They say a picture is worth a thousand words. A good picture can convey messages, express emotions, and sway the stoic mind, which is why pictures are used in everything from website design to marketing campaigns, emails, personal communications, and beyond. But not all pictures are created equal. You can find photographs that bring a tear to your eye with their magnificent beauty, while others can make you cry for an entirely different reason.
Yes, good photography is certainly a talent and not one that many people possess. Fortunately for those of us who weren't so graciously endowed, there are for-pay and free stock photo libraries. Today, a huge market has formed around free stock photos, and everyone from private consumers all the way up to multi-million dollar corporations is utilizing these services to tell their stories.
Strictly speaking, stock photos, free or for pay, are pictures that were taken by professionals and put up for sale within a royalty-free marketplace. These images can be used for commercial design purposes and hold no legal requirements for attribution (we’ll explain this in more detail below). Free stock photo sites offer stock photos that can be of any number of things, including landscapes, people, nature, events, public locations, and more.
Today, stock photography is a broad term that refers to many types of created works, including photographs, illustrations, vectors, clip art, cartoons, videos, audio files, three-dimensional mock-ups, and more. You can even get uniquely-designed stock photos made to fit your business model or needs.
There are three general categories of stock photography: macrostock, midstock, and microstock. Macrostock photos are high-end and come with a hefty price tag to prove it. These are exclusive high-resolution photos that are taken for a specific company or purpose. Since you're hiring the photographer or paying for the rights to own the shoot, these tailor-designed stock photos can't be used by anyone else. Midstock is the middle road, less exclusive, and comes with a more reasonable price tag. Finally, microstock photos are the most common. They can be used by multiple buyers and are also the most affordable. The best site for stock photos will offer a good variety of all three types of quality photos to choose from.
For the uninitiated, this might be a really good question. After all, buying pictures that you can probably just get off of the internet seems like a waste of resources. Well, there are several good reasons to subscribe to the stock photo school of thought. For one thing, it's legally-legit. That is, you won't get slammed with any copyright infringement lawsuits because you picked up the wrong photo stock free (or so you thought) on Google. Stock photo services sell royalty-free images, so there are no worries about legalities tripping you up (or very limited ones that are clearly defined at any rate).
For another thing, stock photo libraries are incredibly affordable. Sure, you could hire a professional photographer to take pictures every time you needed an image. But that will cost you both an arm and a leg, not to mention the time you'll spend hiring the photographer, setting up a photo shoot, selecting photos, editing, etc. Stock photo libraries offer you millions of professional, high-quality images with the press of a button.
Stock photos are used by businesses and regular consumers for any number of projects and purposes. It’s important to understand how free stock photography works, what it actually means when the word “free” is used, and what you can and can’t do with your free stock photos. You can tap into this powerful visual aid by following these steps:
There are likely hundreds of free photo stock sites to choose from, so read a few reviews before making any financial commitments to ensure that you aren't getting taken for a ride. The best free stock photo sites will have good reviews overall and a solid reputation.
A word of caution, though. Don't go into one of these free stock photo sites without at least some vague idea of what you're looking for, or you may never come out. There are literally millions of pictures when it comes to free stock photography, and all but the strongest of resolves have gotten lost in the endless sea of adorable kitten stock photos. They were just looking for a welcome image...
Seriously, though, the best stock photo sites free or paid for have millions of stock images. So, you should have a basic term or keyword you’re looking for. You can put that term into the search bar, and the system will return relevant stock photos that match your keyword or phrase. Good stock photo agencies will have filters to narrow down the selections even more. Filter photos based on things like file size, surrounding image content, color palette, and more. You can drill down pretty deep with some of these sites, so feel free to get finicky.
Here’s where things start to get real. Once you’ve found the stock photo that conveys your message, or at the very least fits the bill, you’ll want to purchase it from the stock photo service. You’ll need to either sign up for an account or buy credits, depending on which service you’re working with. Most stock photo agencies offer the option to sign up for a monthly or annual plan that lets you download a set number of photos, videos, or files each subscription period or buy credits in bulk and use them for any photos you want to purchase from within the library.
If you're planning on buying lots of stock photos (image-heavy websites, email marketing campaigns that rely on visual appeal, the editor of a weekly newsletter, etc.), then it's worthwhile for you to sign up for a subscription plan. Otherwise, the credits work out most economical since most sites let you carry them over time without expiration.
Once again, the best free stock photo sites offer an entire library of stock photos free of charge. These are usually not quite as premium quality as the ones you pay for. But if you’re looking for a decent image and are running on a tight budget, free stock photos are just the thing. It’s worth taking a moment or two to browse through these pro-bono options. Often you can find beautiful free stock photography that speaks to you and won’t cost you a thing.
Once you have an account or the credits you need to make a purchase, you'll pay for and download the stock photo or file of your choice. The photo comes as a royalty-free file, and it can be used as many times as you want for personal or commercial uses. There are various things to keep in mind here, though:
1. Some stock photo services do limit the amount of times you can use each image, so read the terms and conditions carefully.
2. Commercial design use is not uncategorically-allowed. In fact, there are several rules that apply to the use of your newly-acquired HD stock photos since the photographer still owns the rights to the image. Some restrictions include no resell (you can't turn around and sell the image you just bought) and a maximum number of copies that can be made of the image.
It won't do you much good to have crisp, beautiful, high-quality images with a tacky watermark declaring the name of the artist who drew, created, or took the pictures. But if the image belongs to someone else, you are legally required to credit them for their work whenever you use it. Right? Well, sort of.
There are several types of licenses for stock photographs, but you’ll generally only deal with three of them. These are:
Some stock images found on these websites are useful bits of property that fall under the creative commons public domain. Any work that falls within this category holds no copyright because the originator has waived their rights to it legally. What this means, in plain English, is that public domain licensing is a total free for all. Anyone can use, duplicate, modify, copy, or do whatever else you want with these images without asking permission from the original owner of the image or having to pay a fee to do so. This can be commercial or private use.
Royalty-free photos are the ones that you'll usually get from these stock photo agencies. It's a basic copyright license that you can buy and gives you the rights to use your purchase files under certain conditions. Generally, these can be used repeatedly and commercially, albeit with a few slight restrictions like the ones we mentioned before. Remember though that royalty-free doesn’t mean free stock photos. You still have to pay for these (unless you’re working with free stock photo sites or libraries that specifically state that you can have the photo stock free of charge).
Rights-managed licensing is much more restricted. You can purchase the rights to use the image one time. If you want to use it more than once, you'll have to purchase additional licenses.
The best free stock photos can enhance any project you’re creating, whether it’s for a school project or a new product launch. Fill your presentation with just the right picture to get your message across in a single glance.