In our previous post, we discussed the common oversight many websites make when it comes to image copyright.
Here’s some good news: you can get high-quality, unrestricted-use photographs and other images for your website, and you don’t have to spend a dime.
Before you get started, make sure you review our tips to ensure any free photos you want really are OK to use.
If you run an e-commerce or other retail website, Burst might be a great fit for you. It’s run by Shopify and has lots of business-friendly photos. (Be sure to check their Business Ideas collection!)
With “tens of billions” of photos in its database, odds are pretty good you’ll find what you’re looking for here. However, not all images are free; carefully check the license for any image before you download it.
This is actually an aggregator that pulls images from other free use sites via API, so it might be a good place to start if you need a broad search.
Formerly stock.xchange, FreeImages boasts more than 380,000 photos and illustrations for royalty-free commercial use.
Unlike most other free image websites, Freerange Stock says it has its own in-house photographers along with community contributors.
This French-sounding site is more niche, with a focus on “quirky” and unique photos and illustrations.
What sets this collection apart is its method of organizing images into “photo shoots,” which combine all the shots submitted by a photographer that were taken at the same time and location. There’s also a great “palette” feature, which lets you find photos with specific dominant colors to match your website’s design.
Life of Pix
Another fine resource, Life of Pix features a new photographer every week, so you can always expect to find something you haven’t seen previously.
Ideal for mobile-focused websites, Pexels has a great selection of free photos and videos in the portrait (vertical) orientiation.
There are plenty of great photos to be found here, though there seem to be more advertisements than on other free image sites.
Pixabay is an excellent resource, with copyright-free photos, graphics / illustrations, videos, and even music. Everything you find is available for free, unrestricted use – you don’t even need to credit the artist or photographer.
Public Domain Archive
Everything is free on this no-frills collection of Creative Commons and public domain images.
A labor of love by just one photographer, Splitshire is the collected works of Daniel Nanescu.
This isn’t the best-optimized photo site, with a curious combination of infinite scroll and an unreachable footer, but it does have thousands of copyright-free photos.
Attribution is not required, but appreciated if you take advantage of this repository’s well-organized and curated 1 million photographs, which Unsplash claims to be the best on the web.
Before You Download That “Free” Photo…
A picture is worth a thousand words… and in some cases, one-thousand dollars, if the rights holder demands a licensing fee.
While we’ve vetted all of the above free photo sites, you should always use caution and common sense before posting any free-use photo. Freerange Stock has a great write-up on this, and here are some quick tips to help you steer clear of an unwanted copyright claim.
ALWAYS Read the License and Terms
If you can’t easily find licensing information, that’s a red flag. Move on to a different website.
Ask Why the Images are Free
We have a rule of thumb when it comes to “free” apps and online products: always determine how the website or app makes money. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and very, very few online resources are offered as some sort of philanthropic gesture to the world.
Most of the sites listed above feature advertising, much of it for premium stock image services. On Pixabay, we noticed some “related images” below free photos that, if clicked, were actually links to a premium photo site.
Run a Reverse Image Search
Because these photos are free, there’s a very good chance someone else out there is using them. In a worst-case scenario, you might find a photo you love that is just perfect for your business and add it as a hero image on your homepage, only to discover to your embarrassment that a competitor is using the very same photo!
To avoid this scenario, run a reverse image search via TinEye or Google Image Search, to see what other sites (if any) are using the same photo. If you get hundreds of thousands of results, that’s a good indication you might want to find another, less popular photo.
Speaking of which…
Google Image Search is NOT a Free Photo Collection
We’ve seen it countless times: a website or even a Netflix show using photos they apparently ripped right off of Google Images. If you didn’t read my last post on image copyright, please do, and let me repeat myself: NEVER pull an image off of Google and use it on your own site. You could be exposing your company to legal action if you do!
Check the Resolution
As noted above, some sites only offer smaller photo sizes, while others boast high-resolution images. The latter look beautiful but can be a huge drag on your page load speeds, which is a definite no-no. Always try to download smaller sizes, or resize and compress large images to ensure optimal performance.
Be Careful With Sports and Events Photos
In vetting the sites listed above, we were surprised to see at least one image from a college football game. Thanks to my experience working as a journalist covering college and pro sports, I can tell you that images and videos from such events are typically not permissible to use on your website – even if you took the photo yourself! For example, the Olympics are notorious for their strictly-enforced rules against sharing photos and videos taken by spectators, even on social media.
Just read the 278-word sentence that begins the Major League Baseball ticket terms and conditions to see what I mean.
The next time you attend a concert, baseball game, or other paid event, take a look at the small print on the ticket. You’ll likely notice that you’re not allowed to distribute images without permission. Most sports leagues are generally pretty lax about the simple act of sharing a pic or short video from the game, but commercial use of such images is a whole different ballgame, so to speak. Since your website is a commercial enterprise (even if you’re a nonprofit!), you absolutely should NOT use images or videos from an event, without getting written permission first.
Hotlinking is Never a Good Idea
We’ll be writing more about this next week, but in brief, “hotlinking” is the practice of displaying an image on your website by pulling it directly from another website. In other words, you’re taking the <img src> tag URL from another site and embedding it in your own.
While this may help your site load faster and reduce bandwidth use, it’s effectively stealing that bandwidth from the hosting site. For that reason, most of the above resources explicitly ban hotlinking. And, if the hotlinked image changes to a new URL or is removed, your site will be left with a broken image (which is bad for SEO). So don’t do it!
Why You Should Consider a Premium Photo Subscription
With so many free photos available, you might wonder why anyone would pay for a premium image service, like Shutterstock or Adobe Images.
Here at BizTraffic, we subscribe to a few paid stock photo and video services. There are a number of advantages:
- Better curation. Even though premium options may have fewer items than Creative Commons collections, the quality tends to be higher. Professional photo editors work on every image to make sure it looks great.
- No licensing worries. You’re paying for these photos, so you can be certain that you have the right to use them for commercial purposes.
- Save time. Because of the above, you’re spending far less time searching for the perfect image and making sure you can use it legally.
My preferred paid resource is Envato Elements, but Shutterstock, iStock, and Adobe are great choices, too. And if money is no object, you can always spring for Getty Images or Reuters.
The Bottom Line
Free photo collections are a great way to punch up your website visually, especially if you don’t have very specific needs when it comes to images. Bear in mind that you should always be 100 percent certain that a photo is free and clear to use before you post it!