What do the Fountain of Youth, the Pot of Gold at the End of a Rainbow, and free stock photos all have in common?
We spend all our time in pursuit of these dreams, and when we find them, they never live up to their reputation.
Like all of you, I’ve Googled “Best sources for free stock photos,” and I’ve been confronted with results like this:
- 22 Amazing Sites with Breathtaking Free Stock Photos
- (22 not good enough?) 32 Best Sites for Free Stock Photos – the Secret List!
- (32 still not enough? Let’s up the ante! Free stock photos: 73 best sites to find awesome free images.
And while a listicle with 73 entries might be great for SEO ranking, it’s a deep rabbit hole for us bloggers. Who has time to sift through 73 websites? Does your browser Favorites bar even have room for 73 websites?? Which one is really the best???!
After visiting many of these websites, here’s what I’ve learned about “free” stock photos – and what I wish someone would have told me when I started.
The 4 Big Problems with Stock Photo Websites
1. They All Look Like … Stock Photos
Not every business team has an Asian, a white woman, and a black man all sipping coffee while tapping away on their sparkling white laptops.
Most free stock photo websites just post pictures of the same thing: people, landscapes, and food. If you’re looking for photos of something technical or out of the ordinary, good luck.
Here’s what you must understand: Most of these websites target marketers, not bloggers!
The problem with most stock photos, especially cheap ones, is that they’re uber generic. They’re designed to please everybody and offend no one. But to quote Abraham Lincoln, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
2. You Keep Seeing the Same Picture. You Keep Seeing the Same Picture.
Many free stock photo websites are just fronts for the real deal. (Sorry, your search didn’t match any free results – but here’s a 15% coupon code for Shutterstock!!)
You see, a lot of stock photo websites don’t generate their own content. They mostly curate and promote content from other big image studios, like Getty.
Or some platforms, like Wylio and 500px, mostly curate Creative Commons or public domain images. Or some websites just search other websites.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the exact same picture on half a dozen different websites! This can be exhausting. It’s perpetual deja vu. What’s the point of searching six or seven different websites if they’re all drawing from the same pool?
3. There Are Almost No Actual Free Images
Companies know that everyone wants free images. So they set aside a teensy percentage of their photos as “free,” market the hell out of the “Free Photos!” landing page, and then count on a 1% conversion rate to a paid stock photo. One of the worst offenders is FreeImages, by Getty, which mixes in iStock (Getty) images within the free results! It’s hard to tell which one is which at a glance.
Here’s the honest truth: A lot of “free stock photo” websites make their money as affiliate marketers for the big guys. Did you know the Shutterstock affiliate program pays 20% commission? Not a bad deal!
It’s a smart business model. (Now I kinda wish I owned one of these websites). You just have to realize most of these websites aren’t exactly swimming in high-quality images. That’s not where they make their money.
4. The Subject Matter Is Too Niche
Occasionally, you will come across a stock photo website that began as someone’s pet project.
- FoodiesFeed, for instance, started off as a pet project by photographer Jakub Kapusnak. It’s a great source for phantasmagoric images of wood-fired pizza; not so great for pictures of yoga mats.
- Travel Coffee Book features – you guessed it – coffe book-worthy shots of bucolic landscapes and markets around the world.
- Startup Stock offers pictures of hip millennials in hip work environments working in hip clothes.
If you’re looking for pictures of:
You’ll have pretty good luck sifting through free stock photos. Otherwise, hope is slim.
Psst … What NOT to Do!
So, we’ve established that most websites aren’t great sources for free stock photos for bloggers. Should you just throw your ethical principles to the wind?
The temptation to steal images is omnipresent, yes. But be a better blogger – don’t do it!
- Don’t copy the product image from Amazon. This is illegal, and if you’re an Amazon Affiliate, your affiliate relationship will likely be revoked.
- Don’t copy another blog’s pictures. There’s no guarantee that another blogger is any more scrupulous than you. Don’t assume because they posted a picture without citation that you’re free to use it, too.
- Don’t copy a premium stock photo without permission. As image search gets better and better, so too will stock photo companies be able to hunt down anyone who pilfered their pictures. You don’t want to get sued or blacklisted!
- Don’t use attribution as justification. You can’t just publish someone else’s photo for commercial use and justify the theft by attributing them or linking to the original page. This isn’t allowed under Fair Use laws. (Although the law is more lenient if you want to copy a manufacturer’s photo of their product/service for use when describing, promoting, or reviewing their service).
This post isn’t an in-depth explanation of Fair Use laws, but I suggest you take the time to understand them! Keep yourself out of hot water.
My Recommendations for Best Stock Photo Websites for Bloggers
Despite all these caveats, yes, I too sometimes use regular ol’ stock photos.
Sometimes they’re the best tool for the job. Sometimes they’re all I have. Sometimes I promise myself I’ll settle for a stock photo now and replace it with a real photo later (I usually forget).
So, here are my recommendations for free stock photos for blogging:
- My go-to sources for free stock photos are Unsplash and Pixabay. Inventory is contributed by community members, although I’m also seeing more companies post free photos on Unsplash as a marketing strategy.
- Occasionally, I will dip into Pexels and Burst (from Shopify). Neither have the same breadth as Unsplash or Pixabay, in my opinion, but I can find some good stuff.
- Adobe Stock Free Photos is my other secret weapon! I don’t know why more people don’t use this service. You get super high-res photos for absolutely free, and there are millions of them.
I haven’t had much luck at other stock photo websites. It seems like most stock photo websites are really targeted toward visual marketers who need backdrop photographs, not bloggers searching for product-specific images. If I’m searching for something technical, like an image of a MIG fillet weld, it’s not worth my time to sift through these other websites hoping I find a hidden gem.
I do have other sources for free photos. You can read about my unusual sources for free photos here.
I will have to pay for images eventually. But I’m paying $4 an image – over my dead body! Which leads me to …
My Secret Hack for Professional Stock Photos
If you’re hungrily eyeing the beauteous stock photos from Shutterstock or 123RF, then what can you do? Do you really have to fork over $12 for a single image?
No! In fact, I dare say if you’re paying more than $2 an image, you’re cheating yourself. And if you’re super thrifty, you can get high-quality professional stock photos for less than a quarter each.
Here’s my hack. It’s pretty simple.
- Go to Dreamstime, 123RF, or iStockPhoto.
- Sign up for their 750-ct monthly subscription (350 at 123RF).
- Take a weekend and download images like hell.
- Cancel the subscription after one month!
Booyah! You’ll pay as little as 19 cents per image!
Of course, the big caveat is that you have to know what you want ahead of time.
If you want to download what you want when you want it – say, 50 images a month – then you’ll pay $2 to $5 per image for a 50-ct monthly subscription at most services.
One last warning: Stock photos can do more harm than good. Here’s what Google says to bloggers about images in content:
Provide good context: Make sure that your visual content is relevant to the topic of the page. We suggest that you display images only where they add original value to the page. We particularly discourage pages where neither the images or the text are original content.
Oof. Looks like Google really prefers original content and images. Remember, stock photos are just a tool. And as Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”