When making a design (as a freelancer), how do I handle stock images?

Do you buy the stock image(s)? Or do you find an image via Google or whatever and later replace it with a similar stock image?

I'm wondering because sometimes stock images can be expensive and you have no guarantee that your final design will use the image. So do you just take the risk?

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    Actually.. freelancers shouldn't be entering these "contests." check out no-spec.com Working on speculation does you and the entire industry a disservice.
    – Scott
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 8:14
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    Agree with Scott's comments, but unfortunately the market is going to dictate what the price is. As far as supply and demand goes, if the suppliers are willing to supply, the price will fall. Since money is a necessity in our society, people who need it will do what they can to obtain it. With that said, if you can get real work, please do. Using 99Designs would be like using a credit card to get something now that you could have more of later. It not only hurts you but the entire industry.
    – jmort253
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 8:20
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    @Scott. That is your opinion. It doesn't really answer my question. My question could relate to other client work as well and not only the competitions. I don't get where you're coming from. But to me the competitions are a great way to build a portfolio and get some extra cash. I personally think it is a great idea.
    – tone7
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 8:47
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    @tone... I realize it doesn't answer.. hence why it was placed in the "comments" section and not the "answer" section. And most people who enter these "contests" justify the entering the same way you do. Until you actually depend upon the industry to make your living, your mindset won't change.
    – Scott
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 8:53
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    Use placekittens? Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 17:18

3 Answers 3


On many of the stock photo sites, you can generally obtain the watermarked version of the image for free. The idea is that you wouldn't use the watermarked version in production and that it's simply just for the mock-ups. For the final version of your design, that will head to production, you would then purchase the non-watermarked versions and then replace the watermarked versions with the production versions.

Of course, be sure to check the legal portion of the company from which you are obtaining the photo as every site is different.

There are also free stock photo sites like at stock xchng. However, you can tell that with some of these photos something is just not right, whether it be something with the models or something with how the photo was composed by the photographer.

  • Thank you. I wasn't aware of the watermarked images, except for the little thumbnail ones which is to small to really use. Will check for it though. Thanks
    – tone7
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 8:49

You're in a bind in this kind of situation. You would probably be best to avoid stock photography completely.

Realize that you're going to be working mostly for free. Even if you win a few, the payouts in these "contests" are painfully low. Averaged across all your entries that don't win plus the few that do (even top talent on these sites runs about 1 in 8), your hourly rate will be very low indeed. I'd say your chance of winning if you use low-resolution comp images is nil, since untrained clients don't understand about low-res comps. To them, it just "doesn't look good." They also don't understand "something like this, which we'll replace with a real stock image later" if you can't sit down and talk with them.

You ask how others approach this situation. Scott and jmort253 basically told you. It doesn't arise because we don't do free work in the hope of maybe winning a few hundred dollars. Not even to "build a portfolio"; certainly not to make a living. I make a good living as a freelancer, and I've never done spec work. Nor has any other successful designer I know.

When the work is for a real client, cost items such as photography (stock or specific to the job), travel, purchase or rental of props or equipment are either worked into the bid price or are specified as a separate line item over and above the design service.


The free watermarked, lo-res version of the image that jmort523 is referring to is also called a "comp image". E.g. on iStockPhoto, you can Download a comp as the link says under each photo.

The "comp" here refers to a comprehensive or comprehensive layout (see here). This is the initial layout mockup that you present to clients to give a rough idea of how the different layout elements will be put together and the creative direction being proposed.

It wouldn't make sense to purchase stock art until the client has signed off on the final design. But picture agencies want designers to ultimately use their images, so that's why they offer free watermarked images that designers can insert into their comps in hopes that the client will like the picture and choose to use it in the final design.

Though, personally, I sometimes find the watermarks a bit too obnoxious, so I'll occasionally Photoshop them out a little by blurring the watermark region and/or doing a quick clone/heal. Typically I do this if the image is being used as a crucial element of the layout where the watermark just becomes too distracting.

  • I've always understood it as composition layout (and the Wikipedia article does mention this)
    – e100
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 13:05
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    Some use that terminology, but it's not as popular. In all the literature I've come across, it's always been "comprehensive", e.g. Graphic Design Basics, Creative Curio, Vizual, Drew Struzan, R Tringali, SCCA. Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 15:05
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    The term "comprehensive" is also widely used in printing, advertising, illustration, film/animation, logo design, and many other visual communication fields, i.e. "concept comprehensive", "sketch comprehensives" (a.k.a. tight sketches), "comprehensive dummy", etc. And especially in academia, "comps" are almost exclusively referred to as "comprehensives". So it likely has a much longer history than "composition layout". Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 15:29
  • Fair enough - it may be my misunderstanding.
    – e100
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 16:24

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