It can be hard to find good quality stock photography that’s
free to use. A search engine will bring up a wealth of results so in this
article I’ll focus on my favourites and help you put together a great list that
you’ll be able to revisit time and time again.
What is Stock Photography?
A stock photograph is an image that is put into the public realm to be used by others. Some stock photographs are free to use and some require paying for a license to use them. There’s a lot of stock photography out there but getting relevant and high quality shots to use can be difficult without paying a fortune for them. If you’re going use stock images, it’s a good idea to have a ‘go-to’ list of sites to give you as many relevant options as possible.
Why Would I Need Stock Photos?
If you’re a photographer you may want to look into making some of your surplus images stock photos. That could be to earn you a few extra pennies or it could just be to give something back to the creative world.
If you’re writing an article, you may want to jazz it up with some appropriate images that you just don’t have in your own collection. Often, companies will opt for buying a stock image rather than hiring a photographer to take the shot as it’s perceived as cheaper—which is not always the case!
If we use the same parameters for searches, it will give a better idea of what exactly you can get, so I’m going to use ‘photographer’ for all of my searches of each site mentioned and include a good quality image that fits that for each of my examples.
Buying Stock Photos
A quick search for ‘Stock Photography’ will bring up the big hitters who you’ve no doubt seen before. They offer high quality images as well as other options such as music, video and illustrations.
Subscription options aside, an image at 849px wide (their smallest option) will cost you about £20 and that’s for a standard license which restricts the number of prints you can have in say, a magazine and also only allows you to show it in one place at a time. You also still have to give credit to iStock in places. With a subscription it can be from £129 a month to £259 a month depending on your image and licensing needs—something that really only a company using a lot of images is going to benefit from.
A standard license here (with similar restrictions to iStock) will cost you about £32 for 5 downloads (which expires after a year) at a size of 500px wide—again, their smallest option. Their subscriptions vary depending on license and sizes from £119 per month to £165 but some of these then also lock you in to a short-term contract.
Photodune (which, for clarity, is an Envato company) offer a similar service to the above two companies but with cheaper options. This image at 775px was $2 (plus VAT) covered by their standard license, which is pretty much just not using it commercially and similar to the other two sites, limits any hard copies.
A World of Choice
iStock, Shutterstock, and Photodune aren't the only options, of course. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of stock photography companies out there. Stock photography companies range from the giant, like Getty and Corbis, to the niche and boutique, like Redux Stock. Depending on your need you might use one or the other, or both, ends of the spectrum.
Stock photography is a fiercely competitive market. There are some great deals out there! The advantage of using a paid stock source is that they put some thought into their search features: the better they are at matching you to the picture you want, the better the service. Selection is the main advantage of a large service.
The advantage of a small service is a more focused catalogue or a particular visual sensibility. If you use stock photography regularly, working with a small source can be a smart move. If you find one image that suits your needs, chances are that you will find more in their collection. Some stock services also operate agencies, like Redux with Redux Pictures, that have a roster of photographers that you can hire on assignment.
People often mistake ‘Royalty Free’ for a completely free image that they can do whatever they want with. This isn’t always the case, something I’ll go into when I cover licensing in my next article. There are free to use images out there though and although you need to read the conditions carefully for each image.
Free to Use, No Attribution Required
As always, please do check the license terms for each photo but here are some sites which (to my knowledge and accurate at time of publication) give images away for free use, including commercial, in most cases with no attribution required:
Unsplash has 10 new, high quality images uploaded every 10 days. You can search by keyword and also by individual artist if you like a particular style. It also means that if you wanted to, you could give credit, although it’s not part of the terms of using a photo it’s a nice thing to do. They’re donating their pictures, after all.
With this site you also have a few (limited) categories that you can search through and the ability to view the decently sized image or large thumbnail in page. There’s also the ability to subscribe or keep up with their social media so you don’t miss any great images.
Gratisography offer a slightly quirky brand of stock images which require no attribution. You can search by default categories but there’s no search bar unless you use their Shutterstock-linked search bar at the bottom which will take you to images you’ll have to pay for, but you’ll get a small discount. The images are all high quality and you can view them in a large size, although scrolling down to find something you want can become frustrating.
Another site with links to Shutterstock; you’ll want to ignore the top row of images if you’re looking for freebies. Pixabayhas a lot of image choice if you’re searching for something relatively easy but there are a lot of poor quality photos and clip-art looking illustrations that you’ll have to wade through to get what you want. Thankfully, there is an option next to their search bar to narrow your search to just one particular type of image (photo, illustration etc) which helps weed a lot of the chaff.
The really great thing about this site is that once clicked on, each image will clearly tell you what its licensing requirements are (mostly none at all but it’s good to know for sure) and the sizes it’s available in. For the smaller size (640px) you can just download and away you go. You’ll need to sign up for larger images but there’s still no cost attached to this.
This is very similar to Pixabay in layout and format. If you want professional looking images, you’ll have to link to Shutterstock. If you don’t mind wading through a lot of poorer quality stuff then there are some good finds but they’re few and far between so you need patience.
A large image download (over 2000px) will require you to sign up but you can still get a large image (over 1000px) by just clicking the image and saving.
Historical and Archive Photos
It’s not always modern, up to date images we need. Mary
Evans Picture Library offers an historical archive of images, illustrations and
art, boasting new uploads of up to 500 ‘new’ images per week. Their rates are a
tricky one to pin down as you need to call or email them to discuss an
individual image. However, if you’re in need of a lot of pictures in the long
term, they do state that they’re happy to discuss a better agreement so you
could potential get a cheaper deal.
The Library of Congress has a huge archive of images that are mostly out of copyright, so they’ve digitised them and made them available to the public to use. Resources like this are excellent, they keep our history alive so if you can, share a link back to any image you use so that everyone else can benefit from these too.
Your Local Archive
Your local archive and history groups will also have a wealth of images. Sometimes there’s a charge for using these but it can all depend on your intended use. I was having a history article published in a magazine and wanted to use some archive photos that would usually have to be paid for. As that particular article was a freebie (I wasn’t being paid for it) and as it was going into a history magazine for the education of others, it came under ‘fair use’ (again something I’ll cover in the next article all about licensing) and the archive was happy to let me use the images with an attribution.
It’s always worth having a conversation with someone if you’re not sure. If you’re writing an article or blog then often people will be quite happy to let you use their images with a credit and link – just get it in writing first.
A One Stock Shop
Ha, see what I did there. Anyway, sometimes searching site by site for what you want can be time consuming and a bit of a pain. The Stocks is a great site which combines a lot of stock sites (including a couple I’ve mentioned here) and allows you to search in one place. Essentially it’s almost like a toolbar, with the actual site itself (depending which you click) appearing in the middle.
I know I keep stressing this but as you’re dealing with many sites, it’s important to check the licensing terms of the site you choose your photo from; they won’t all necessarily be the same.
Here’s a quick list of the sites I’ve covered and their offerings:
- iStock: High quality images that you must pay for and a restricted licence
- Shutterstock: As above
- Photodune: As above but a cheaper option
- Getty: a very big stock website
- Corbis: another very big stock website
- Redux Stock: a boutique stock service
- Unsplash: 10 new images every 10 days. High quality, free to use with no attribution required
- Gatisography: Slightly quirky images. Free to use with no attribution required
- Pixabay: Large quanitity of free to use photos with no attribution required
- Public Domain Pictures.Net: Large quantity of free to use images with no attribution required.
- Mary Evans Picture Library: Historical image archive that you must pay to license
- Library of Congress: A large archive of digitised photos, many out of copyright which would have no restrictions on use
- The Stocks: A site of multiple stock sites to make searching easier
As you can see from this small selection, there are so many different stock image sites out there. Finding the right one(s) to bookmark and reuse will save you endless time and effort when looking for something specific. If you have need of a high number of images to be used commercially then you may want to consider a subscription to a site that can provide you with one easy ‘go to’ place where each license is the same and you can keep tabs on paperwork, should any questions be raised.
If, like most of us, you’re looking for images to feature or publish or maybe to use on websites, then one of the free options above is probably your best bet. Just remember to always check the licensing requirements for each image and when you save them, it’s a good tip to make a note of all the information listed at the same time. Even if that’s just a screenshot of the page it will refresh your memory and provide you with some evidence should anyone question the copyright further down the line.
Finally, although most of the images on the ‘free’ sites I’ve mentioned don’t require any attribution, it’s a nice thing to do if you can and it means the artist who has kindly donated their picture to the public sphere gets the credit they deserve and maybe another fan! Think about paying it forward and maybe donating a few of your own unused or unloved images to one of these sites too. It can be a great feeling to have someone really appreciate an image that may have sat in a folder doing nothing for years.