If you’re interested in using high-quality stock photos it’s likely you’ve got questions.

  • Where can I find the best free images?
  • What do I need to know about licenses?
  • What’s the difference between free stock photos and royalty-free stock photos?

We’re going to cover everything you have ever wanted to know about stock photos, including licensing, how to start your own stock photo business, and where to find stock photos for free.

About Stock Photos

Stock photos can help you create engaging blog posts, social media posts, websites, ebooks, and other types of media.

What Are Stock Photos?

Stock photos are typically high-quality images created by professional photographers. Some are licensed for specific uses and others have no restrictions on use.

For example, some may carry a “Creative Commons” license which means they are authorized by the creator to be widely used for free.

Creative Commons and other licenses may require that you credit the photographer and may have additional restrictions on their usage.

Why Use Stock Photos?

Stock photos add a visual element to your work, which makes it both more enticing and more engaging to readers. They can make it easier to explain a specific concept and break up large amounts of text.

Research indicates that people process visual images much faster than text, and when paired with text, their recall of the information is greater.

Also, stock photos have SEO implications. This means that if you use “alt tags” and name the images appropriately, it may help your content rank higher in search engines like Google or Bing.

In print, images make content more immersive and can help to explain concepts and historical events.

Stock Photo Licenses: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

So, now you understand what stock photographs are and why it is so important to use them. But, which ones are okay to use? Do you need to give credit to the photographer? Does it really matter if you follow the rules? Surely no one is going to notice if your tiny publication uses a photo, right?


Many companies (especially Getty Images) are more than happy to spend the time searching for people using their images without a license or outside of the terms of their license. Remember: it is easy for copyright holders to find who’s stealing photos.

Best case scenario, you will get a cease and desist letter asking you to remove the photo. Or, you could risk thousands of dollars in fines. It is just not worth it. Copyright laws are complex, so it is essential to err on the side of caution to protect yourself.

The most common types of licenses you may see for stock photos include:

albrecht durer
Public domain: This photograph of a painting by Albrecht Dürer is in the public domain. Wikipedia (and Wikimedia) have many images that are in the public domain or are under Creative Commons licenses.
  • Creative Commons: In most cases, these photos are free to use as you wish. However, there are different types of Creative Commons licenses. Some require attribution. Some require that you publish a note of any changes that you made to the photo. Some forbid commercial use. It’s important to click on the license and follow the instructions.
  • Royalty-Free: This type of license is generally paid and means you do not have to pay per usage. This means you can print it once or a thousand times for the same fee. It typically does not cover photos for commercially sold items. So, you could print 1,000 brochures but not 1,000 coffee cups to sell.
  • Rights Managed: Also knowns as RM, this license permits one-time usage as specified in the contract. For example, a photographer gives you an RM license to use their photo on a billboard. If you later want to use that same image on a brochure, you would pay an additional fee.
  • Extended License: This license enables you to use the photo in more cases than a royalty-free image, and often allows for usage for commercially-sold products.

Here are a few other terms often included in conversations about stock photos.

  • Fair Use: This refers to the use of copyrighted material for transformative or educational purposes. It is incredibly complex, but if you are in any way attempting to make an income from your content (even indirectly), fair use likely does not apply to you. This guide from Stanford University digs into the factors that impact fair usage.
  • Attribution Required: This means the owner of the photograph requires a link or acknowledgment of their ownership of the picture. “Photograph by Joe Jackson,” or a link to the site with an acknowledgment of the source is usually enough.

What is the Difference Between Copyright-Free and Royalty-Free Images?

If you take a photo (even with your phone), you own the copyright to that photo. No one else can use that image unless you permit them and you are allowed to outline the terms they can use the photo.

Copyright-free images mean the image is not protected by a copyright at all. In most cases, these photos are older photos that have reverted to the “public domain.”

Royalty-free images mean you pay just once to use the photo. So, the “free” refers to not paying for each use of the photo. It does not mean the picture itself is free to use.

Editor’s Picks: The 6 Best (Free and Paid) Stock Photo Sources

Before we dig into all the different places you can find stock photos (there are hundreds!), I am going to share five of my favorite places to find stock photos. These are the photo sites I have bookmarked and are the very first place I head when I am looking for the perfect picture to complement a blog post or to create a post for social media.

1.Pixabay: (Free, with Paid Options) This site has a massive selection of photos and videos, most are free to use and relatively high-quality.

show pixabay stock photo site

2. Death to Stock Photos: (Paid) I love this site. They offer unique stock photos and regularly update the images they offer. You get a new package every month, so you always have fresh, new images to use! They specifically target creatives, so their images stand out.

death to stock homepage

3. Unsplash: (Free) This one makes the list because of the wide variety of high quality, totally free images. From cars to travel to kids doing homework, you can choose from a huge selection of professional quality images.

unsplash stock photo site homepage

4. Shutterstock: (Paid) Shutterstock is one of the most well-known companies in the stock photo niche. Choose from a vast selection of images, photos, videos, vectors, and music, then use the built-in editor to customize images by adding text, cropping, and more. The only drawback is images may be used by many other people, as the site is very popular.

shutterstock hp

5. Adobe Stock: (Paid, Royalty Free) This site stands out for the level of quality. You get what you pay for, as they say. These images are particularly high-quality and are royalty-free.

adobe stock

6. Desygner: (Paid, Royalty Free) Desygner gives access to millions of royalty-free images for commercial use. It also incorporates a powerful design tool packed with helpful features that give you the freedom to create professional designs using your images. Images can easily be imported directly to the editor from all social media channels and cloud drives, including Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Flickr, Dropbox, and Google Drive.

Desygner landing page


Free Stock Photos: 24 Great Sources for Totally Free Stock Photos

If you have the budget, the paid stock photo sites are your best bet for unique photos you won’t see on every other website on the internet. However, there are still tons of fantastic free images available. Use these photos if you don’t have a budget for stock photos but still want to CYA and avoid getting slapped with fees or a lawsuit.

  1. Pexels: Huge selection of stock photos, though some are a bit overused. Search by topic or style.
  2. Unsplash: All photos come with “irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use” for free, including for commercial purposes. They suggest adding attribution, but it is not required.
  3. Pixabay: A wide selection of free images, you can search by category, image size, color, and much more. They also include a collection of paid Shutterstock images for each search in case you don’t find just what you need for free.
  4. Shopify Burst: Thousands of images designed for use on commercial or e-commerce sites. Search based on collection, topic, popularity, and more. They offer a smaller selection but have high-quality photos.
  5. Gratisography: A quirky collection of images that are entirely free to download and use. Think funny faces, dogs wearing suits, etc. They also include links to Shutterstock where you can purchase images if they don’t have what you need.
  6. Picjumbo: A solid selection of free images for personal or commercial usage. They also offer a premium monthly subscription package if you dig their style.
  7. StockSnap: This selection stands out because they are updated regularly, so you will always have fresh, new photos to use.
  8. Creative Commons: This is a search engine, where you can browse images under public domain to find the right photo for your needs.
  9. Flickr: This is a social media site, but you can search by license, famous people, so forth. Also, the official White House photos are posted here and are a free source of political event photos.
  10. KaboomPics: Free stock photos, of course, but they also include a color palette with free graphics you can download. Very high quality and updated regularly.
  11. StockVault: If you need more than just photos, this is the place to look. Search images, textures, illustrations, and more. There is a premium option, as well.
  12. Reshot: “Non-stocky images” you can use however you like. It is an excellent source for candid or less ‘done’ stock photos.
  13. Jay Mantri: Fantastic source for source images for designers. The site has lots of landscapes, animal photos, and architecture photos to choose from.
  14. Free Food Photos: Some stock sites simply curate ‘free’ photos from other sources, which means you will find them on thousands of other sites. All the images on Free Food Photos are taken for the site and are under creative commons, so you can stand out and use the images however you like.
  15. Startup Stock Photos: A simple site that provides free photos created with bloggers, publishers, startups, and designers in mind. Think a man holding a cell phone, a woman working on a laptop, and the like.
  16. Albumarium: They offer a limited selection, but the images are high-quality and they have a robust search engine so you can search by new, license, topic, most liked, etc.
  17. Magdeleine: This site features dramatic photographs on dozens of topics. It is updated daily, so there is always a fresh batch of photos waiting for your creative touch.
  18. Barnimages: Broad selection of free photos, as well as resources such as sketch files, textures, watercolor washes, and more.
  19. Death to the Stock Photo: One of my favorite sites for “non-stock” stock photos. Very unique and regularly updated.
  20. Polar Fox: A well-organized selection of photos covering topics from food to biking to cities at night. All images are licensed under Creative Commons.
  21. NegativeSpace: This site has a smaller selection than the bigger sites, but all are high quality and free under Creative Commons.
  22. Skitterphoto: A place to find and share public domain photos on a wide range of topics. Somewhat limited selection and they link to Shutterstock for categories they don’t cover.
  23. Travel Coffee Book: If you need travel photos, this is a great place to start. They offer a wide selection of travel photos from all over the world. Search by country, city, or category.
  24. RBG Stock: This site offers more than 100,000 photos, all totally free to use. Excellent source for textures, background photos, landscapes, and blog post photos.

The Best Paid Stock Photo Sources

If you are looking for something a little bit different or images of famous people or historical events, you will want to choose a paid source. Many of the free sites also have a paid option, but these three paid stock photos stand out.

Getty Images

This is one of the best-known sources for paid photos, particularly since they have editorial photos of newsmakers and historical archival footage. Pretty much any type of photograph you need can be found here — for a price.

They are also well known for pursuing copyright infringement, so be sure to read the terms for each photo you purchase. Most images are royalty-free.

getty homepage

Adobe Stock

Adobe’s photos stand out for being extremely high quality. All images are high-resolution and can be used within Adobe Spark apps.

They curate collections of images, so you can stay on brand. Medium options include photos, video, templates, vectors, editorial photographs, and more.

adobe stock
Adobe Stock’s libraries include thousands of illustrations, 3D images, and video clips.

Stock Unlimited 

This site offers more than 1 million photos, plus other assets at an incredibly affordable rate — subscriptions start at under $5 a month. If you need access to a ton of pictures, this may be your best option.

You can also choose to download packs of 10, 30, or 100 assets for a one-time fee, but the licenses are only good for one year.

stockunlimited homepage

Top Sources for Royalty-Free Images

Royalty free images, as mentioned above, are images you can use over and over again without paying for each usage. For example, if you want to print 1,000 brochures or use the same image on every page of your website, you only have to pay once.

However, keep in mind this type of license does not generally cover usage on commercial items. For example, if you want to sell t-shirts or coffee mugs with an image, then you will need an additional license.

Quickview Table: Find the Stock Photos You Need

I need ...Paid SourcesFree sources*
Food photosAdobe StockFree Food Photos
Historical imagesGetty ImagesWikimedia Commons
Photos of famous artworkGetty ImagesWikimedia Commons
Photos of newsmakersGetty ImagesFlickr**
Quirky photos--Gratisography
High-resolution, high-quality free images--Unsplash, Pixabay

* As mentioned above, always check the details of the license before using and follow the instructions. Some free images have requirements and restrictions spelled out in their license. 

** For Flickr images of famous people, use the “License” search filter set to “Creative Commons.” Not all Flickr images are free.

Social Media: Where to Get Stock Photos For Your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram Account

Stock photos are fine and good for your blog or the hero image on your website, but what about if you need pictures for social media? These sites make it easy to find and edit images for social media.

Most have built-in editors so you can crop, add filters, add text, and more. You can even start from scratch and create unique images without getting a degree in graphic design.

If you are looking to create impressive social media images, start here:

Placeit makes it easy to create Twitch banners, YouTube end cards, Facebook banners and more. They provide thousands of stock images to choose from.

Can I Just Grab a Photo From Google?

Nope. Remember those Terms of Service that you accepted when you signed up for services like Instagram?

They warn against using any images that you don’t have a license to use. A social media platform can delete your account if you violate this policy.

Regardless of where you intend to use the image, you can never “just grab a photo from Google.”

Can You Make Money With Stock Photography?

Nearly every aspiring or professional photographer has contemplated how they can make money from their photos. Yes, you can make money selling stock photos.

There are several ways to go about it. You can allow another site to sell your photos and make a few dollars off of each photo (with the website taking a cut, of course.)

stock photography

So, you might be wondering which stock photo site pays the most? Getty Images seems to pay the most, with a high-resolution image netting as much as $115 per photo.

On Shutterstock, you can expect to make just a few cents per photo. However, they have a large customer base, so several sales per picture and a wide range of photographs could net you a decent paycheck.

Or, you could start your own stock photo site by purchasing a domain, building a website, and offering your photos for sale. This strategy would take time, but you would keep all profits, unlike selling through another site where they take a significant cut.

How to Use Stock Images Effectively

So, now you know where to get your stock photos, but how do you make the most out of them? Here are four tips for using stock photos effectively.

  1. When using images in blog posts, use images that relate to the content every 200-300 words. The images should bring value to your post, but should also help break up the text.
  2. Look for stock photos that fit with your brand. For example, if you sell business coaching, you wouldn’t use images with pink and purple tutus, unless that happens to fits your brand. (Ballerinas need business coaches, perhaps?)
  3. Use high quality, high-resolution photos. These look better on all devices and help your brand look professional.
  4. Make sure you are clear on how and when the photo can be used. Refer to the licensing section of this post and verify the image can be used for your intended purpose before clicking “publish.”

Video: The Nielsen Norman Group has helpful research on how to use images effectively. See this post and this one for fast tips. 

SEO Considerations When Using Stock Photos

SEO (search engine optimization) is a marketing technique that helps websites and blog posts show up for searches internet users make. While many SEO strategies center around content and how you build your website, there are some considerations to keep in mind for stock photos.

Use Alt Tags

Alt tags tell search engines what an image is about. Use the shortest tag possible and make it plainly descriptive of the image.

Size Images Properly

Larger file sizes will slow down your site speed, resulting in a lower search engine ranking. Use tinypng to compress the size of your photos so they load quickly. For images larger than 5 MB, use Compressor.io.

Another idea: when using a source of free photos like Unsplash, instead of downloading the image, use a screen grab tool to capture the image at roughly the size you need.

Use “Next-Gen” Image Formats

Consider using optimized formats like WebP to serve photos fast on Chrome, Opera, and Firefox.

Note: Coders can hand code alternates with the HTML <picture> element.

For example:

picture element

This will deliver a WEBP image to Chrome etc users and a PNG image to Safari users. (The file path will vary depending on your website’s structure.)

The more efficient way to do this though is to use a service like Cloudinary or Imagekit.io. Both services optimize your website’s images, automatically serving the best format to each visitor based on their browser type and version.

You can also use these services to automatically calculate and serve the appropriate image size based on the device accessing it.

Both companies offer a free plan.

WordPress User?

If you use WordPress, you can opt for the ImageKit.io plugin or Cloudinary plugin.

Or consider using WebP Express, a WordPress plugin that can automatically serve WebP image formats to browsers that support it.

imagekit cloudinary
ImageKit.io and Cloudinary enable image optimization on the fly.

Frequently Asked Questions About Stock Photos

Still got questions? Below, we’ve covered a few more regularly asked stock photograph-related questions.

What does stock photo mean?

A stock photo is a photo taken with the intent to sell or distribute the photo to multiple sources for use online or in print. For example, you might take a picture of a sunset, upload it to Flikr, and set it to Creative Commons so other people can use it. That is a stock photo.

Where can I find free images for my website?

Creative Commons, Pixabay, and Unsplash are all excellent sources. Check out the free stock photo list on this page.

Where can I get images without copyright?

Images with no copyright whatsoever are usually older photos where the copyright has expired. Look for public domain images on Pexels, Wikimedia Commons, or do an advanced image search on Google.

The advanced Google search will enable you to search by license. Remember, you can’t assume that an image, just because it’s on Google, is available to be used freely.

Can royalty-free images be used commercially?

Yes, in most cases they can be used commercially in websites, blog posts, or the like. The generally cannot be used on commercially sold items, such as a t-shirt. Check the license of the specific photo you want to use before creating commercial sold items with a stock photo.

Can I use a royalty-free image in my logo

Generally, yes. However, the specific image you want to use may have restrictions on how it can be altered (e.g. cropped) or used in a logo. Check the license before you use it.

Are Pexels images really free?

Yes, like Unsplash, Pexels images are free to be used in any way and do not require attribution. Here is their photo license with more information.

Even though Pexels images may not require attribution we encourage giving photographers credit and linking back to their author page on Pexels, Unsplash, or any other free source you are using.

Are Pixabay images safe to use?

Yes, Pixabay is a trusted source for free stock photos, illustration, videos, and vectors. Make sure you read about their license terms.

There are limitations. For example, you can’t redistribute or resell the images. And you cannot “use images with identifiable brands to create a misleading association with a product or service.”

Final Thoughts on Stock Photos

Stock photos can take your written content and make it much more appealing. Plus, photographs tend to stick with a person more than just words on a page. Use the sources above to stand out, be creative, and start conversations with your audience! Just be sure to pay attention to the license of the photo you choose.

Did we miss your favorite stock photo site? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Image of painting by Albrect Dürer from Wikipedia, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Image of photographer by Kevin Grieve from Unsplash via the Unsplash license.

Contributing Editor: Sherrie Gossett