Here’s the problem too many new websites and blogs face: your site just doesn’t look that good without amazing imagery. You’re looking for quality stock photos, but are confused by the licensing, royalties and expense of good imagery.
There’s also the issue of a fine up to $150,000 for copyright infringement that can happen to anyone (no matter your site size) who uses an image outside of the scope of the license.
And yet, the world of searching for free or paid royalty free stock photos for your website can be a confusing world. Licenses aren’t spelled out completely. Prices aren’t visible. Or worse, a site is licensing a photo that it has no right to license – putting you at risk of copyright infringement despite attempting to stay above the law.
Here’s the resources I use to find straight up free and royalty free stock photos for blogs and websites.
How Copyright & Licenses Works
You don’t have to be a lawyer, but if you are going to be putting someone else’s intellectual property on your website, then you should try to be somewhat well-informed. Start with reputable sources like Purdue University’s copyright basics and Creative Commons.
In short, every creative work is copyrighted. The author can license that work to anyone – including for payment.
Traditionally art & imagery licenses are paid in 1 of 3 ways –
- Royalty – the artist gets a cut based on number of uses or percent of sales.
- Royalty w/ advance – the artists gets an upfront fee with uses or sales deducted from that upfront amount.
- Flat fee – aka “one time” or “royalty-free” where the artist gets a one-time payment and the license owner however the license dictates.
In recent years, the flat fee or royalty-free option has become much more common for digital images. The larger providers of imagery usually stick with royalty based pricing, but small projects have a huge selection of one-time payment marketplaces to choose from.
Again, “royalty-free” doesn’t mean free or not free…it just means that you aren’t paying an ongoing fee or compensation based on the performance of the image.
Resources for Free Stock Photos
Resources for “free” stock photos are a dime a dozen online. And unfortunately, most of them either aren’t reputable or they have images that are not licensed for commercial use.
I’ve written a guide to 59+ ways to find free images for commercial use here.
All images that are free are by definition royalty-free. You only have to provide credit as spelled out in the license.
The best places to go are image search engines. Here are a few that I recommend in my commercial images post. However, if you are not a commercial website, remember that you can shift the settings and find a wider range of imagery.
Google Image Advanced Search
This is a not so well known feature of Google Search. Here’s the idea – Google searches all the images in its index that are explicitly licensed for free re-use with attribution (see Creative Commons definitions).
The safest option is to choose the most liberal license, but you can of course use the other licenses appropriately. Here’s what Google Advanced Search looks like:
You can find Google Image Advanced Search here.
And read more about Google Images’ guidelines for searching creative commons here.
Creative Commons Search
Creative Commons also provides a meta-search engine to easily find Creative Commons licensed imagery. It pulls from Google Image Search, but also other engines and indices as well. It looks like this:
You can find Creative Commons Search here.
Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr used to be the top photo sharing site in the world (before Facebook came along). However, what many people forget is that Flickr is still huge. Photographers still love it. I use it (shameless plug ;) ). And it has millions of photos.
Not all of them can be used – but Flickr does let authors set image licenses very easily.
And Flickr allows you to easily search for photos by license and embed it with credit very easily. It’s got an easy user interface:
This is my favorite resource for images (and where, thanks to no3rdw, I got the image for this post). It’s easy to search, and easy to use.
You can check out Flickr Creative Commons here.
Last, but definitely not least is Wikimedia. This site is, of course, the home of Wikipedia’s images.
And it’s huge. Everything is freely usable, and they have lots of checks on appropriately licensed photos. However, you do need to carefully read the licensing. It’s not quite as user-friendly as Flickr in my opinion. Be sure to read the “freely usable” link on the home page (as pointed out below).
You can check out Wikimedia here.
Wikipedia also offers another amazing resource – a list of Public Domain image resources. Unlike Creative Commons images, public domain images are ones where the copyright has completely expired.
You can do whatever you want with them – without giving attribution, payment, or anything. They have become part of humanity’s shared knowledge.
The problem is that they are all quite old, and are all over the place – and for photos that are old…but not quite public domain old, they can be tough to track down the copyright date – so you still can’t let your guard down.
However, public domain photos are still awesome, and useful.
You can check out Wikipedia’s public domain image resource here.
Getty Royalty-Free Images
If you are looking for non-commercial use, you can check out Getty Royalty-Free Images here. Getty Images was the first company to license images online. They are the name brand and market-leader (oh, they also have a huge library). They do license for royalty-free use…they are a great option to go explore.
Sidenote – speaking of Getty, the museum also made 4600 high-res photos all open, public domain. You should check them out as well here.
You should go explore Getty Royalty Free Images here.
Resources for Paid Royalty-Free Stock Photos
Sometimes though, searching for the right creative commons image is not worth your time…or it’s just not out there.
That’s where paid royalty-free photos come in.
Royalty-free simply means that you pay one set price for an image, and you can use it for unlimited impressions or places. You don’t have to pay the photographer a royalty for every use – you just pay once…and use it however you like (with a few exceptions).
What a lot of people don’t realize is just how cheap royalty-free stock photos can be. If you have never looked into them just because they aren’t free…you are probably missing out. Here’s a few of my favorites for when I want a post to really ‘pop’ – and where my time isn’t worth the search or I can’t find the right Creative Commons image.
You can check out iStockPhoto here. iStockPhoto has a wide range of images from simple stock photos for $1 worth of credits to high-quality images for hundreds of dollars in credits. They do photos, illustrations, video and audio.
They have kind of an odd setup where you have to buy credits with money, then you can buy images with credits. You gotta be careful with the conversion rate. Otherwise, they are my first (and usually only) stop for paid royalty-free photography.
Check out iStockPhoto here and explore. You can search and explore without buying.
You can check out Shutterstock here. Shutterstock is the same as iStockPhoto – lots of images, illustrations, and more. They are a bit more “upmarket” than iStockPhoto – so they are a bit more expensive in my experience to buy individual images (though their subscription program makes sense if you regularly buy images).
And while iStockPhoto certainly has vector images for Adobe Illustrator, Shutterstock seems to be more geared around that market (ie, graphic designers). Either way, they have a lot of images available in a very searchable format.
Smaller collection, but also very cheap. Go check out Photodune here.
Rapidly growing & highest quality. You won’t find typical stock photos here. Go check out Creative Market here.
Good luck! Make your site amazing – but stay above the law, and respect other’s work.
Remember that “royalty-free” means that you are not paying an ongoing fee. You can either abide by free licenses or pay a one-time fee for the image.
One last note – be sure to give back if you are using other’s generously licensed work online. Take a few minutes to upload any amazing photos you own to Flickr…and tag it Creative Commons. You can even automate this process to create link opportunities for yourself.