It’s a common issue if you’re working for a small company or building your personal blog. You have a great idea about a post on social media, but you need the right visual. Good photos are hard to come by and sites like Shutterstock and iStock can be no viable option for your budget. There’s a safe bet you can rely on – stock photo sites with free to use imagery.
This field is pretty dynamic and new entrants pop up and some die off. I keep this post regularly updated. The latest additions in the list come from late 2019, but if you have a favorite stock photo site that’s not in the list, let me know!
I’ll share with you the 7 best sites for free photos, as well as some other graphics resources you may want to bookmark. But first, why is this so important?
A practical primer on copyright law for content creators
There are different types of copyright licenses. You should be aware of each one and what it implies – no matter if you’re just working on your personal site or providing marketing services for a brand.
Most people are familiar with regular copyright. In short, you are not permitted to use the content under any shape or form, unless you have permission from the author to do so. Some people are under the impression that it’s fine to use others’ work if you mention the source, but that’s not true. It can be done for graphs and tables, where you would be “citing” the main publication. That never applies to visual content like your average header image.
Then comes Creative Commons, a format that allows for many non-paid licensing options. It is used mainly by people who create content to get noticed, like bloggers and amateur photographers. You can find everything about creative commons on their website. Let’s go through the different conditions CC provides:
- Attribution: you can use the visual, as long as you cite the author of the original content. This is the default Creative Commons option, and the most liberal licenses only ask for attribution.
- Non-Commercial: if the content is licensed under this clause, you can’t use it for commercial purposes. However, this term is very broad and open to interpretation. To be safe, I’d urge you not to use such content, even if there’s only indirect commercial result involved, e.g. a brand’s blog.
- No Derivatives: the author doesn’t want their content changed – e.g. included in collages, banners or cropped in header images.
- Share Alike: the content you use the author’s work in needs to also be open for copying.
Every author can decide what combination of these conditions they need. For example, this blog is under an Attribution – Share Alike license.
But there’s one other format that’s true gold for marketers – it’s the Creative Commons CC0. It is a tool that lets authors free their personal work of copyright restrictions. Under this license, you are free to use the content in whatever format you wish, and you don’t even need to cite the author. This type of visuals is perfect for marketing materials. But where to find them?
The best free stock photo sites
Currently, there’s more than 100 free stock photos and collections. Some of them are small, others have overlapping visual sets, but if you want to get a handy list of all of those, just click here:
Here, I’ll go through my top recommendations – the seven sites I usually visit when I’m on an image hunt.
LibreStock – the aggregator
LibreStock lets you search simultaneously in 47 sites and returns all results in one place. It often saves a lot of time, but it does not necessarily return all possible results from the original sources. I’d suggest you first try out here, but if you don’t find what you’re looking for, go forward down the list.
Pexels – beautiful visuals
I sometimes go straight to Pexels for my images – their collection is one of the most beautiful out there! The photos are original, without being too “stocky-looking”, and the collection is very rich.
Unsplash and Magdeleine – original style
Most of the sites listed in this article are not your regular stock photos – you won’t find a classy caucasian guy in dark blue suits pointing at the camera. Still, Unsplash and Magdeleine give you the off-the-beaten-path hipstery feel. This applies to everything – the content, the style, the color palette… It all looks like your favorite Instagrammer decided to build a large library of stock photos just for you.
Pixabay and Picjumbo – classic diversity
There are times when a hipster-style visual just won’t do. Sometimes you need a more traditional stock photo. Those cases call for Pixabay and Picjumbo. Pixabay is my go-to source when looking for a classic feel. Picjumbo has its own unique style and I’d regularly check the site to make sure I’m not missing a cool visual.
Burst – the e-commerce source
Burst is a visual platform made by Shopify. It was not among my top picks before starting the research for this article, but it quickly got to the top of my list. The visuals here are vibrant and full of life, there are cool collections that can help you create a consistent look for a full series of posts or banners. There are also e-commerce business idea starter kits that have everything from visuals to business model ideas.
Bonus: royalty-free vectors, icons, and graphs
There are times when a live photo doesn’t do the work. Sometimes you’ll fare better with an illustration or a vector graphic. There are solutions for those moments, too.
FreePik – graphics and vectors
FreePik has a grand selection of graphics and you’ll surely find what you’re looking for there. You can use the assets for any type of project, but you need to cite the author. You can also subscribe. For just $9.99 per month, you can forgo mentioning the source and also get access to premium content.
Flaticon – icons and sets
Flaticon is a side project of FreePik and is focused on icons. You’ll have access to a bajillion icon sets with very cool styles. You can pick icons and download them in different sizes and colors. Usage is free, but you need to cite the source.
104 stock photo sites and 12 graphics sites – download the full list
I hope my personal selections prove useful. But if you want to test any other of the hundreds of visual resources out there – you can download the list I compiled below.
What are your favorites?
Did I miss a great free stock photo site? Would you recommend your favorites? Jump to the comments below!