When looking for free stock photo sites, don’t think about price. Instead, think about quality and unique styles that you won’t find in regular stock photography. Uniqueness matters in advertising photography.
Normal, cliched, boring, yet free, stock photography (think 123rf.com) will actually weigh down your website. It looks horrible.
Yet, “big market” photography that is high end can be expensive and the licenses can be confusing (think Getty Images). We still suggest sites like Getty or Adobe for print or when building websites for Fortune 500 companies where licensing can get contentious.
However, the best photos for small to mid-sized companies are definitely in the free photo arena. You can find great quality from good to even professional photographers who are looking more for exposure than paychecks.
Flickr (https://www.flickr.com) is one of my favorite places for commercial photography. While it can be a hit or miss, quality photographers post photos that can be used commercially.
The photos on Flickr tend to be raw and need either sharpening or cropping, so we nearly always search “Commercial Use & Mods Allowed” so we can trim or crop the image. (“Mods” mean you’re modifying the image.)
You can find gems on Flickr that you won’t find in other “stock photo” sites, even paid sites. Photos on Flickr tend to be more personal, more unique and tend to have angles and subject views that can’t be found on commercial stock photography sites.
In the photo below, for instance, we searched for “Powell’s bookstore” in Portland and found a great photo that we could trim off the foreground and background to make a tighter shot.
Flickr Payment: Citation
Most photographers want a citation back to their Flickr page for use of their photo. You can either create a “citation” page on your website or cite it directly from the photo caption, as we did. And if you feel inclined to pay the photographer, as we often do when we use Flickr photos for paid work instead of probono work, then you can donate money directly from Flickr.
Photos on Pexels (https://www.pexels.com) are more akin to stock photos, but free. It’s a quality photo sharing site, but it has that impersonal, overly posed quality that stock photo sites often have.
Pexels’ photos have all the qualities of good photography (composition, lighting, subject), but it’s like you’re getting the unsold seconds from paid stock photography websites.
Photo quality is good, as I noted. But the photos do tend to be overly posed, as shown in the following photo:
Pexel Payment: Citation
I do like Pexel’s citation tool. It gives you a very simple way to credit photographers in the way the photographer wants. It also allows you to post it social media or even contact the photographer directly. Other services tend to make you work and guess.
Like Pexel, Unsplash (https://unsplash.com) has that same, bad search engine that looks for anything and everything. It tends to be harder to find great photos on a specific topic.
That said, Unsplash has some excellent photos that are free.
Like Flickr, the photos often come from excellent, non-professional photographers who just want to share their work. You’ll notice high quality photography in settings that are either lightly posed or very natural.
The following photo is of an old bookstore in Paris. It has excellent lighting, composition and detail and would make a great travel photo.
Again, this photo from France came up when looking for “Powell’s Bookstore” in Portland. If you don’t mind a little off topic searching, Unsplash is a great site for free photos.
Unsplash Payment: Nothing or Citation
Unsplash doesn’t require a citation, which can be good on certain assignments. However, we like to at least cite the work so photographers can earn recognition. Unsplash’ citation tool is similar to Pexel and makes citation easy.
Canva (https://www.canva.com) provides an excellent design tool for web editing. As a side service, it also provides free and paid stock photography.
I’m not going to feature their photos here as Canva’s photos are basically from Pexels and other free photo sites.
Canva doesn’t have the volume of images from other sites, so choices are limited.
What makes Canva good is that they seem to curate out the overly staged photos. Thus, what you are left with is better quality photography from Pexels and Pixabay that is still free.
Whenever I talk about web photography, people always suggest Pixabay (https://pixabay.com). Obviously, it’s got great market share and name recognition.
However, like Canva, it seems to share content with other websites. They have their own photos, but also share the photos of other sites.
The quality of their photos is also lacking. Like Pexels, the images tend to be the overly posed images that you often see on stock photo sites.
Pixabay Payment: Nothing or Citation
Like Pexels, you can pay in citations or not. Up to you. You can also pay in “coffee”, or $5.
Photos from 500px (https://500px.org) are sharp and very stylish. The quality is generally something you won’t see in other sites, even paid sites like Getty.
Overall, you’ll get top notch photography in a website that’s easy to search.
For instance, searching for “Powell’s Bookstore” on this site gives me actual photos of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland. As shown below, the images are very good.
The reason I’m putting it low on my list is their licensing model. Some images are free and citation only. Some are not. It’s all up to you to figure it out.
That’s a problem for both the photographer and for you. How do you know if you’re violating the license? You can’t, or at least not without that hassle of negotiating directly to the photographer. Isn’t that what the website is supposed to do?
At Visual String, we love 500px but would strongly suggest using the photos for probono or non-profit websites only. And even then, only use 500px’s “embed” tool instead of downloading it. That away, if you accidentally get on the wrong side of their license, you leave them in control and that plays in your favor.
500px Payment: Nothing or Citation or Unsure
As noted, 500px’s licensing model is an enigma at times. Take care in how you use the photos. For some images, though, it’s worth the effort.