We’ve all been there before.
You’re working on a crackerjack creative project, but something’s missing.
Maybe you’re designing the cover of your next self-published bestselling novel. Maybe you’re laying out a website for a client’s business. Maybe you want to add a splash of color somewhere in next week’s blog post… but you just can’t seem to find the right kind of imagery for the job.
The Internet has made finding unique and compelling images simultaneously ridiculously easy and deceptively difficult. Millions of photos, drawings, and other renderings are available at the click of a mouse, but figuring out which ones you’re actually allowed to use is the key to avoiding costly legal action.
Of course you want the best, boldest, and most beautiful images around—but you also don’t want to run afoul of sticky copyright laws.
What’s an enterprising professional to do?
7 Great Sites for Great Stock Images
Stock photos have been an integral part of design for quite a while now, but there’s only so many lame photos of two dudes wearing dark suits and enthusiastically shaking hands you can see before your eyes roll back in your head.
Luckily, you don’t have to use those stuffy old standard stock images anymore—they’re boring, they’re overused, and they just cost too much money. Behold: this list rounds up 7 awesome websites where you can get free stock photos for personal or commercial use.
No matter what you’re creating, one of these sites will have the imagery you need to knock it out of the park.
1. Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr.com is a great place to find images under a Creative Commons license. Depending on the license each individual user places their content under, you can use these photos and videos for anything from blog images to book covers.
In order to access the Creative Commons, you’ll need to make an account on Flickr using a Yahoo ID. Simply enter your email, password, name, and date of birth, and you’ll receive a passcode that opens your account. From there, you can post photos and videos to your user page, as well as view and download other users’ content.
Below are the different Creative Commons license icons and what they mean:
Attribution License: Other users can do what they please with this user’s Flickr content so long as they give the user credit.
Attribution-NonCommercial License: Other users can download, edit, or distribute this user’s content on their websites but cannot sell them—in their original or edited forms. Proper attribution must be given as well.
Attribution-NoDerivs License: Other users can use content from this user’s Flickr gallery, but may not edit or manipulate the content in any way. Proper attribution must be given.
Attribution-ShareAlike License: Other users may download and manipulate this content however they choose, but they must license their new creations under identical terms. Proper attribution must be given.
Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial License: Other users can download and distribute this Flickr content, but may neither modify nor use this content for their own commercial gain. Proper attribution must be given.
A Note on Proper Attribution: An ideal Creative Commons attribution includes the title of the content and the name or username of the creator—both linked to their respective source pages—and a link to the license deed.
Example: “IMAGE NAME” by TCK PUBLISHING is licensed under CC BY 2.0
2. Google Images
Yes, even Google Images can be a goldmine of usable image content—just so long as you know how to look.
Specifically, you’re going to want to use a Google Advanced Search to filter the images you’re searching for by the license agreement they’re under. Here’s how to get started:
- Go to Google Images.
- Enter what you’re going to search for in the search bar.
- Click “Settings” under the search bar and select “Advanced Search” from the dropdown menu.
- At the bottom of the page, a dropdown menu labeled “usage rights” will appear. Choose from “not filtered by license,” “free to use or share,” “free to use or share, even commercially,” “free to use share or modify,” or “free to use share or modify, even commercially.”
Hint: To cover all your bases, we suggest you select the latter (that is, “commercially”)—this will give you the most leeway when using the images you find in your projects, even though it will limit the number of images you find.
- Hit “Advanced Search”—the images that appear will all fall under the license you selected.
Unsplash is a well-curated collection of photos from both professional and semi-professional photographers. Unlike Flickr’s Creative Commons, there’s no requirement to credit the photographers on this site—though Unsplash notes that it’s a courtesy to link back to the creator’s profile whenever possible.
The fastest way to find a specific picture you’re looking for is always going to be Unsplash’s search tool, but if you feel like browsing, the site also sorts its content into Collections with themes like Mysterious Landscapes, Façade, and Go Explore. And after you sign up for an account with Unsplash, you can even create and curate your own collections of photos.
Pexels makes finding top-shelf photos for your next project a snap. Not only can anyone upload photos to the site, but Pexels also handpicks images from a variety of other free image sources to make sure you’re only seeing the cream of the crop.
Not only are Pexels’s images high-quality, but they all fall under the Creative Commons Zero license, meaning that they are free for personal and commercial use without needing attribution.
Pexels is a particularly handy resource for app or web designers, as it hosts a stellar array of device images near-perfectly suited for displaying interface mockups. For instance: a blank phone screen that you can Photoshop your app’s home screen onto.
And the vast majority of the site’s images are on the more creative and original end of the spectrum, with only a small percentage indulging in stereotypical stock photo silliness.
Pixabay is arguably the largest collection of free stock photos and illustrations available anywhere on the internet. With well over a million images in the public domain—including illustrations, vector graphics, and even some short videos in addition to photos—Pixabay’s online offerings are easy to get lost in… in a good way.
As with all stock image sites, the search function is the quickest way to find specific pictures, but if you’re looking for inspiration, Editor’s Choice is well worth your browsing time. This collection narrows your search field to an array of images hand-picked by Pixabay’s curating team—think of it like a “Librarian’s Choice” section, but with photos instead of books.
And once you’ve found a picture that suits your project, all you need to do is choose an appropriate resolution and complete a Captcha (the “I’m not a robot” check-box) to download the file.
Editor’s Note: Even if the vast majority of the images on Pixabay are G-rated, there are a few “not-safe-for-work” pictures that might appear in your search results. To avoid embarrassment, make sure you check the Enable SafeSearch box before browsing in public.
6. Negative Space
If you’re looking for photos with a more “raw” edge, Negative Space hosts content from up-and-coming shutterbugs. Anybody with a camera and a computer is invited to contribute to the site’s offerings, share their work, and support fellow creatives everywhere.
Because Negative Space’s content is updated so frequently, you can subscribe to their newsletter for updates when new images related to your search terms are uploaded. If you don’t find what you’re looking for today, chances are some enterprising young photographer will post just the thing you need tomorrow.
Of Note: Negative Space is a UK-based site, so much of the photography in its collection features British scenes, including wonderful shots of London architecture. These collections are beautiful, but it’s worthwhile to bone up on London skyline-related intellectual property rules before using these for your projects.
All the images on Negative Space operate under the Creative Commons CC-by-0 license, meaning that they are free to download for both personal and commercial use, they can be edited and manipulated however you choose, and no attribution is required.
Last on our list—something on the surreal end of the dial.
If your project calls for something a little quirky, Gratisography might have what you’re looking for. This collection of images from photographer and graphic designer Ryan McGuire. McGuire’s photos are always goofy, dreamlike, and even a little scary at times—if you’re sick of all the old stock photo clichés, you won’t find them here.
However, Gratisography doesn’t offer as much content as some other free stock photo sites, as all the photos are supplied by one person, but new pictures are added each week. If you want to know when new content goes up, subscribe to his newsletter or keep a close eye on his Twitter account.
Where do you find quality images for your creative projects? Have you ever used one of the above sites, or do you go elsewhere—or make your own content? Join the collaboration in the comments section below.
And for more information on free online resources for all your projects, help is but a click away:
- How to Get Your Self-Published Book Edited and Formatted and What the CreateSpace Shakeup Means for Indie Authors
- Where to Find Interview Subjects
- How to Set Your Freelancing Rates: A Guide to Pay for Freelancers
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