FREE Stock Photos

How do I find a free stock photo?

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The Ultimate Free Stock Photo Search Tool ad-don for firefox (now also available for chrome) helps you to find any image you need for free. It has access to search over 200 free image sites, and in total helps you get quick and easy access to about half a billion images (yes, that’s billion with a B). The rest of this article discusses the reasons for, uses of and issues surrounding the use of free stock images for your project. If you just want to download it click the big logo and download the free stock photo search addon from mozilla addons or chrome extension gallery.

What exactly is a ‘free’ stock photo?

There are generally considered to be two types of ‘free’ on the internet, most often the distinction is found made by open-source projects and is commonly analogised by the following:

  • Free as in Beer
  • Free as in Speech

This difference is known as Gratis versus Libre: If someone gave you free beer (Gratis), you would have the right to drink it, ie. to ‘use’ it, but not the right to setup a competing brewery producing that same beverage. By comparison free speech (Libre) is the fundamental freedom to share ideas or knowledge gained, so you can do pretty-much anything you like with it.

Most free stock photographs fall into the ‘free as in beer’ category, when using a free stock image you have been granted a license to use that picture, usually for a defined purpose like online usage on your website, as a desktop wallpaper, twitter background, forum avatar etc, providing you comply with the license terms. This usually means providing an attribution link to the artist’s website, but some free image licenses also require that you do not produce any derivative works, or that if you do, those must be shared under the same license. You are always restricted from representing that image as if it were your own, and usually cannot sell the image. The most well-known of this type of license is the creative commons license applied to images.

Free Stock Photo - Man With Wings
Image by Photo_Mind via Flickr

It’s less common, but it also occurs that free images may be granted a Libre license, meaning you may use that image for any purpose, you may distribute or sell it, you may derive other works from it and sell those as though they are your own under any licensing terms you wish, all of which you can do without providing attribution to the author if you wish. This is most common for public domain licenses.

What can I use free stock photos for?

There is not a single purpose you can use ‘any’ free stock photo for, as each image may be subject to different licenses granted by that picture’s author. There a few main types of usage for images you find online granted a free license:

Personal Use only

A personal use only license means that you cannot use an image in any way which would generate revenue as a result of the use of that image. For bloggers in particular this can raise the question of whether their blog is personal or commercial (if your blog has adsense boxes for example), in general if you write your blog with the intention of making money, then it is definitely NOT personal use. If however you write your blog for pleasure and happen to make a few dollars a month from ads, then free images with a personal use only licence may often be used.

Commercial Usage

Image via Wikipedia

When an author has licensed their free image for commercial use, then you may use the image for your business or on a website or blog you run to earn money. As with the personal use only terms, if you either do, or intend to make money with the website or blog where you are using the image, it is certainly a commercial use. Some image licensors also state an earnings limit up-to which you can use a personal-use image, after which you must purchase an extended license for your image, often in the region of $50-100 a month or so.

Derived Works

Often, unless explicitly allowed in the specific license or terms-of-use agreement you cannot use a free stock photo to create your own derivative works (another image containing the original or based upon it’s content). Creative commons in particular allows derivative works where a No-Derivs clause is not present. It may be questionable what actually constitutes a derived work, especially when incorporating images like textures or backgrounds into different media types like 3D models or video. As a guide, if any element of the free image is identifiable in your end-work, it is a derived work and subject to the original license or terms of use.


For ‘gratis’ free stock photos or illustrations, distribution rights are almost never allowed by the terms. Any time you transfer the image to anyone other than yourself, in any form whether digital, on a cd or even in print usually counts as distribution. You cannot represent any free photo received under a gratis license as your own work or sell it to any third-party. Distribution in print is more difficult to define, including for example a free clipart in a college report or power point presentation produced for a client would usually not constitute distribution, but selling (or even giving for free) the image to a client for them to use in a presentation would definitely be distributing the image.

What is Attribution?

Image by TW Collins via Flickr

When using images for free, the most common form of ‘payment’ to photographer or illustrator is to provide a link back to their website, blog or their portfolio on the hosting site where you found the image. This usually takes the form of the photographer’s name and a web link.An example may be seen to the right.

When used in a print format, the web link should instead be the full typed address where a viewer can find the source image and other images by that photographer. Some free photo licenses may just require that you link the image to the source website, whereas others may require a detailed credit-line.

Different licenses have different requirements, so you must always read the license terms carefully to be sure the format of link you use is as specified by the photographer. Even Creative Commons licensed works allow the image-owner to specify precisely the link format you must use, and the flickr terms of service state that any free image sourced there should link back to the photo-page for that image (not direct to the jpg file) and should contain a credit-line.

Why do photographers and illustrators make their images available for free usage?

Image via Wikipedia

There are a few main reasons why photographers, illustrators and other artists might donate their images for free.

  • To gain links to their portfolio to produce more sales for their paid-images. This is a very popular marketing method for professional photographers on flickr, and I have licensed a few non-free images as a direct result of people finding my creative commons images through flickr and google image-search.
  • The work is considered ‘unconventional’ or experimental work, or the artist sets themselves a very high bar for their commercial work, and everything else is just for fun so gets shared for others.
  • As a form of trade, to get an image they cannot shoot in exchange for one they can. A few of the microstock sites started like this, and grew into a huge library. I have donated a few free images to forums before now so I could use another image for a blog post.
  • Just for the fun and warm fuzzies of it… The same reason software people often start or work on open-source projects, there is a sense of contributing to the wider world (this comes under the top level of the Maslow’s heirarchy of needs)

There are a variety of reasons why people do ‘altruistic’ acts, but ultimately, behind every free image you see on the web, there is a real person with a camera or a pencil, wacom tablet, chalk board, a can of spray paint etc etc. Photographers, illustrators and other artists are as sharing as anybody else.

Can I use free images legally for my business?

Anytime you see an image licensed for commercial use you may use it for your company. Often this will take the form of a lack of a non-commercial-use-only or personal-use-only clause. It’s rare that the right to use an image for commercial purposes is explicitly granted in a license, more often the license will state that use for commercial purposes is prohibited. Read the granted license careful on any free images you intend to use to ensure it is legal to make use of it as part of any project which does or will earn any money.

Hazards of using free stock photos

Funny sign: Tripping Hazard
Image by jcolman via Flickr

Not complying with any of the requirements of use for a free image can not only represent a theft of that image, but can also lead to serious legal repercussions, starting with simple requests for removal or compliance (I contact about 5-10 people a month who use my creative commons images without providing attribution), and resulting in anything upto payment-requests for use outside of the license terms or even court action (the later is extremely rare, but does happen) to retrieve damages due to property misuse (copyrighted material is officially intellectual property).

Be aware that when using free images, you almost certainly have no legal guarantee whatsoever. If an element in the image is copyrighted or trademarked by another person or company, you might be liable for any dues on the usage of that property, regardless of whether you sourced the image legally. There are a lot of elements which may appear in photographs licensed freely (especially on flickr) which contain these prohibited elements, and using these for commercial purposes, especially if you are using the image to endorse a product or service (regardless of whether the trademark owner would endorse it or not) could lead to very serious legal issues of misrepresentation, abuse, libel/slander or other such problems.
These particular elements are numerous, this is just a small selection of items or elements within a freely licensed image which would prevent me from using it on my blog or website.

  • Celebrities
  • Trademarked designs such as the rubiks cube, the dyson vacumn cleaner, lego or meccano… etc.
  • Some modern landmark buildings
  • Many world monuments lit at night
  • Modern artworks
  • Any company logo (there may be exceptions here for fair use)
Ariel signs a model release
Image by ewen and donabel via Flickr

In the same stroke you need to be aware of using free images which contain people. For any personal or commercial use of an image of people you must have a legal document called a “Model Release”, this gives you the right to use that image, of that person or people for a variety of specific reasons (or may be a catch-all release). In most cases of free images found on the web (especially creative commons images found on flickr or google image search where the photographer may not realise they have no right to share some of their own images freely) which people, these model releases do not exist, and even if you source the free photo legally, you might still be liable for misrepresentation of a person within that free photograph as you have no right to use their likeness.

If you really need an image of a person to promote your service or product, you MUST obtain a model release of that person. Even facebook has fallen foul of this particular issue, and though most people don’t sue their friends on social networks over them using an image taken on a night down the pub, they’re a lot more likely to sue someone they either don’t know, or perceive as a ‘faceless corporation’ stealing their likeness.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

One of the major issues with finding free images is the occurrence of photographs which are re-licensed illegally, either through malice or ignorance. Google image search has made this particularly rife: a morally questionable individual will find an image they want but is not licensed freely, they will then upload to a website somewhere anonymously and add their own free license terms, they may then use that image and if questioned later refer to those terms, freeing themselves of legal responsibility and placing it onto an anonymous user account. This is quite uncommon, but not rare. I can’t say this strongly enough… If you need a free image for your business do NOT, I repeat… do NOT just copy it from a website found through Google/Bing/Yahoo Image Search tools. They are a guide only and you are still legally responsible for using those free images within the terms of the real license.

If any of these hazards are an issue to you, then using free images may not be a good idea for you, your reputation, or your business. Using free images is fine, but stick to safe topics found through reliable free-image websites. They won’t be 100% free of risk, but you will be safe in the knowledge that you’re not inadvertently stealing from a photographer or image-licensing agency.

If you do require 100% safe images with a legal guarantee, there are several Microstock Stock-Photography licensing agencies which offer this assurance for your business.

How many free stock images are available on the internet?

It’s difficult to say for certain how many images there are available online which may be used for free for your projects, not only are there hundreds of different websites offering at least a few thousand images each, but just among the biggest few there are hundreds of millions. flickr alone had 135 million CC licensed images early in 2010. Wikimedia commons comes in around 7-8 million, and PhotoXpress around 1.5 million.

It’s estimated upto half a billion free photos and illustrations available for use on personal projects a fair proportion of which are also available for commercial use, and that only includes those found on sites which explicitly state that they offer free stock images. There are many more blogs and sites out there which have occasional posts with free vector packs and other design elements.

How to find free stock photos?

The biggest issues now are how to get through that mass, and find images which match what you need, quickly, easily and legally.

The most popular way to do this at the moment is the various search engine’s image-search tools, but as mentioned above, this takes a lot of research to be sure you’re not inadvertently stealing somebody’s work. There are tools coming from within the stock photography industry to try and prevent this, but most of them are focussed on finding people who have already violated the terms so payments can be recovered, or on upselling image licenses for the images similar to those you find.

Your best approach now is to use tools specifically built to locate legal free-use stock photos and other images; there are a few search engines out there trying to locate legal free images, but they usually only index one or two the big sites, leaving you stuck with a small selection of the work which is actually available.

The Ultimate Free Stock Photo Search Tool LogoThat’s why I built the Ultimate Free Stock Photo Search firefox addon. To keep an easily updated list of sites, selectable based on which ones you prefer, and with a huge range of hundreds of millions of available free stock-use images to be sure of finding the right image for your project. Go and download it for Firefox or get the extension for Google Chrome now.