13 Answers to Questions About Using Free Stock Photo Sites

You’ve no doubt noticed that we live in a highly visual world: The more we depend on digital communications and interactions, the more important it is that we also make a visual connection to whatever it is we’re reading, browsing, or watching.

For both businesses and creative professionals that want to connect with the expansive audience that waits right outside their door, photography, and images that are stunning, timely, and authentic-looking are the way to go.

If you have an endless budget, then hiring your own professional photographer is a very attractive option for images that spark a connection and meet your visual content needs. However, most of us out there don’t have the option, or even the desire, to blow the budget on professional photography.

The next best option is to turn to a stock photo site but it’s easy to quickly become overwhelmed by the choices. There are both free sites and those that charge for memberships, subscriptions, or hefty per-image fees. If you’re like most people, your first stop will be to peruse the free stock photo sites.

In the past, free stock photo sites had the reputation of not meeting up to the same standards of premium paid sites. This really isn’t the case any longer, and free stock photo sites can be an incredible resource for all your stock photography, image, and video needs. If you’re new to the world of free stock photography, you likely have some questions about how, when, and why to use free stock images. Here is a primer that includes 13 of the most commonly asked questions about using free stock photo sites to get you started.

If you are wondering if there is a list of all possible free agencies, we invite you to check out our brand new post: Best Free Stock Photo Sites.

What Are Free Stock Photo Sites?

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Stock photo sites are websites you can visit to access literally millions of stock photographs and videos. Many of these platforms charge a fee for the use of their content. The fee might be based on size, usage, or the metrics of their subscription program. These fees go both to supporting the artists and keeping the site running. On the other end of the spectrum are sites that don’t charge for the use of their images. We refer to these as free stock photo sites.

Free stock photo sites rely on traffic and sponsored ads to keep their sites up and running. Creators who upload content to these sites often do so in order to gain exposure, build a portfolio, and make professional connections as opposed to uploading content in hopes of generating a steady revenue stream.

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Are Images on Stock Photos Sites Really Free?

In most cases, yes. There are sites that offer a mixture of both free and premium paid content, but these aren’t considered true “free” sites. Free stock photo sites like Pixabay, Pexels, and Unsplash, among many others, are designed so you can access, download, and use any image or video on their site free of charge. This eliminates the disappointment of clicking on an image you love, only to discover that it’s a premium offering you’d need to pay for.

There is one thing to be aware of, however. Most free stock photo sites also contain sponsored images from premium paid sites, like Shutterstock, iStock, or Adobe for example. These are always clearly labeled and will be found in a designated area, either at the bottom or side of the page or in a highlighted sponsor box placed among the free images.

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Are There Any Drawbacks to Using a Free Stock Photo Site?

There can be, but these can easily be overcome if you know what you’re looking for. In the past, free stock photography had the image of being cheesy, posed, and lacking any relatable emotional value. This really isn’t the case any longer, but that doesn’t mean that these images don’t still exist.

On the top free stock sites, you’ll find anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of stock images and videos. Obviously, there are going to be some duds in the group. Taking some time to learn about what visual elements attracts your audience to an image, and how to choose stock images that are best suited for your content will go a long way in helping you avoid this drawback.

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How Can I Use Images From Stock Photo Sites?

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Images and videos from free stock photos sites can be used in just about any way you can imagine, with a few exceptions. In most cases, images are published under a creative commons license, which gives you permission to use the images and videos in either a personal or professional capacity, in practically limitless ways.

Still, before you download or use any image, it’s important to take the time to read through the site’s terms, conditions, and licensing agreement, just to make sure you’re covered from a legal and ethical standpoint.

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Am I Required to Give Credit to the Creator of an Image If I Use It In My Project?

Free stock photo sites provide images under no attribution required guidelines. If it is required to give credit to the creator of the image, the terms will specifically say so. This is rarely the case with content that’s sourced from free stock photo sites, but it’s always a good idea to check the terms.

Also, while you may not be required to provide attribution for the video content you use, most free stock sites, along with the creators who upload content onto them, are pleased when you do mention the source.

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Are Free Stock Photos Licensed?

Yes, but the licensing terms are different than what you’ll find on premium paid stock photo sites. Free stock photo sites provide images under a license, such as a creative commons zero license, that enables all the images on their site to be used for free, with no attribution required, for both personal and professional projects.

This license is designed to protect both the creator of the image and the person using it. However, this license does not provide 100% legal protection in certain cases, and you’ll also want to make sure you’re following the site’s terms of use agreement to avoid any hassles.

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There can be, yes. While free stock photos are covered under a free to use, no attribution required license, there are still ways you can get into a little bit of trouble if you’re not careful. One way is by not being completely aware of trademark and copyright laws.

Most free stock sites open up their platforms for any artist to contribute content. Sites with exceptional reputations, like Pexels and Pixabay, carefully assess each image before placing it on their platform but this isn’t the case with every site, and they also might be cases when something gets missed. Generally speaking, you want to avoid any image that contains a trademarked product, known personality, or recognizable landmark. If you do use images containing these elements, it’s you that’s legally responsible – not the creator or site where you sourced the image.

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Can I Modify Free Stock Photos?

Yes. Photos and videos sourced from free stock photo sites can be modified unless otherwise stated. Always review the terms and conditions before using and modifying any stock images.

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Is There Anything I Can’t Do With Free Stock Photography?

 

Each free stock photo site will list the usage exclusions on their licensing page, or within their terms and conditions. The most common exclusions include selling an image without making noticeable modifications to it, redistributing the image on other stock photo sites, depicting a person in the image in a negative or unflattering light, or making it appear that a person in a free stock image endorses a specific product or brand.

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Do I Need to Create an Account to Access Free Stock Photography?

You will want to create an account, but you won’t be charged for doing so. Technically, you could just pull up an image and save it to your computer without signing up for an account, and as long as you follow the terms and licensing agreement, then this isn’t an issue. However, signing up for an account does have it’s advantages

For instance, most free stock platforms allow you to save your favorites, add images to specific saved collections, interact within their community, and even make contact with a creator whose work you’re particularly fond of. Considering that these accounts are free, there’s really no reason not to sign up and take advantage of the perks.

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How Do I Search For Images on Free Stock Photo Sites?

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The long version answer to this question would depend on which free stock photo site you’re using. Fortunately, many of these sites are set up the same way, so once you’ve familiarized yourself with one, using other sites is usually an intuitive process.

Stock image sites have a search bar feature that allows you to enter keywords that will help pull up images that are relevant to the topic or theme you’re looking for. Depending on what you need, it might be better to be either more specific or generic in your search. As a general rule, start with a broad search and then narrow it down further once you get a feel for what types of images that platform provides. You’ll also find that by hovering over the images that tags will appear. You can use these tags to your advantage to find similar images. Some sites also make suggestions based on your search criteria.

It’s worth taking a little time to familiarize yourself with the free stock photo site’s search functions. Some, like Pixabay, make it easy to narrow your search by format – for example photos, videos, or illustrations. Other sites, like Pexels, offers unique collections based on trendy topics or common search keywords to simplify the process for you.

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How Easy Is It To Download Free Images? 

Downloading images from free stock photo sites is arguably one of the easiest things you’ll ever do – or at least the easiest part of the project you’re working on. When you select an image, there will be a download option. This might appear directly on the image, next to it, or above it, depending on which site you’re using.

Before you complete the download, the site will usually ask you to specify which size image you’re interested in. Your choice will depend on what you’re using the image for and how clear of resolution you need. If you’re in doubt, you can always download more than one copy, each in a different size – this being a perk you might not get from a paid, premium site.

Some free stock photo sites also give you the option to personally thank the contributor, by either sending them a small donation or sharing their image on social media. Trust that the thank you and added exposure is always appreciated, so if you have the time and are so inclined, take a moment to say thanks for a job well done.

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Are There Limits On How Many Images I Can Download? 

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Unlike premium paid sites, where your membership of subscription comes with a tiered number of downloads, or you pay per download, your options for downloading images on free stock photography sites are practically limitless. If you have a need for a large number of images, it’s smart to take advantage of the ability to create collections and favorites within your free account.

If you find that you’re downloading the work of one creator, in particular, it might be worth contacting them directly to ask if they have a full catalog of their work available somewhere – as long as doing so doesn’t violate the terms and conditions of the stock photo site.

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Great, Free Stock Photos Can Open a World of Creativity

Today, the world of free stock photography has come a long way. On the best free stock photography sites, you’re going to find images that are relevant, professional quality, and speak to today’s audience. The next time you have a need for exceptional stock photography, resist the urge to head straight to the paid sites, and give free stock photography sites a chance.

Our money says you won’t be disappointed.

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