The 5 Best Free Stock Photo Sites

Photo: thinkomatic

Redesigning a website? Publishing a company newsletter? Unless you want to guarantee that no one reads what you have to say, pretty pictures are your friend. Millions of professional-quality stock photos are now available online for free, despite mounting complaints from all the other photographers trying to make a decent living. But navigating an individual image’s licensing restrictions, (particularly for commercial use), can be daunting. For instance, while some sites allow you to use their photos in promotional materials, adapting an image for a logo is usually off limits.

To make things interesting, I searched for photos of sheep on the most popular free stock photo sites. I then whittled down the list based on a few criteria:

  • A large selection of free, high-resolution photos for commercial use;
  • No subscription requirement;
  • Easy to understand copyright and intellectual property rights;
  • No lengthy email exchanges with photographers or rights-holders.

Several sites made the cut.

EveryStockPhoto and Creative Commons Search both serve as aggregators and return a staggering number of results. They are helpful for exploring the universe of images possibilities, but neither one can guarantee that all images displayed allow for unrestricted commercial use.

Creative Commons hunts for images from Google and Yahoo, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons and more, while EveryStockPhoto relies on Flickr, Stock.xchng, Free Range and others. It is necessary to view and download photos directly from the participating sites to note any special usage or attribution requirements.

MorgueFile returned fewer results (only 360 for “sheep”), but it is incredibly easy to use with no registration required and the photos are mostly high quality. In many cases, attribution is not required but encouraged.

Flickr is among the largest online sharing sites, Yahoo!-owned Flickr boasts a wide range of amateur and professional photos. Use the advanced search and check the “creative commons” and “commercial use” boxes to filter accordingly. The search term “sheep” delivered nearly 30,000 results. Many photos require attribution and don’t allow you to change or build on the photo.

Stock.xchng offers a huge gallery of more than 350,000 stock photos by 30,000+ photographers, including more than 400 sheep photos with no added restrictions. Skip the iStockphoto entries at the top of the search unless you want to pay. Use the advanced search function to weed out unnecessary restrictions. Standard restrictions work for most purposes. The only downfall of this site is that you must register before you can download photos.

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