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Free Stock Photo Sources

Have you ever been working on something that you thought would be enhanced by a photo, so you searched Google and found something perfect… copy/paste… and, you’re done? 

Come on.  You know you have. 

So, I’ll be perfectly honest…. THAT’S WRONG! 

Unfortunately, all those awesome pictures that other people have taken are not free for use (unless it’s only for yourself, locked in your private diary hidden under your mattress for all eternity).  I know, it seems ridiculous to have all these beautiful photos with a “hands off!” sign… but, think of Google like it’s a museum. 

You can’t just walk into a museum, take the Mona Lisa off the wall, and walk out to hang it in your house; so, those photos also have a process for getting permission to use them for your own purposes.

Using copyrighted photos is BAD

As a small business owner, you’ll be very familiar with the concept of copyright, giving credit, attribution… you know, all those legal terms.  But, what do they really mean?  We’re going to have a crash course on the things you absolutely must know so you can’t plead ignorance should the police come calling (your guilty look will condemn you) and then I’ll arm you with several photo sources you can use for your blog posts and website for free (absolutely free, no-strings-attached kind of free).

The Rules

First, what is the difference between a copyright and a license?  Copyrights (from which there are six to choose) protect the creator and allow only the creator access to use it.  A license gives permission (sometimes with limitations) for others to use a creator’s work.

Learning about when the public can and cannot use someone’s work can be extremely complicated with legal verbiage, so let’s cut through all the fat and get to what YOU need to know.  If you find an image by simply searching on Google, you must do a lot of legwork to make sure you’re not ripping off a protected piece of work.  You can begin by looking for a copyright notice; but even if you don’t see any claim of ownership at first glance, that doesn’t mean you are in the clear.  You would need to continue to search at the U.S. Copyright Office, and why would you put in all that time when there are so many other options for finding photos that are public domain?  

When finding images free of copyright and available for use, there are some considerations to keep in mind before downloading. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization whose mission is all about providing copyright protection for all creatives who share their work online as well as the right to copy for those who wish to borrow. There are several levels of licenses and public domain options (depicted in icons), which should help you identify the available images.  The following are abbreviations you will encounter:

Mini Glossary

BY= attribution (giving credit or providing evidence of a license and indicating any changes that were made)

CC= creative commons

CC0 = creative commons zero (creators have voluntarily given up their copyright and put their work into public domain for unlimited use)

NC= non-commercial (you can’t use the material for making money)

ND= no derivatives (if you change the material in any way, you cannot distribute it)

SA= share alike (If the content is changed/altered in any way, it will be covered under the same license as the original item)

Simply avoid any item that contains NC or ND in their copyright license.  The rest are workable for business purposes, keeping in mind that you may need to supply attribution ( has given a great example of how to do that here).  Now that you have a slim grasp (no shade, but copyright law is a dark, deep hole) on some of the basics of copyrighted material, I’m going to share a list of websites that provide images and have already gone through the effort of tracking down whether they are public domain or licensed for the public.

The Tools

Not all websites will have the same “terms of use”, so beware.  They will not all be public domain or available for every situation.  Read the rules and get permission, as needed.

Morgue File

Allowed: use for commercial purposes; adapt the photos; accompany the photos with other content

Not Allowed:  Selling, licensing, renting, or redistributing photos unless you make significant changes or, if you change nothing, give proper attribution; claiming ownership

My Opinion: free for commercial use, but the professional aesthetic quality is lacking; not a lot of photo options; invites you to submit your photography to beef up their library.

Sample of Morgue File


Sample of Unsplash

Allowed: photos downloaded and used for free; commercial and non-commercial; no permissions needed (though attribution is appreciated)

Not Allowed:  Selling or redistributing photos without significant changes made; compiling these photos to replicate a similar service as Unsplash

My Opinion: great search capabilities of their library; not as highly artistic, but still aesthetic and appropriate for commercial use.


Allowed: all content can be used for free in commercial and non-commercial, except in cases mentioned below; no permissions needed (though attribution is appreciated); modifications to photos allowed

Not Allowed:  Selling or redistributing someone else’s Pixabay photos; selling unaltered copies of an image; portraying identifiable people in an offensive way or a bad light; using images with identifiable brands to imply an association or connection with that product/brand that isn’t there.

My Opinion: great search capabilities of their library; very artistic and aesthetic; considering they borrowed content from Unsplash to begin this site, they have exceeded the quality and are accepting work from a variety of excellent photographers and artists to continue building their library of photos.

Sample of Pixabay


Sample of Pexels

Allowed: all photos and videos are free to use; attribution is not required, but certainly appreciated; you can modify all photos and videos as you like

Not Allowed: identifiable people are not to be portrayed negatively; selling photos as a poster or any physical product without modification; falsely implying endorsement of a product by people or brands; selling or redistributing photos on other stock photo platforms

My Opinion: this is the site I use the most; photos are very aesthetic and pleasing; the search options are varied and they have a wide range of available images.

Allowed: all photos are free to use; attribution is not required but definitely appreciated; editing photos is allowed and even encouraged as they have an editing program directly attached to their website

Not Allowed: you can look at their terms and conditions if you plan to purchase or sell images on their site:; no other stated restrictions about fair use of their platform

My Opinion: the photos are very nice to look at with plenty of options within categories (they even have a whole section devoted to pizza!); but there are not a lot of options within each category unless it’s a broad topic, like Christmas.  Specific searches may not yield many results and the layout and search feature is clumsy; BUT, as they are a growing website, they have a lot of potential for collecting more artistic work with a unique artistic angle, unlike the other free stock photo websites.

Sample of

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