Try to design and build a Web site using poor images and, more often than not, you'll end up with less-than-optimal results. We can't always be lucky enough to have clients providing us with CDs loaded with professionally photographed images, or willing to pay for quality photographs to be taken especially for the site. But, if you're stuck with a job, and all the client has supplied is a shitty bitmapped logo, a single page Word document, and a floppy disk with three, small, over-compressed images, don't sit there and complain (and yes, I've definitely done that in the past).
Stock photography is well used by experienced print designers, but many Web designers are self-taught and working in a comparably fresh industry. Awareness of stock resources, especially amongst newer freelancers, is probably quite low. Here's the low-down: you can purchase a license to use certain images within your design from companies who, in turn, pay photographers to build up their libraries of quality images in numerous categories. And, not all of it is the corporate imagery many of us have grown used to seeing.
Additionally, it's not the trashy animated GIFs that newbie Web designers are well-known for grabbing from freebie archives. ;)
For example, one resource, PhotoDisc, has categories such as Agriculture, Wildlife, Sports, Fantasy, Food, Transportation, etc. It is searchable based on helpful keywords that describe the content and style. Here's an example:
"color image, vertical, outdoors, center, lifestyles, couple, holding hands, love, romance, man, woman, young man, young woman, young adult, adult, 20s, smiling, waist up, casual dress, caucasian, male and female, men and women, two people, day, new york city, new york state, mid-atlantic usa, usa, north america, photography, selective focus"
You can see how keywords such as "color image", "vertical", "selective focus", etc. could really help you locate the image you need. Alternately, you might require a blurred, horizontal, tinted style - and it's easy to search for.
There are a number of Web sites conveniently offering stock photography over the Internet. You don't have to order a CD, wait for it to arrive, and then find that it doesn't have the imagery you want. You simply browse and preview, pay for what you want to use, and then download it.
Here are a few URLs to get you started (thanks Marlene); I'll leave it up to others to comment at the end of this piece with information on each of these, and perhaps some more good resources.
I'll base my commentary on PhotoDisc, but a lot of this may apply to other stock sites.
On PhotoDisc, you can expect to find comping images and lightboxes. Lightboxes are kind of like a favourites or bookmark list that you can add comments to and email to colleagues working on the same project. Comping images are small, lower quality images provided free to registered members (registration itself is also free) to use in developing mock-ups for client perusal. The idea is that you then purchase the images you'll need once you have approval of your client. This saves you buying stuff that they might not like.
For Web use, you'll generally be fine with 600K, 72 DPI images currently available for US$29.95. If you need a smaller area of the image for higher detail, or want to use it within a corresponding print document, you might be interested in the 300DPI 10MB and 28MB options (available for US$99.95 and US$179.95 respectively). Now, at first, this may seem like a decent chunk of cash for a picture you'll use once in a site, but consider it an investment in your client, and your portfolio. Oh, and if you structure your charging conveniently, you can bill the cost of the image to them.
Read their license(s) for the exact permissions, but in a nutshell, you're allowed to use the image you've purchased in your Web, print, CD ROM work. You can't resell it or make it available for download as a standalone image, which is fair enough. Neither can you use it within pornographic, libellous, defamatory or otherwise unlawful works. Examples of some permitted applications: Web sites, CD ROMs, brochures, advertising campaigns, books, packaging for music/video/software, cards/posters, exhibitions, etc. The PhotoDisc license permits up to 10 people by default (non-concurrently) to use an image for design purposes (you can contact them for other arrangements). PhotoDisc also requests a specific artist credit underneath photos, or on a separate credits page (you could consider linking this from your site footer).
Before you run off to joyfully browse the stock sites and apologise for all those times you've complained about lack of source images, here are some final tips. Utilise comping images - often they're enough to sell a client on the design you're presenting, and they can save you buying images you might not eventually use. Also, take care not to pick overused graphics. If you see an image on another site, perhaps avoid using it on your own; it'll just look silly. Either specifically find images which are unusual, or butcher them a bit in PhotoShop to change tints, blurs, or whatever your preferred style of image torture.
Finally, keep your portfolio in mind - the examples you show future clients really help you stay in business or keep your job. Most often, the differences between a site using crap source images and one using professional graphics are amazing.
I encourage anyone with questions or information relevant to this article to comment below. Tell us about your experiences (good or bad), etc.