What Does “Free” Mean, Anyway?
First, let’s distinguish between “free” and “royalty-free.” A free image is free to download and use, with only a credit and perhaps a link back to the owner. This is what we are looking for here. A royalty-free image is an image that you pay for once and then use however you like without spending an extra dime. Copyrighted images normally require a royalty every single time it is displayed.
Pay close attention to the licensing. Each site will have its own requirements, and in many cases, each photographer will have individual image credit requests. Giving credit shows respect to their work, proves you to be an ethical publisher, and offers visibility and exposure to the image’s producer.
Checking carefully what you can and cannot do – and this is not always straightforward – will tell you whether you can use the image commercially, make edits, or redistribute the image. Never assume an image is up for grabs!
Here’s ten of the best sites for free stock photos and images, and depending on what you are looking for, there are oh so many more.
10 First-Rate, Free-Photo Sites
With close to 400,000 photos, they offer a pull-down category search option that includes love, peace, and urban decay, among many others.
Their most popular images are business and people pictures, and there’s no registration required.
The best photos taken by U.S. government employees as part of their official duty. These include photos from NASA, disaster and recovery photos, and public health images, among others.
Their collection meets strict criteria of quality and claim to be either artistically or photographically interesting. Requires a quick free registration and log-in.
The only difficulty, once registered, is where to find the free photos. Click on download, then free stock photos, and, voila! Over 37,000 free images are at your disposal. (This handy link will bring you directly to the free images.)
This List Gets Better and Better…
Because Flickr also serves as an online photo album, it can be a rather personal walk through someone’s life. The Creative Commons are photos shared by its users in varying degrees of attribution. There is a wide variety of photos, and it will rarely disappoint.
7. RGB Stock
A simple registration will open the door to nearly 70,000 photos and images. There is a general and category search option, as well as interesting backgrounds and graphics under the random search tab.
In addition to the vast collection of photos, they offer links to lessons in photography under the classroom tab. There are also ongoing photo contests with cash rewards for the winners. They’ve kindly supplied a human-friendly version of their full photo-use license. This site is worth a visit.
With 7,000 to 10,000 new photos a month, there’s a lot to choose from, but not necessarily a wide variety. The download limit is 10 Mb daily, which won’t be an issue for the average individual.
Check out the 83 image categories to find the photo you want, but don’t attempt to search more specifically, it won’t prove as fruitful. There are over 6,000 stock photos with unique subjects. You will enjoy the search if you’re flexible in your choices.
Final note: Each site was diligently tested with a search for “cats.” This provided an interesting method of comparison. RGB Stock photo won for downright cuteness.
RGB Stock photo credit.
Chris Rakoczy says
“Copyrighted images normally require a royalty every single time it is displayed.”
This statement is not true. By US law, all creative works are entitled to the protection of “copy right” at the moment of their creation (“fixed in tangible form” is the language the USCO uses). The instant you click the shutter, your image is legally yours and you own the exclusive right to control whether and how copies are made. Anyone copying or using your image without your permission is violating your “copy right”. Of course, for most personal snapshots, this is pretty irrellevant.
Professionals, however, in order to obtain the maximum protection afforded by law in the case of an infringement will REGISTER their copyright. Registration is simply the official notification to the government of your creation. Most people confuse copyright and registration. Copyright is a legal right automatically granted to creators, not an action you can take; registration is the act of notifying the world that you created something.
All that said, an image being “copyrighted” doesn’t mean you have to pay royalties. Recall that “copyright” is the right of the creator to control copies of their creation. As an image owner, I can do whatever I want, even if I register my copyright with the USCO. I can let you use an image for free. Or I can ask a one-time payment for it’s unlimited use (Royalty Free, or “RF”). Or I can ask for payment based on the scope and duration of its use (Rights Managed, or “RM”). Basically, I can grant or deny permission (license) to use my work under whatever terms I choose. That’s my right. My “copy right”.
So, copyright is a legal entitlement, registration is an official notification, and licensing (permission to use) is the sole choice of the creator, and quite independent of copyright or registration.
Carolyn Griswold says
Thanks Chris – We appreciate you taking the time to clarify. -Carolyn