Having spent 20+ years in print design and 10+ years in web design, I’ve learned a thing or two about where to find the best images. There are basically three categories of stock images: rights-managed, royalty-free, and free. In this post, I share what I consider the top 14 stock image sources.
Rights-Managed vs. Royalty-Free vs. Free
Rights-managed pricing is based on an end-use formula: print quantity, physical size, resolution (300 ppi for print, 72 ppi for web), audience (U.S., other countries, international), media (print, web, CD, video, etc.) and length of time. You purchase the image with specific rights of usage. This arrangement applies to stock imagery, as well as hiring a photographer or illustrator to create new image(s). If you want to use the image again, after the initial timeframe has expired, you can extend the license.
“Royalty-free” images are often misconstrued to mean “free”. They are actually fee-based, like rights-managed images, but after the initial purchase, royalty-free images can be used endlessly without needing renewal. The quality varies wildly, but the advantage is the ability to use the image as many times as you like, for as long as you want.
Free images can be great, but do come with restrictions, so we tend not to use them for commercial projects. The restrictions often require an attribution and adding a link to the creator, limit the usage to personal, and forbid any modifications to the image. For personal projects, free images may work perfectly fine. Public domain images are an exception in that they do not have the usual restrictions of free images.
Even though attribution may NOT be required with certain agencies, I make a habit of citing the source anyway. It’s good protocol to give credit to the creator with key information in the caption: title, author, source, license, and source URL.
Rights-Managed Stock Image Sources
Key Features: 235 million pieces in their visual library. Diverse categories, high quality. Lightbox tool provided, smooth and effective search engine. Alamy has licenses for rights-managed and royalty-free content.
Key Features: Huge fine art photo archive. Excellent selection and quality. More than 1,000,000 images are available for licensing to all media. Register an account to get lightbox tool. Traditional request for pricing via email.
Key Features: The world’s largest visual archive. Excellent collection of high-end creative, editorial, music, and video options. Many formerly independent sources are now under the Getty umbrella: Digital Vision, Image Bank, iStock (see royalty-free list below), and Stone. Create boards to gather images for projects. Plugins to integrate with Adobe CC, Dropbox, InVision, and WordPress. Pricing for single images and packs offered, all sizes, all media.
Note: In 2020, Getty Images announced a major change in their business model: dropping their rights-managed Creative stock imagery. Royalty-free content for commercial-use will become their main focus. Their Editorial collection will remain unaffected and will continue to provide rights-managed visuals. For details on this important, phased retirement of Getty’s rights-managed creative collection, see this article: Getty Images is Dropping Rights-Managed Licensing in 2020.
Key Features: Reliable source for millions of premium visuals. Diverse categories, high quality. Services include free photo research and high resolution comp downloads. Lightbox provided. Search engine has awesome pricing tool. Licenses for Premium and budget rights-managed and royalty-free content, as well as subscriptions and packages.
Key Features: In my opinion, the best in the business for premium wildlife and nature images. Stellar quality. Outstanding search capabilities, with plenty of filters and useful galleries. You must register an account to use the lightbox and price quote tool. All images are rights-managed.
Royalty-Free Stock Image Sources
Key Features: Under the Getty Images umbrella, this stock agency focuses on exclusive, premium content. All assets are in 1 of 2 collections: Essentials (everyday favorites) and Signature (trendy). Offers Credit Packs, as well as Basic and Premium subscription plans that can be purchased monthly or annually. Standard and Extended licenses. All payment plans provide access to boards (for organizing and sharing), iStock Editor (online image editor), and plugins for Adobe CC, Sketch, and Dropbox.
Suite 313 – 1240 20th Ave SE; Calgary, Alberta T2G 1M8, Canada
Key Features: Started in 2005, and now has more than 110 million creative works. Fantastic range of categories. Free tools include an image editor, font pairer, graphic maker, color matcher, and calendar. Affordable pricing via on-demand credits and subscription plans. Part of the Inmagine ecosystem.
Key Features: Library contains over 300 million images. Great variety in a wide range of collections. Provides social media and print templates. Also provides online editing tools for editing, resizing, and converting files. Plugins are available for WordPress, Final Cut Pro, Chrome, Adobe CC, Sketch, Google Slides, and Powerpoint. Offers Premier, Studios, and Custom services. Licensing is reasonably priced, with standard and enhanced options, individual and multiple user subscription and on-demand plans.
Free Stock Image Sources
Creative Commons is a global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools. Our legal tools help those who want to encourage reuse of their works by offering them for use under generous, standardized terms; those who want to make creative uses of works; and those who want to benefit from this symbiosis.”Creative Commons
Key Features: Archive of more than 1.6 billion visual works! All licenses require attribution to the creator (BY). The other five licenses combine BY with additional elements, such as non-commercial use and no derivatives. Full explanations are on their Wiki site. You search by source (which includes museums, Flickr, NASA, the Smithsonian, and more) or through their robust search tool, which has many useful filters. They also offer a browser extension.
Key Features: Very new to the stock image world (founded in 2014). Thousands of high quality visuals. All images are free to use and can be modified. Attribution is not required, but is appreciated through social media sharing and donation. To interact on the site with Follows, Likes, and Collections, you must create an account. Plugins and extensions are available for Chrome, Google Slides, Photoshop, MS Office, and WordPress.
Key Features: Over 1.9 million high quality content, all free and alterable. There are a few exceptions, particularly in regard to reselling and redistribution, so read the licensing details. No attribution required, even for commercial use, but citing the creator is appreciated. Interestingly, iStock visuals are sponsored on Pixabay: the hyperlink will lead you to the image on the iStock website.
Key Features: Offers over 2 million free high-resolution images. You can copy, alter, distribute, and use in whatever way you want, commercial and non-commercial. Attribution is appreciated, but not required. User-friendly search tools. Tech savvy, Unsplash offers: plugins for WordPress and Figma, Mobile apps, wallpapers, previews, Apple TV slideshow, and an API.
ADDITIONAL PUBLIC DOMAIN OPTIONS
Always go to the image source for copyright information. Do not rely on search engine results, like Google or Yahoo: these are simply listings. Find the original creator of the work and track down the copyright!
Images that are in the public domain are those whose copyright has expired (or never existed). Since legal definitions vary internationally, there’s no single formula for determining when a work enters into the public domain. Here are a few reliable sources of public domain images: