Finding Photographs for a Book or Blog Gets Better

by | Dec 21, 2011

I wrote about where to find free or inexpensive photos for your blog or book back in February 2010. Since that time I’ve mostly used Flickr and iStockphoto, where you can buy credits as you go and many web-size images are very inexpensive.

For the first time, I’m starting to use both Flickr and paid-for stock differently. Here’s why.

A few months ago I got a free month’s worth of downloads at Fotolia, the huge online stock photography and art site. They have websites in 11 languages and in 15 regions of the world.

What’s more important, Fotolia hosts 15,547,533 royalty-free photos, the last time I looked. I had a great time browsing images for covers, and found some great ones.

But what really pleased me were a couple of little interface enhancements. These types of things make a big difference. When researching images for book covers, it’s not unusual to look through 500 or 600 photos at a session. Something that’s inconvenient once becomes maddening when repeated enough.

Here’s the detail screen from iStockphoto. Just below that is the one from Fotolia.


The iStockphoto image size chart for downloads


The Fotolia image size and download chart.

Using iStockphoto I always have to calculate what the image is going to cost me, converting “credits” to dollars. Fotolia makes it much more clear, once you realize these are the lowest possible prices. Typically you’ll pay about twice as much if you buy credits as you go.

The best deal is the subscription, if you use a lot of images. During the month I had the Fotolia promotional subscription I used it a lot, since you could download as many images as you wanted, and most images seemed available.

The other enhancement is the hover tool. Placing your mouse cursor over an image thumbnail in search results gives you an enlarged view of the photo. Here are the hover boxes from both services:


iStockphoto hover box


Fotolia hover box

The iStockphoto hover gives you the name of the image and little else. The Fotolia hover box includes the sizes available for license, the credit requirements for the smallest image, the number of times the image has been viewed, and the number of downloads. This can save an incredible amount of time.

Flickr Out in the Open

Another approach to saving time on image search is a nifty utility called Compfight (

Using Flickr’s programming interface, Compfight has built a search utility that’s quite a bit faster than Flickr’s own advanced search.

Compfight interface - click to enlarge

Compfight is a beautiful example of a single-use interface that’s been refined by people who actually use it. With a few clicks you can set your search parameters and get a beautifully-presented and customizable screen full of image results, mostly from Flickr.

Compfight in hover mode

Notice in the search results that many images have a blue stripe at the bottom, indicating they are available on Flickr. Hover your mouse cursor over one of these, and Compfight will helpfully show you the image size in pixels, another great timesaver.

Compfight has become by far the easiest way to use the amazing collection of images on Flickr, and Fotolia has enough enhancements and beautiful images that it might well surpass iStockphoto. If you use stock images, make sure you take a look at these services.

Note: Be careful with the licensing of images on Flickr. Amateur photographers may not realize you need model releases from recognizable private individuals to use their likeness in commercial ways.

Photo by gadl

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Liz

    Three words: Library of Congress

  2. Kerry Howard

    I have been looking into this very subject myself over the last few days. I was finding it hard to evaluate the cost and service comparisons. This information here is a great help. Thanks

  3. Jon Guenther

    I’ve been using Fotolia for quite some time since starting to self-publish my own books. I do like their interface (and their prices) than iStockPhoto. I’ve also used the images from on a good number of occasions. Thanks for the pointers on Compfight, Joel. I hadn’t heard about them until reading this article.

  4. Amber Lea Starfire

    Joel, another post rich with good information. One thing you didn’t mention is Creative Commons licensing. I routinely find very nice images that are free, providing I give credit to the photographer, making it unnecessary to pay for a subscription. On Flickr’s advanced search page, scroll all the way to the bottom and check the Creative Commons option—all the resulting photographs are free to use, including some that may be altered for derivative works and used for commercial products (it’s always important to pay attention to the licensing options selected by the copyright holder).

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Amber,

      I probably should have included this link in the article, so thanks for the reminder:

      Creative Commons: What Every Self-Publisher Ought to Know

      This article includes a general discussion of Creative Commons and explains all 6 licensing models. There are a variety of other articles on the blog on these subjects, and for those with $2.99 and a Kindle (or Kindle app) you can get my entire Self-Publisher’s Quick & Easy Guide to Copyright by clicking here.

  5. Michael N. Marcus

    I’ve been using Fotolia (mostly) and iStockPhoto for book illustrations since 2008 and have been very pleased.

    A few tips:

    (1) Be careful if you buy a batch of credits to lower the cost of each one. Credits don’t last forever and may expire before you have a chance to use them.

    (3) Watch out for automatic renewals you don’t want or need. I just noticed a credit card charge for about $70 for a photo service I am unlikely to use again.

    (4) You don’t have to use a photo the way it is presented online. You may find that a small part of an image is more important to you than the photographer’s intended subject. You can crop, change clothing color, combine images and do a left-right flip and other modifications (unless prohibited in the terms). My cover artist changed the hair of a man from white to black and filled in baldness to lower his apparent age.

    (5) Some clip art collections are not supposed to be used for commercial purposes, like books.

    (6) Remember that stock photos are not yours exclusively. Before you choose a pic for something important (like a book cover), look at other books in the same field so you don’t pick a pic that’s been used by a competitor. Of course, you have no way of knowing if someone’s future book will use the same pic as yours. If you want exclusivity, you may have to pay thousands, not eight bucks.

    Michael N. Marcus

    — Just out: deluxe hardcover edition of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:

  6. Leanne Hunt

    Visual images are important for blogs yet hard to use when you are visually impaired and rely on screen reading software. I have often come across bloggers who use photos with descriptive tags. This can add humour or pathos which enriches the reading experience. Photos which are only tagged with numbers take away from the reading experience since they are long and horrible to listen to. I advocate that photographers go the extra mile and tag their photos properly with clever descriptions so blind bloggers can participate and make their sites more interesting to sighted readers.

    • CJ Allan


      Are you talking about a “Caption” that is usually visible just under the photo… or the “alternate” tag that is embedded and can be seen by the reading software, but not by human eyes?



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