As marketers and business owners will testify, the struggle to find quality, usable stock photos for your website and social media is real: especially if you’re going to take the sensible precaution of ensuring you are legally entitled to use any 3rd party images you source (spoiler: you definitely should be doing this!)
What’s the issue? Finding high quality, subject and brand appropriate photographs, vectors and stock imagery to use for your digital marketing.
Here’s the thing: many businesses (far more than would readily admit), are happy to take the easy option and ‘re-appropriate’ (read: pinch) copyrighted photographs and vector images from the web and use them (uncredited) on their own websites, social media profiles and sometimes even printed collateral.
Our advice: STOP.
Think I’m scaremongering? These poor suckers had to pay $4,000 USD for reusing an image they found via a simple Google image search, without seeking the permission of the owner.
Don’t assume that any image you find without an explicit copyright license is “fair game” or “public domain”. In reality, the opposite is more likely the case.
“But stock images are so costly!”
This can undoubtedly be the case. Getty, Shutterstock, iStock and several other premium image searches frequently serve up the perfect image for your blog post or social share, but the price you pay for usage of protected IP can be astronomical.
I’d post an example here of an expensive image from one of these sites but then, of course, we’d have to pay to do so, so instead here’s an image of me wagging my finger in a “tut, tut – naughty, naughty” motion.
The “she’ll be ‘right” attitude
You may well be asking: what’s to stop me from finding an image I like via a premium stock photo repository and performing a reverse image search on Google Images or the excellent TinEye, in order to find the same images in use on other sites on the internet?
Maybe you’ll find a HD version, sans watermark, that you can download and use for your own project without having to fork out a few bucks?
Well, yes – you *could* take this risk, as others have in the past, to their eternal regret.
But remember – tools like TinEye and reverse image searches in Google can also be used by the photographers and designers as a means of finding out who has been using their copyrighted original work without permission. That is when the sh*t can really hit the fan.
“Yeah, but that’s America right? I’m safe here in New Zealand from copyright infringement penalties!”
In New Zealand, copyright exists from the moment any original work is created; no formal registration or process is required to protect original copyright.
There are also international treaties in place to ensure that the same is true of most other countries. See the Ministry of Business New Zealand Intellectual Property Office website for more details.
So having established that it’s a bad idea to unlawfully use third party images in any of your digital marketing portfolio, one key question arises:
How can you find legally free to use (or affordably priced) quality images for use on your website, Facebook page and other online platforms?
The Best Solution – Creative Commons Copyright Image Providers & Repositories
Creative Commons is a specific type of intellectual property license that facilitates free, international, easy-to-implement usage of copyright – not just for images but also video, audio, literature and more.
With the internet being what it is, there are literally tens of thousands of websites that claim to offer professional level images under ‘Creative Commons’ licensing. As with anything on the web, quality varies (as does the range in volume of creative commons images available per service).
It’s also worth remembering that it’s not necessarily the best or most useful free sites that feature in the top 10 Google results, when it comes to search queries such as “best free images”.
Many paid image services have optimised their own content around such terms, and rank highly in the search engine results accordingly.
This post looks objectively at the top 10 websites and tools for “copyright free” (or more accurately creative commons copyright) images in terms of quality, volume of images offered and functionality.
Disclaimer: each site featured has been used by Buzzwords. This isn’t some skyscraper list of tools aiming to trump the current best ranked article on the same topic: it’s a collection of resources for copyright free images we at Buzzwords have found really useful and want to share with you because we’re nice people. 😁
Our current favourite and a resource boasting growing popularity and usage worldwide.
Pexels offer a mature and intuitive image search tool that encompasses in its search parameters many other free image platforms (such as Pixabay and Gratisography).
All images sourced from Pexels are creative commons licensed and don’t even require you to attribute the work to the original artist (although you can’t and shouldn’t claim it as your own either!)
Pixabay is a resource used by Webmasters the world over, and for good reason.
The team at Pixabay have put in the hours to ensure that the many (1.5 million +) images searchable through their platform have exceptional category and tagging, meaning you’ll find it easier to find the right image for your needs.
The Pixabay website is also very intuitive and offers a range of different sizes to suit most needs for their extensive range of creative commons images.
Canva is more than an image repository site; it’s an entire eco-system for easily creating templated (but still beautiful) imagery for use on social media, print, eBooks, websites and more.
Sometimes (a little unfairly) tagged as “graphic design for idiots” – it certainly does make life wholly easier for those who want quick and dirty social media graphics.
But don’t underestimate the extensive range of free images available through the tool (over 300,000 according to Canva themselves).
The premium upgrade Canva for Work ensures full access to the entire repository of free images in Canva (as well as some other desirable features, such as personalised folders and instant resizing of images for different social media channels).
The search function and taxonomy (tagging and categories) implemented by Unsplash isn’t as intuitive as that offered by Pixabay or Pexels, and the repository is certainly not as extensive (but still boasts in excess of 500,000 unique images).
But what Unsplash lacks in range and intelligent image search functionality, it makes up for with the quality of the images on offer. Many of the images found on Unsplash are simply stunning, and in the Instagram / visual age, using images on your blogs or social feeds with the WOW factor is key.
Check out a couple of images we found for this blog post in next to no time:
Morguefile is another one of those hidden treasures for those looking for quality, artistic photographs to reuse for their own projects.
All the images found on Morguefile have been contributed by creatives (professional and amateur) from around the world.
There’s a paid element to Morguefile (who act as an aggregate search engine for paid repositories including Getty and Shutterstock), but a substantial number of the images found via the tool can be used for free under Creative Commons. Just ensure you filter your search by Morguefile only (to exclude the paid images).
* registration is required to use Morguefile.
PLiXs don’t offer a ton of images on their site. In fact, compared to the others on this list, it’s decidedly sparse.
We’ve included it here because, much like Unsplash, the quality of the images offered is extremely high. As such, PLiXs certainly won’t have a suitable image for every piece of content you produce, but it is certainly worth a place in your image repository arsenal.
Check out this sample image we plucked from PLiXs for inclusion here:
StockVault is one of those sites that manages to be simultaneously fantastic and rubbish!
Why is it included here? Because any given search made using their intuitive search functionality yields lots of great quality and on-point results (StockVault have 128,000 original images in their database).
Why’s it also a pain in the arse? Well firstly, don’t be fooled into clicking on the very first results of any search. StockVault feature premium Shutterstock images at the top of every search results page (and these images are nearly always expensively priced). In fact, the ads for Shutterstock images on every page become annoying pretty quickly.
Secondly, even the non-paid results are somewhat hit and miss when it comes to the particular type of creative commons licensing offered. Many results are free to use only on a non-commercial basis (such as personal blogs and projects) but cannot be used for business purposes.
This is the creator’s prerogative, of course, but there’s no way to filter out those images from a search results page, meaning it can be quite time consuming to click on the images you like and check out the individual license types.
That said, if you’re prepared to spend some time panning for gold, it can be a worthwhile pursuit.
Aside from having an awesome name, we love Death To The Stock Photo primarily because of the fantastic quality of the images offered. Check out this gorgeous sample to get a feel for the type of thing on offer:
Unlike all the other services listed here, DTTSP operates on an email subscription basis.
Once signed up, you’ll receive regular emails offering free photo packs containing 20 images (usually on a specific theme or from a particular featured artist) which you can download and use as you see fit. We cannot overstate how superb the images included in these weekly missives often are. Seriously, subscribe and see for yourself: it’s totally worth it!
Death To The Stock Photo have changed their business model in recent years to offer a subscription based service (which we haven’t tried but apparently gives instant access to over 2,500 photographs). We’ve been happy with the quality of the (completely free) images provided monthly via email, although it goes without saying that this particular free service doesn’t come with any sort of search functionality.
RGBStock.com is another platform formed by an online community of professional and amateur photographers and graphic artists, who submit their own works under creative commons licensing to allow free use of their work.
Membership is required (but it’s free and worth it), with the site offering a pretty decent search functionality, category sorting and a healthy volume of images to choose from.
Gratisography is another service that offers something a bit different! Many of the images found on the site have a surreal, absurdist or outright comic book slant to them, making them perfect for certain niches or for standing out on social media.
Illustration through example is probably the best option here.
Gratisography is another site that features paid Shutterstock images at the top of every search, but not as aggressively as some others, such as StockVault.
Bonus: CC Search – a new(ish) project from creativecommons.org
In 2017, Creative Commons (the global organisation with a mission statement to help make free-use creative works more accessible to all), claimed to have made some vast improvements to their 1-stop-shop search tool, particularly around metadata (which helps with search functionality – providing you with the most appropriate results for your search terms).
You can read more about the project and the list of third party sources that the tool scrapes on the creative commons website.
Caveat: we’ve not yet tested the quality of the images found via CC Search (but are excited to see what it can do and add it to our tool-set!
Finally – A Handy Infographic To Keep You on The Copyrighting Straight & Narrow
Check out the following thorough, informative infographic on online image theft and how to avoid it, courtesy of berify.com (who, incidentally, explicitly state that their infographic can be embedded on other websites!)