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There are quite a few stock photography sites out there that offer free images taken by everyday users. However, with the exception of Stock.xchng—probably the most popular of the free photo sites—I have found most to be less than acceptable for use in professional work. Either that, or the selection of images they have is so limited that you’ll spend more time looking for a photo than you will on the piece you are working on.

Thankfully, a few well-known stock photo sites offer fantastic imagery absolutely free, and the quality of their images is excellent. Of course, these sites select which images they choose to offer for free, so the value comes as you gather a large collection of images for use at a later time. For the sites themselves, they hope to pull you in so that when you really need to find that special image, they will be the first place you go.

First up, iStockphoto, which offers affordable photos, illustrations, video and Flash files in a clean and simple site design.

iStockphoto makes one beautiful image available free each week for any registered user to download and use. And these aren’t low-resolution Web-only images, they’re full-size, print-ready, 300-dpi images, with the same usage rights as iStockphoto’s for-pay images.

And iStockphoto doesn’t stop there. They know that photos don’t fit everyone’s needs, so they also offer a free vector image of the week as well. Here you can download some really great custom illustrations in full Encapsulated PostScript format (to edit them, you’ll need Adobe Illustrator, or moldy versions of Freehand or CorelDraw to edit them). As I noted, registration is necessary to download the image files, but it’s worth it.

Another stock agency, AbsolutVision, also offers a free stock photo weekly for its registered users. AbsolutVision’s claim to fame is that all their images are in the JPEG 2000 format, which offers higher compression rates with no loss in quality, alpha-channel, and 16-bit color support. One thing I really like about AbsolutVision is that they offer a large amount of object and character images with the background cut out already, saving you a lot of time when you’re trying to work the image into an existing design with a background already in place.

AbsolutVision’s pricing model is solely subscription-based: for $39, you can download up to 300 images in a 30-day period, or, for a yearly subscription of $79, you can download up to 3600 images.

(It’s worth noting that the JPEG 2000 format isn’t widely supported as a Web image format; its primary advantage is the higher compression capabilities, which lets you save on disk space and file transmission time.)

Next up is Crestock, which one-ups both iStockphoto and AbsolutVision by offering a free stock photo daily. Crestock also offers high-quality images and vector art, and they make it easy for you by offering an RSS feed of the free daily images. Like the other sites, you need to be a registered user to take advantage of the free image program.

And finally, visit Dreamstime’s free image collection for some very unique and colorful imagery. Photos are added often, and the entire collection is available for download at any time, so there’s no real rush to grab the latest one right away.

All four of these sites also offer royalty-free stock photography for purchase at very reasonable rates, including monthly, quarterly or yearly subscription plans. And as is the case whenever you use someone’s images commercially, you should check for any use restrictions at the appropriate site.

[James Dempsey runs The Graphic Mac, which offers tips, reviews and opinion on a variety of Mac OS X and design topics.]

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