow without restriction is a great advantage. I remember having to think long and hard about the images I was about to purchase, only for the client to request replacements further down the line.
    The vector graphics are really handy, as I can easily take iconography and more detailed drawings and quickly convert in PowerPoint to match the clients brand / colours.

  3. Image of Rick Rick says:

    I’m fed up with iStock too… I’m definitely going to check out Shutterstock. My biggest problem with iStock is that they don’t allow you to search by credit amount. For the most part, I just want a decent looking image to accompany a blog post, so I don’t want to spend more than 1 credit (roughly $2). But I spend more time sifting through overpriced images than I do publishing the article. Complete waste of time that they could easily fix for me! 🙂

  4. Image of Vincent Vincent says:

    Rick, you’re right, the fact you can’t search or filter by credit is annoying, I don’t think iStock sell any images for less than 5 credits, which makes their pricing even more frustrating. Some of the nicest images that I’ve found and planned on using have ended up costing 30+ credits!

  5. Image of Macwitty Macwitty says:

    Overpriced, well photographers should also live. Even if I found the rise on iStockphoto from normally 1-2 credits for small photos to 5-10 a bit too much. Esp when it comes to very normal photos

    What I get a bit upset about was that I bought photos for a presentation and then found that 5 of 8 photos was in Google app for free. Yes, iStockphoto and som other Stock agencies have given Google free access to high def photos to be used in Google docs, presentation and so on for free, even for commercial use. So the photos I bought will now be used much more often as they are free. One of the reason I buy and not use photos in Office, when the licence is ok, is that I do not want the same photos everyone else have. Yes, even with stockphotos more people use them but there is a huge difference between bought and free photos.

    Well, I’ll use the credits I have left but will not buy more from iStockhotos.

  6. Image of fotonoir fotonoir says:

    Hmmm I shall try shutterstock then. There just more complicated to sign in there.

  7. Image of SLX SLX says:

    I also prefer Shutterstock. Of course, they all have that feel of plastic, but let’s say, most Shutterstock pictures are better plastic. Some in iStock are really unprofessional, like backyard models dressed up like business people etc.
    After a while, bear in mind, that your options kind of run out. For instance, we had 3 magazine issues on contemporary architecture, using Shutterstock all the time. Then of course, you run a bit out of options.
    Pricing is sadly rising.

  8. Image of Vincent Vincent says:

    Macwitty – there certainly are quite a few of the same images circulating around the world now, I keep on seeing the same chap being used as a manager, doctor and family man in several ad campaigns. I don’t think when designing a presentation you can let the image do all of the work for you, if you’re able to integrate the right image into a story you’re trying to tell, for instance animating part of the image or blurring it out to focus on a specific part, the audience will understand the message behind what you’re trying to say, rather than just focus on yet another stock photography image.

  9. Image of Vincent Vincent says:

    fotonoir – if using an up to date web browser I’m sure you can have your username and password saved so an automatic sign in for ease of use.

  10. Image of Vincent Vincent says:

    SLX – plenty of plastic on there I agree. There are other ways to use the images in order to achieve a unique effect. We try cropping out images in some instances, using outlines as silhouettes we find this gives us more flexibility if moving things around on slides, it also gets rid of any cheesy grins or strange clothes if using people.

  11. Image of Fnello Fnello says:

    I’m an old buyer from one of the biggest media agency in berlin. I continue to use istock because their left sidebar ( with price filter and the possibility to refine search with boolean operator ) is awesome . There is no one stock-website that allow that .. I know is a bit expensive but since two months they have cutted the price and you can find an xxxl images for only 7 credits .

    Shutterstock is good as well but many images there like in the others stockagency are very often overfiltered and useless to create a good campaign for a famous brand like we usually work.

  12. Image of Vincent Vincent says:

    Fnello, I can see the sidebar tool being a handy search option if purchasing individual images. Shutterstock have recently released the similar name category tool that I find really handy.

    Regarding the over filtering, I agree that this level of refinement is more accessible on iStock, but there are more and more images coming into the Shutterstock site, admittedly they are playing catch up.

  13. Image of Yousef Yousef says:

    I think it might be better to use Thinkstock in means of pricing. They have the royalty-free images from Getty and iStock, and the price is $299 for a monthly package. They always have coupons and promotions around, for example with the coupon code GTDPC46N, monthly subscription is $99. That makes $0.13 per download regardless of any size which is great.

  14. Image of Vincent Vincent says:

    Hi Yousef, it certainly seems like a good deal. I think iStock are doing this due to being clearly out-priced by Shutterstock. Too little to late some may argue. I think the $99 offer is only for the first month, then going up to $299 again. In the long run Shutterstock still works out cheaper, but the gap between is certainly less than it used to be. Competition like this is good for us, as it will hopefully continue to drive down the cost from all providers.

  15. Image of sam sam says:

    i continue to use istock…the images u find on shutterstock are ten years old in style…a ot of white backgrounds…with istock we are able to built an awesome brand visual campaign with almost amazing images, editor handpicked with the quality of theRM market.. i believe that everyone need an image should try to focus on quality and originality instead of just buying cheap stuff.. an image can say more than 1000 words !! just my p.o.v

  16. Image of Trent Porter Trent Porter says:

    I am an analyst. Wondering if any of you have used iStock since the latest launch on September 15. As a layperson, simplicity and pricing looks very comparable to Shutterstock and toying with it, it looks like it now has the functionality that this article reported lacking in 2013

    • Image of Joby Blume Joby Blume says:


      Thanks for the comment, and the email too.

      I took a look at iStock, and asked the team for their thoughts. Certainly they seem to have improved the pricing, and search by colour and ‘same model’ functionality seems to be there.

      But I guess it begs the question Why change from Shutterstock? What has iStock brought that gives a reason for unhappy customers to give them a second chance? They are matching Shutterstock, but where are they going beyond what we are now getting from Shutterstock? We’re happy, so why change? Particularly as it feels – somewhat – that at a certain point iStock was really trying to scr*w customers. Does that attitude really go away, or just get hidden when customers start to notice it?

  17. Image of Trent Porter Trent Porter says:

    Thank you! This is very helpful. Do you think these changes are at least sufficient to stop or slow defections from iStock to Shutterstock? If I have not yet defected, now I have less reason to do so?

  18. Image of Joby Blume Joby Blume says:

    Yes, I think so. And the selection of images is different, so perhaps run a few searches and see which looks better to you (in a certain colour-way and orientation to limit the numbers). Quality of search definitely plays a part as each service has a lot of photos, and it’s around the margins where either obscure photos aren’t available or it’s hard to find a decent one from among 1000.

    I would say there’s less of a hugely compelling reason to change now that iStock have made those changes.

  19. Image of Trent Porter Trent Porter says:

    Thank you very much for your help. Extremely helpful. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time.

  20. Image of Prabhu Natrajan Prabhu Natrajan says:

    Pixabay is another free stock one.

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