Stock photography has something of a bad rap – it’s often a bit cheesy (aptly illustrated by Tumblr blog Women Laughing Alone with Salad ) and even when you find something suitable for the project you’re working on, you might have to fork out for a costly subscription fee.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Thanks to talented and generous photographers, there are thousands of stunning original photos in the public domain. We’ve collected the five best free stock photography sites where you can find great pictures for all your projects.
All of their photos are free to use without attribution for personal, editorial or commercial purposes. However, there are still a couple of restrictions to bear in mind. The main limitations apply to photos of identifiable people, trademarked products and privately owned property (not only people’s homes, but also some landmarks). Getty Images has an excellent guide to intellectual property, which is worth checking out before you get started.
You might also be interested in our list of free alternatives to Adobe Photoshop.
Stunning pictures from professional and semi-professional photographers
Unsplash is a well curated collection of beautiful photos donated by skilled photographers, and has been used to create some incredible work. There are fewer images than you’ll find on Pixabay (see below), but the quality is more consistent.
Unsplash’s search tool is the fastest way to find a picture, but if you have a little time of your hands, check out Collections – groups of photos sorted by other users into themes like Light and Shadow, Street Life, and Into the Wild. You can create your own collections after signing up for an account. They’re ideal for inspiration, or gathering resources for a project.
As with all the stock photography sites here, it’s not necessary to credit the photographer, but Unsplash notes that it’s nice to add a simple credit with a link back to their profile as a courtesy. The picture featured here is by Carl Flor.
The biggest collection of free stock photos and illustrations online
Pixabay is packed with well over a million public domain images – not only photos, but also illustrations, vector graphics, and even a handful of videos. Its selection of landscape photography is particularly strong, and the Editor’s Choice is well worth a look if you don’t have something specific in mind.
Once you’ve found a suitable picture, choose an appropriate resolution (print projects will need a much higher resolution than online ones) and complete a Captcha to download the file. You can cut out the Captcha by signing up for a free account.
The vast majority of pictures on Pixabay are safe for work, but to avoid anything explicit appearing in search results, make sure you check the Enable SafeSearch box before browsing.
A collection of fun and surreal photos that provide a breath of fresh air
If you’re looking for something a bit quirky, Gratisography – a collection of pictures by talented photographer and graphic designer Ryan McGuire – is perfect. Ryan’s photos often have a surreal edge, and are brilliant if you’re sick of dull stock photo clichés; there are no women laughing alone with salad here.
Gratisography doesn’t offer as much content as some other free stock photo sites, but Ryan’s creative eye makes up for that, and he adds new pictures every week. You can subscribe to his newsletter for update alerts, or keep an eye on his Twitter account.
It’s not essential to credit Ryan when you use his work, but he appreciates it if you do.
Free public domain stock photos from around the world
Anyone is welcome to upload photos to Pexels, and the site’s curators will pick out the best shots to populate its searchable collection of public domain images. You can search for something specific, or browse by themes including pastimes, emotions, and locations.
Pexels is a particularly good choice for web or app designers, with an excellent set of device images that are ideal for displaying interface mockups. A couple of images stray close to stock photo cheesiness (ideas that are tricky to illustrate spelled out with scrabble tiles, for example), but the vast majority are creative and original.
Pexels has a category dedicated to space photography, which looks amazing, but bear in mind that some of the material is from NASA – one of the organizations whose images should only be used in specific contexts.
Free stock pictures from up-and-coming photographers
Anyone with a camera is invited to contribute to Negative Space, which aims to give amateur photographers a platform to share their work with the world and support fellow creatives.
As with Gratisography, you can subscribe to Negative Space’s newsletter for updates when new images are added, and because the content is refreshed so frequently, it’s well worth re-visiting to look for new pictures if you’ve been working on a project for a while.
Negative Space is based in the UK, so much of the photography features British scenes. At the time of writing, the collection several shots of architecture in London, so it’s worth checking out this guide to intellectual property and the London skyline before using these.
What makes great stock photography
For print work, resolution is key. Standard photo prints require a resolution of at least 640 x 480 pixels, but your printer and designer might well want something higher. The photos need to be as sharp as possible, with no artefacts or noise visible when zoomed in. Avoid shots that are even slightly out of focus.
Creativity is also very important. Stock photography has a poor reputation because so much of it (even on premium sites) relies on cliches and awkward metaphors to convey tricky concepts, but experienced photographers tend to have an eye for interesting details and scenes that might convey a message in a more subtle or imaginative way.
Ultimately it's up to you to decide which picture is most appropriate for the context, but some sites (such as Unsplash) let users tag images themselves, which can make it easier to find something that fits the message you want to express.