About Stock Images + Our Top 5 Sources

We created a free, downloadable e-book about stock photos back in 2016 which contained a myriad of links. We’ve decided to update this guide and create a blog post, that we can revise from time-to-time to make this resource more valuable to you in the future. We’ve noticed that stock photo sites come and go – or change direction – so we’ve decided to keep this as something that we can revise, periodically.

Stock image websites are a staple resource to professional design agencies. They have so many uses that I would say that this is one of our most valuable resources, next to the design tools themselves. This resource is not limited to use by professional designers. Bloggers, content creators, authors, and journalists can take advantage of it as well.

In these days of rapid social content and information sharing, we find that many people are still unaware of the “dos” and “don’ts” of stock. In this post we’ll explain – what stock photos are, your rights under certain content usage licenses and reliable sources for finding free, high-quality stock photos.

What are Stock Images?

Stock images are photos, vectors or illustrations (clip art, shout out Windows 95) that are licensed for various commercial or personal uses. Generally, these are submitted to design houses with license restrictions – provided by the creator – and made available for purchase or download. You can then use these images on your blog post, as we did for this post, a social media post, a digital or print newsletter, brochure or other quick project – where hiring a professional photographer makes no since to your timeline or budget.

Usage Rights and Copyrights are NOT the Same

When it comes to creative works, there are several different usage rights structures, in addition to copyright laws. One fundamental rule to understand is that most anything – but we’re talking about creative works, here – that you find on the Internet is copyright-protected in some way or another, except for works that have become Public Domain. If they have not become Public Domain due to copyright expiration, an author may choose to make it Public Domain.

Creative Commons is a free, nonprofit service that allows content creators and creatives to establish their own “copyrights”, if you will, for their own content – basically create a context for them to show others what rights they would have to said works. So, let’s say a photographer takes a picture today that he knows he will submit to a site for free stock photos, he may go ahead and make use of the Public Domain designation with Creative Commons so that users of the site will understand that they are free to use the image however they wish.

In other cases, someone may make their photos available for download and use, even commercial use, and still require the user to give them proper attribution as the originator of the image. The owner of the content – copyright – establishes the usage rights. When we create for our clients, we extend them a license to use the finished works for the use that they commissioned it for. But we still own the rights – copyright – to the work, except for logos.

Whether you decide to pay for stock or get it free, you should always make yourself aware of the rights attached. Ignorance is not a good defense in court. Besides this, you should also check to see if the author requires attribution – stating the photo credit with use of the completed work.

Where to Find Stock Photos

Well, you can buy them for a stock house – Getty, Shutterstock, iStockPhoto, 123fr, Adobe Stock – or you can find free high-quality stock photos. I’ll cover our favorites sites later in this post. But first…

Google Image Search Isn’t a Stock Image Repository

Now, here me out. Google Image Search is great for searching for reference photos or inspiration. I’ve used it when I’ve been looking for a certain hairstyle that I wanted my stylist to create for me, or for furniture or decor inspiration, and I still use it for creative inspiration or for still life sketch references. But it is not a place to find stock imagery.

“But, why not? It’s out here on the Internet,” you might say. And that’s only half-true. Everything that’s on the Internet is not “fair game”. Google is just doing what a search engine does, deliver the results that you’re looking for. But, that does not mean that what you find is not copyright-protected or free for you to use. Now, there are instances where it may be allowed – see fair use – but you must use caution when attempting this sort of usage. As a general rule and to protect your brand, we don’t believe that it is ever good to use and image on your blog or social media that you found on Google.

Yeah, but you never explained WHY…

Simply put – avoiding lawsuits. If someone finds their image in your hands – raw or remixed – violating their copyright, they can sue you. As we previously mentioned, ignorance is not a good defense. We’re not talking about someone accusing you of stealing because you found a $20 bill lying on the ground. We’re talking about violating someone’s intellectual property rights.

Google isn’t a sidewalk where you can pick up random discarded items. I believe that we all can benefit from understanding intellectual property rights for our own protection and to be sure that we are operating in an integral and ethical manner. How would you feel if someone performed a Google search and remixed your logo, blog post, book excerpt or anything that you authored and passed it off as their own?

But, I digress… on to what you came here for…

The TOP 5 Sites that We Love for Stock Images

Every site isn’t the same in quality, content or usage rights. We’ll offer our commentary where necessary, but you’ll be sure to find your own favorites.

1. Pixabay – pixabay.com – Good Selection

This is one of our favorites because it has photos, vectors, illustrations and videos. We love the variety they offer and can often find what we are looking for right here, without having to search further. Their quality guidelines ask that an image be of a certain resolution and quality, but anyone can upload. Depending upon what we’re looking for, composition is not always the best, but most of the time, we’re going to remix it in creative software, so we’re okay with it.

With video backgrounds becoming more popular on social media and website headers, this would be a great resource to find something that works with your brand.

2. Unsplash – unsplash.com – Outstanding Quality & Composition

This is our favorite for beautiful photos. This is our go-to site for outstanding photo composition. Many of their images, we are able to use without any sort of manipulation – besides if we’re going to add words on top. But even that sometimes feels wrong. We recommend this site for featured images for blogs, website headers, or if you need images that convey an emotion, mood, or feeling. We can scroll their images for hours…no lie.

3. Pexels – www.pexels.com – Variety + Composition

This is our favorite for variety and composition. We really like this site, but we listed it third because you can also find their images on Pixabay. We will often come here when we are looking for something specific and weeding through Pixabay isn’t working out. The overall quality of their images are on the level of Unsplash, but Unsplash has more images.

4. Gratisography – gratisography.com – Unconventional Stock

We love the quirkiness of their photos. Let’s be honest, sometimes stock images can be boring with dry and generic poses. Finding something that matches your attitude or personality can be difficult at times. If you’re looking for something funny, quirky, edgy, raw, or bizarre; you might want to give them a shot. They don’t have a huge selection, but they do upload regularly. Or you can sign up for their email list to receive notification of new images.

5. Death to the Stock Photo – deathtothestockphoto.com – Not Your Average

Because, loyalty. We discovered Death to the Stock Photo back in 2016 or something like that. Back then, the site was entirely free, all you had to do was sign up for their emails and they’d send you photo packs from their latest adventure. With photo packs from different locations, with different themes, and different photographers – you never really knew what you were going to get. But, the result was always something good. Though they have subscriptions now, you can still sign up with your email to receive a photo pack. They are not released as regularly as they used to be, but we believe that they are still worth it. Their images are not found widely, that – alone – makes it worth it.