How to Use Free Stock Photos For Your Creative Projects

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Have you ever stumbled across free stock photos online and wondered what you can and can’t do with them? Can you use them in your art? As a reference for a painting? On a poster you’re designing?

Free stock photos can be a wonderful resource – I personally use them all the time. But they do come with some rules and a few downsides. I’ll talk about these, how to use free images fairly, and lots more in the post below.

Using Free Images Found Online

When you need a picture of something, maybe for a drawing reference or to use in a blog post, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Google! Pinterest! Right?

There are loads of great sites and search engines where you can find photos of just about anything. The tricky part is knowing what images you can use for what.

Can’t I Just Use Images from Google?

Not all of the photos you can download online are meant to be free stock photos for anyone to use. In fact, most of them are not.

Yes, you can technically download photos from a webpage or Google Images, but that doesn’t give you permission to use them. You can find yourself in deep legal (and financial) trouble if you are sued for using a photo or graphic without permission.

(Do note that there are a few limited exceptions, such as critiquing and educational use. They fall under ‘fair use‘ in the USA and ‘fair dealing‘ in Canada.)

If you want to use an image you found online, even for personal projects, you must get permission from the copyright holder. You can definitely do this – it’s not really that hard. You simply need to find out who owns the image copyright and email or call the person to ask if you can use it. You should get permission in writing and keep a copy of it in case it is challenged in the future.

Seeking out permission for individual photos can be time-consuming, though. And of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll be allowed to use it even if you ask nicely.

One solution to this issue is to search for images where the copyright holder has explicitly stated that people may use their photos.

Ok, so how do you find these freely usable images?

Screenshot of free stock photos site Unsplash.com
Unsplash.com hosts
freely usable images

Ta Da! Free Stock Photos Websites

In the past decade or so, websites that host free stock photos have started to pop up all over the web. Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay are three of the largest, with each site hosting millions of freely usable images.

Just like the big microstock image sites (like iStock, Shutterstock, and Dreamstime), these sites provide photographs uploaded by individual photographers. Stock photo websites generally don’t buy or sell any images directly, they just provide a platform to connect photographers with people who want to download photos.

There’s one big difference between regular stock sites and free stock sites though. On free stock photo websites, the photos and licenses are, you guessed it, free!

These are the sites we’ll be focusing on in this post.

How Can I Use Free Stock Photos?

There are a few different ways you might want to use a photo from one of these free stock sites.

Let’s go over what’s usually allowed and what’s not. Keep in mind that each site has a different license, and the details of each one vary slightly.

Be sure to check the individual license before using any particular photo!

Free Photos for Personal Use

In general, yes, personal use is a-ok. If you are using the end product yourself or giving it as a gift to a friend or family member, you will be within limits of the free stock photos license.

Some examples of personal use are:

  • Printing and framing the photo as wall art for your own house
  • Using a photo as a reference for a drawing or painting
  • Designing a Christmas card to send to friends and family
  • Sewing a photo quilt with stock photos on some of the squares
  • Having a print-on-demand mug, rug or calendar printed for your own use

Free Stock Photos for Blogging

Generally, it’s ok to use these on a blog as long as you don’t violate any other terms of the license. You can use free stock photos to break up text and add visual interest to your posts, or as a featured image at the top of a post or category.

Double-check the license for the photo you want to use before adding it to your blog. Some licenses require that you give credit and link to the original creator of the photo.

Even if it’s not required, it’s still a good idea to credit and link to the owner of the photo. It’s sort of a good karma thing, and the owner of the photo will appreciate it.

Adding a simple “Photo by Jane Doe” link also helps make it clear that you are using someone else’s photo. Claiming or implying that it’s your own work is usually a no-no in licenses.

Not sure how to link back? Have a look at this section on attribution and linkbacks.

Posting Free Stock Photos on Social Media

The rules for posting free stock photos on social media are pretty much the same as for blogging. You can use the photos to illustrate the text in a post, or just to add visual interest.

Again, sometimes attribution is required and sometimes not, so check the license. But it’s never ok to take credit for someone else’s work. Tagging or linking back to the original owner of the photo is a good idea.

Using Free Stock Photos for Commercial Use

License terms start to get a little less clear when it comes to using free stock photos for your business. It’s especially important to read the license for each photo you want to use because they do vary a bit.

Selling unaltered copies of a freely usable photo is rarely if ever, allowed. You can’t print the photo as is onto paper posters, mugs, blankets, or anything else and sell them. And you can’t add them as products on your online store, and allow people to purchase them digitally, either.

Some licenses do allow businesses to sell items with free stock photos on them as long as the photo is altered or part of a larger design. For example, you could create a design by clipping out part of a photo and adding text to it and sell posters or mugs with your design printed on them.

You generally cannot redistribute the images as they are, even if it’s for free. For example, you can’t bundle a bunch of free stock photos into a zip file, and allow people to download it as a freebie on your website.

So what can businesses use these photos for? Well, lots of things.

They can usually be used in marketing materials like flyers, catalogs, websites, email blasts, etc. as long as they don’t violate any of the other terms in the license (again, double-check that license!).

They can also be used to create “derivative works”, so beginning with a free stock photo and altering it digitally or manually is usually fair game.

Beautiful Free Stock Photos of Apples

Many of the photos available on free stock photo sites are very high quality, professional images. Here’s an example of some of the free photos I found for my recent “Free Apple Photos” post.

What Not to Do with Free Stock Photos

There are, of course, some rules that come along with free stock photos. This isn’t a complete list – there are so many licenses available that I can’t possibly list all of them.

Again, always check the license of your specific photo before using it!

Here are some of the most common ones:

Don’t Claim Free Stock Photos as Your Own

Don’t claim photos that you didn’t take as your own work. It’s a sh’mucky thing to do, and most licenses specify that you can’t. Don’t do it explicitly. Don’t do it implicitly.

An example of explicitly claiming work as your own would be posting the photo somewhere, and saying “I took this great photo!” or putting “Photo by Jane Smith” with it.

An example of implicitly claiming work as your own would be posting a gallery of your own photography work, and including free stock photos in it.

Don’t Sell Items with Unaltered Photos on Them

A few licenses allow this, but most do not.

Generally, you can’t print items with just the unaltered photo on them and sell them. It’s ok to print them for personal use, just not for sale.

This includes physical and digital items – mugs, clocks, rugs, books, posters, printables – anything you sell cannot have the unaltered photo on it.

Don’t Redistribute the Images

You cannot redistribute the free stock photos you download. This includes free and paid distribution.

For example, you cannot bundle a bunch of stock photos into a collection and sell it, or give it away as a freebie.

Don’t send it out to your mailing list, or upload it to other stock sites where people can download it.

Don’t Create False or Misleading Associations with a Person, Product or Brand

Sometimes free stock photos portray a recognizable person, product, or brand.

If that’s the case, you should try to avoid making it seem like you are associated with that entity if you’re not.

For example, if a photo has a picture of a bottle of Coca-Cola in it, you can’t post it on a page of sponsors for an event you’re holding.

Posting the picture there would imply that Coca-Cola is one of your sponsors. Unless they really are sponsoring your event (which would be awesome!), using the photo on your sponsor page would be misleading.

Don’t use photos to mislead people!

Don’t Portray Identifiable People or Brands in a Negative

This one is a little bit subjective, but it’s there to protect the reputation of the people and brands in the photos. Some stock sites specify what negative things the photos cannot be associated with, but others don’t.

If the license for the photo you want to use doesn’t specify, give it some thought.

What would you not want your professional reputation associated with?

I’m sure you can think of more, but a few examples are:

  • Domestic or child abuse
  • Illegal activities
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Pornography
  • Animal cruelty

Attribution and Link Backs

Depending on the type of license, you may be required to include attribution or link backs to the photo’s owner. I know I sound like a broken record now, but again – check the license for the photo.

Giving Credit to the Creator

Even if you’re not required, crediting the photographer is still a nice thing to do.

One of the big reasons photographers provide their photos for free use is to get more eyes on their work. Adding a link is an easy thing to do and helps out the person whose photo you’re using.

How do I Attribute?

It doesn’t need to be fancy.

Just add the photographer’s name with an href link pointing back to their portfolio page on the website you downloaded the image from. The caption is usually the best place to put it.

Most of the sites that host free stock photos will provide you with a little example of how they’d like to see attributions made. They usually include a link back to their own site too. Here’s an example of a properly attributed to its creator:

Credit the Creator

Here’s an example of how to properly attribute a photograph to the person who owns it.

If you were using the photo above in print, you could just put “Photo by Liudmyla Denysiuk” in the caption or close to the photo. Write it just the way you would see it in a magazine or newspaper.

Downsides to Free Stock Photos

Free stock photos are a valuable resource for bloggers and small businesses. Of course, like everything else in life, there are a few downsides.

Here are some of the not-so-great aspects of free stock photos:

Limited Selection of Subjects

This is definitely changing, but when these sites were new there wasn’t necessarily a great selection of photos compared with big, paid stock photo sites.

As more and more photographers contribute their work, the selection of topics gets better. The bigger free stock sites have millions of photos, with thousands being uploaded daily.

Still, if you’re looking for something really obscure, you know like “camel eating ice cream” or “flying garbage truck” you may need to look elsewhere. (Good luck finding those, by the way!)

Photo Quality

Just like with the selection issue above, this is changing.

Still, though, not all of the photos are professional quality. The standards for submitting photos to free photo sites are a bit lower than the big paid sites. You’re more likely to find hobbyist’s and newbies’ photos on a free stock photos site.

Photos Are Recognizable as Free Stock Photos

Ok, so one potential downside of this type of photo is that it is, of course, a free stock photo. These photos get used all over the place – and sometimes your viewers will recognize them.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re a blogger, or just starting out with a small business, no one is going to fault you for using free photos.

However, if you run a bigger website, or a really high-end business, using recognizable, free stock photos might reflect badly on you.

You Need to Watch for Fake Sites

You need to do a bit of due diligence before using photos you found on a free stock website. You’ve got to make sure the site is legitimate, and that they have permission to distribute the photos in the first place.

Fake sites do exist. Unscrupulous owners will scrape the web for photos, post them online, and allow people to download them to increase their own traffic. Unfortunately, this even happens with my digital art fairly often.

Clearly, this is not fair to the owners of photographs that were never intended to be used this way.

If you get caught using a photo that you don’t have permission to use you can be forced to take it down, or worse, hit with a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

Risks & Legal Issues with Free Stock Photos

This isn’t such an issue with the bigger, more reputable sites, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

There are legal issues with using pictures of people, places, and brands without permission. On big stock sites, photographers are required to submit a waiver for recognizable subjects. They basically tell the site that yes, the photographer does have permission to photograph and upload the subject.

The issue with free stock sites is, well, is anyone checking this?

Before you use a photo with a recognizable person, place, or even building, check that the site has a waiver policy in place. Otherwise, you could be held liable for using an image of the subject without permission.

Not knowing about waiver rules won’t cut it in court!

Where Can I Find Free Stock Photos

There’s an ever-growing list of free stock sites to choose from – new ones pop up all the time. Here’s a shortlist of reputable sites to download from.

Websites To Find Free Images

If you’d like to see a more exhaustive list of free stock sites, or you have more sites to add, let me know in the comments below!

Why Do People Give Away Photos for Free?

Now, you might be wondering what the catch is to photos found on these free stock image sites. The good news is that although there are a few downsides we talked about above, there isn’t really a major catch.

Here are a few good reasons why photographers may choose to allow free use of their images:

Screenshot of free stock photos site Pexels.com
Pexels.com hosts tons
of free stock photos

Exposure to New Audiences

One of the main reasons photographers post their photos for free online is because it increases exposure. It allows them to get their work in front of people who may never have found them otherwise.

Free image websites, like Pexels, Unsplash or Pixabay, have a huge amount of incoming web traffic compared to a photographer who’s just starting out online.

Their huge numbers of content and traffic also give free image websites something called ‘domain authority, which helps them rank higher in search engine results.

All of this means that when someone searches for free stock photos of a particular subject, photos posted on a large free image website are more likely to appear at the top of the search results.

Building a Portfolio

Most photo-sharing websites provide their contributors an individualized portfolio page. It will generally have a collection of photos, plus the photographer’s name and contact information on it.

This type of portfolio page allows photographers to build an online portfolio for free – quickly and easily. They can then share the link with prospective clients or on social media, to show examples of their work.

Each photo uploaded to the website by the photographer links back to this portfolio page, making it easy for anyone who likes a photo to get in touch with the photographer for future paid work.

Earning Money from Donations & Tips

Photographers who post on these sites can earn money from their photos, usually in the form of donations or tips. If someone really likes a particular photographer, they may choose to send them a bit of cash.

This can provide a bit of a passive income stream, which is always welcome in a creative field like photography.

SEO & Inbound Links

That portfolio page we talked about is important here too. If a photographer has their own blog or website, they can usually add a link on their portfolio page.

Having inbound links from well-known, high-traffic websites can, at least in theory, help SEO for their own, private site.

Community Feedback

If you’re trying to make a living in a creative field like photography, the feedback you receive from clients and peers can be priceless.

Knowing which photos are most “liked” and downloaded can help guide the style and direction of your images.

Feedback can also be a major source of motivation. Although most creatives do what they do because they love creating, the confidence that comes from knowing thousands of people enjoy your work should not be underestimated.

As a Hobby

For many people, photography is an enjoyable and fulfilling hobby.

Sharing their photos with others adds an extra layer of validation to the time and money they spend.

It brings them joy and makes them feel like part of a community. And honestly, couldn’t we all use a little more of that?

How do Free Stock Websites Make Money?

Ok, so we’ve already discussed why photographers post their images for free. You might be wondering why the websites bother posting all these free stock photos? What do the website owners get out of the arrangement?

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the main reason behind these sites is to make money for the site’s owners. After all, a website is a business just like any other.

Here’s how it works:

Free Photos Bring Traffic to Their Site

As digital marketers already know, freebies are a great way to bring traffic to a website. Free stock photos are no exception. All of the free photos uploaded by contributors bring lots of visitor traffic to the site.

When people search for a photo and find what they need, they are very likely to “engage” with the website. In this case, they download the photo they searched for.

Having lots of good quality, free content also means the site receives lots of inbound links from outside sources. In fact, this very post (the one you’re reading!) contains links back to several stock sites. All of these link-backs help with the site’s search engine ranking, making them easier to find on Google or Bing.

Having a high traffic, high engagement website with lots of quality content and inbound links makes it all the more likely that the photos will be found at the top of search engine results when someone searches for a term like “cute dog photos” or “photo of axolotl”.

All of this traffic to the website is valuable to the owner of the site. And since the end game here is making money, the site can monetize in a few ways.

Selling Display Advertising

You’ll notice that many of these free sites have banners and ads all over the place. That’s display advertising, and the free photo sites are paid to show them to the people coming to download free images.

Selling display advertising is profitable, and fairly straightforward to set up and maintain. It’s a great way for them to monetize all the traffic that comes from the free photos.

Using Affiliate Links to Paid Stock Sites

Affiliate links are basically referrals commissions online.

The free photo sites send traffic to affiliate sites through links in the content. If someone makes a purchase on the affiliate site, the photo site that referred them gets a small cut of the purchase.

The affiliate I see linked to most often is to paid stock sites like iStock, which makes sense.

People come looking for free stock photos. If they can’t find the photo they need, they click a link to a paid stock photo site. If they make a purchase, the free site gets a small percentage of the purchase price.

Affiliate marketing is very common on blogs and websites and can be quite profitable.

It May Be An Extension of a Larger Service

This doesn’t seem to be as common, but sometimes sites that offer free photos are an extension of another website. For example, Burst is owned by Shopify, an e-commerce platform.

Why would Shopify want to own a free stock photos site? Well, a few reasons actually.

It can be an add-on service for their main platform. When someone pays to create and host a website with Shopify, being able to pop in free stock photos is a big plus. It saves time and effort for Shopify customers.

It also serves another function, which is to drive sales to Shopify. For the reasons listed above, free stock sites do well in search engine results. Once a person is on the Burst site looking at photos, they see links and ads for Shopify. This helps Shopify improve it’s own traffic.

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