royalty free images

7 places to find royalty free images

7 min read
Sally McGraw

Everyone's a photographer these days. Our ridiculously high-powered phone cameras and endless libraries of filters make us all feel like pros — and there's no denying that Instagram is flooded with breathtaking images created by gifted novices. Because of this trend, small business owners like you have two things in mind when selecting imagery for your web sites: authenticity and cost. You figure that images you've captured yourself will ring truer to snap-happy customers, and that shelling out for professional photos is a waste of precious money.

In some cases, you'd be right.

But your phone snaps might not be big enough, the right orientation or appropriately composed for your website’s (or web designer’s) needs. And — time for a hard truth — they might not be quite as spectacular as you believe them to be. (Sorry, friends.)

Royalty free images to the rescue

Thanks to the easy availability of royalty free images, you don't have to shell out bales of hard-earned cash for great images.

Dozens of companies heard the kvetching of small business owners just like you who wanted access to stunning imagery that didn't cost an arm and a leg. In response, they built sites teeming with utterly lovely and truly affordable photos. These sites accumulate and catalog royalty free images — images that can be purchased for a flat fee instead of through per-use royalties paid to the photographer.

If you know where to look, you can access scads of high-quality, low-cost images to use on your website.

Don't believe me? I'll prove it. Here’s the skinny on seven sites just teeming with high-quality, royalty free imagery.

The Stocks

The Stocks Royalty Free Images

Let's start with the big guns: The Stocks is an aggregator of smaller royalty free image sites, including a few described below. It provides an easy way to search for images quickly through 21 large online libraries.

Pros: Has hand-picked some of the most elegant royalty free image resources for you. Also includes resources for royalty free illustrations and vector art.

Cons: Doesn't include a universal search. The Stocks itself is just a left rail sidebar that allows you to click through to its 21 constituent sites. If the sites themselves have a search bar, you can use that. But there's no way to pop a search term like "mountain range" into The Stocks itself and search across all 21.

Cost range: Varies widely — from free to low-cost monthly or yearly subscriptions, sites that take user-determined donations, and per-photo costs.

Attribution: Required in some cases, but most use the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. This means the pictures are completely free to be used for any legal purpose.

For more on the how and why of CC0 from the creative’s perspective, check out our Designer’s Guide to Creative Commons.

Death to the Stock Photo

This free subscription service doesn't allow user searches or individual downloads. It is skillfully curated and a surprisingly useful resource. Sign up with your email address, and Death to the Stock Photo will email you 10 free high-resolution stock photos every month. The images tend to be beautifully lit scenes that would make perfect backdrops for small business sites — minimalist home offices, guys in hipster glasses writing in journals, a close-up of a hand on a wireless mouse and so on. If you're looking for images for your company blog, for instance, this site is well worth a sign-up.

Death to Stock Royalty Free Images
Many of the royalty free images available from Death to the Stock Photo are perfect for small business websites and blogs.

Pros: Free, excellent, multi-use images.

Cons: Doesn’t provide users the ability to search.

Cost range: Free.

Attribution: CC0 license.


Gratisography Royalty Free Images

Skilled photographer Ryan McGuire adds new images every week to this royalty free goldmine, including beautifully composed urban landscapes and textures, funny portraits, object close-ups and quirky backgrounds.

Pros: Wide selection of artistic images with a humorous bent, along with great textures and some stellar landscapes. Incredibly easy to download — just click!

Cons: It's one man's work, so if you want images of kittens or ice cubes or something super specific, you might be out of luck.

Cost range: Free.

Attribution: CC0 license, though attribution appreciated.


iStock Royalty Free Images

Once an independent company and now a Getty Images subsidiary, iStock might be the reason you think of smiling groups of diverse people in white-light-flooded conference rooms when you hear the words “stock photos.” But there are some more authentic-feeling images in the mix.

iStock gives small businesses access to a huge variety of high-quality, high-resolution royalty free images at low prices.

Pros: A truly staggering number of images. If you need a photo of a man in a gorilla suit using a banana as a telephone, you'll find it here. Also includes a variety of illustrations and vector art.

Cons: Most images are staged and feel staged.

Cost range: Pay-as-you-go with credits or choose from monthly subscription packages. Most high-resolution images are around three credits.

Attribution: Determined by individual image, generally photographer's name.


Unsplash Royalty Free Images

Like Death to the Stock Photo, Unsplash offers a free subscription service that emails you 10 high-res, royalty free images. But Unsplash does so every 10 days and has a searchable archive. Landscapes — both urban and wild — are a strong suit, though most photos have an appealingly Instagram-esque modernity to them. The archive is rich and deep, offering multiple options for search terms from "keyboard" to "dress" to "whale."

Pros: Variety of artsy, high-res images that make great backdrops. Lovely landscapes and animals, as well as close ups.

Cons: Minimalist layout can be a bit tough to navigate. Rely on the search function.

Cost range: Free.

Attribution: CC0 license.


Shutterstock Royalty Free Images

Much like iStock, Shutterstock offers customers access to everything from knock-outs of ice cream cones and cell phones to models with perfect teeth and couples smiling at each other over coffee. These aren't the artsy photos you might want for your site or newsletter, but the illustrations and vector art are both amazing.

Pros: 80 million (whoa!) options, including vector art and videos at affordable prices. Also includes an extensive editorial library, in case you need photos of Beyonce.

Cons: Higher priced than most royalty free resources listed here.

Cost range: Buy individual images or subscribe for monthly packages for individuals or teams.

Attribution: Determined by individual image, generally photographer's name.


Pexels Royalty Free Images

If Unsplash and iStock had a baby, Pexels’ library would be the result. Pexels has plenty of blurred-foreground images of brunettes cradling wine glasses, but also includes white-background still lifes of food and simple office scenes. If you don’t see anything you like in Pexels' own offerings, you can browse a bar of Shutterstock offerings along the bottom of the page.

Pros: Spectacular landscapes, modern office shots and a huge variety of layouts relevant to small businesses.

Cons: Many staged office-y shots and photos of common objects. And if ads irritate you, they'll irritate you here. There's always a small graphic ad in the top right corner as you use the site.

Cost range: Free.

Attribution: CC0 license.

Start illustrating your website

So there you have it — seven awesome sites where you can find royalty free images to breathe new life into your website or blog. To learn more, be sure to check out “The smart guide to using stock images.”