Need images for your company website or blog--but can't afford (or don't want to afford) to pay for them?
Chelsea Blacker, head of Client Delivery at digital marketing agency BlueGlass UK, put together the following list of websites that provide free images for commercial business use, which means an image is available through a Creative Commons (CC) license or is royalty-free. (For more on what those terms mean and to learn about restrictions on commercial use, check out the bottom of this post.)
Some sites supply only Creative Commons or royalty-free images, while other sites offer a mix of images, some free for commercial use, some not. Always make sure you understand the restrictions on a particular image before you use it.
Here's Chelsea's list:
General Free Image Websites
Wikimedia.org. With more than 17 million media files available and guaranteed Creative Commons, this is a great place to find quality images (though many strike me as nonprofessional).
Flickr: With a wealth of images and a simple advanced search for CC images, Flickr is a go-to for tapping into millions of images.
Morgue File: Some great images, but you must click on each image individually to determine if it's available under Creative Commons. I found about one in seven images was CC, but many of those were still not available for commercial use. (Morgue does offer HTML for posting the image, though, which I found quite helpful.)
Unrestricted Stock: A mix of stock photos and vectors, this site is entirely free and everything may be used for commercial purposes, according to its license agreement. I wouldn't say there are a ton of options on this site, but everything I have seen is of good quality.
Microsoft Office: Yes, this is real: Microsoft giving something useful away for free on a commercial level. The images are offered to anyone with Office.com or MS Office Web Apps: "You may copy and use the media elements in projects and documents." But there are a few rules, so check them out.
Pixabay: Tons of great images, all free and in line with Creative Commons for commercial use. I found their search function superior to other internal image search engines.
FreeDigitalPhotos.net: Only the small sizes of images are free. And keep in mind that they require attribution on all free images used (HTML code is offered, too), and your email address must be provided.
USA.gov: By far the most random site on this list, the U.S. government has provided a list of sites with images on offer from such sources as the national archives and NASA. They warn that not all images on the sites are in the public domain, so double-check. However, I've sniffed around about four sites and they are practically begging me to take the images.
StockPhotosFree.com: They say the images are "royalty-free" and guarantee they can be used for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, I'd argue the quality of these stock images are the same as what I'd take on a holiday.
Foter.com: Great range of images (but searches for "coffee" brought up a surprising number of images of young girls in suggestive situations). You can search for CC images specifically permitted for commercial use with the tick of a box.
FreeMediaGoo.com: Minimal selection, very few themes. I wouldn't use it, despite its being royalty-free.
Deviant Art: This site is full of stunning images; the community creating and curating the site enjoys fantasy, role-play, Lord of the Rings, etc. The section of the site dedicated to CC images is a bit difficult to navigate, the site actually encourages you to use Google to search it with the query string: "This work is licensed under Creative Commons."
FreeRangeStock: Royalty-free images abound, about 50 percent high-quality, 50 percent novice. It makes you jump through hoops to download images while promoting its brand via your social media accounts, so just scroll down the pop-up download window to ignore the cries for promotion.
Pdphoto.org: Public Domain Photo supplies a range of images, though I'd argue the search function is a bit inaccurate and the quality of images is not high.
Photoeverywhere.co.uk: Images are location-specific and free and easy to download; the photographer asks for a link as credit.
BigFoto.com: Images based on locations around the world. They ask for a link back in return, and that's it. I'd suggest the images aren't always as sharp as I'd hope, but there is great breadth in the countries and local people on offer.
FromOldBooks.org: Excellent resource for vintage images scanned from old story books. Produced before copyright laws became a hindrance, they're free to all to use.
Animalphotos.info: Images of animals, categorized like a directory, all licensed under Creative Commons. After looking at macaques, stuffed ducks, and red shovelers, I can say the image quality is outstanding.
CarPictures.cc: Lots of pictures of cars available under Creative Commons licenses. The quality of the images is quite good.
Openclipart.org: Gorgeous clip art for unlimited commercial use, all royalty-free.
Clker.com: Free clip art available for commercial use. Don't get hung up on the retro Web design, this site has a lot on offer.
Flickr Search Engines
JohnJohnston.info: Notably simple, pulling from Flickr. The site ensures all images also feature the simple embed code, complete with attribution link.
CompFight.com: A search engine that can filter for only CC images on Flickr, as well as separately show some paid for Shutterstock images.
Search.CreativeCommons.org: A great place to search for Creative Commons images across Flickr, Pixabay, Google Images, and Open Clip Art Library. While you can only do a search through one CC supplier at a time, it's a great starting point.
Photopin.com: Created to help bloggers easily and correctly attribute photos, Photo Pin offers one of the more seamless user experiences on this list. Be sure to select the "commercial" tick box to search for CC images. (However, at the end of the day, this is just another site utilizing Flickr's API to present photos in an alternative view.)
Alternative Image Websites with Images to Mention
The following sites are featured in other posts about "free" images, but they didn't meet my requirements of supplying images at no cost with Creative Commons licenses that permit commercial use.
PicSearch.com: Many images and some filters for file size and layout, however no clear division for royalty-free CC images.
PhotoRogue.com: Can't find the image you have your heart set on? Request a photographer to take your ideal image for you and negotiate whether Creative Commons is applicable directly.
Kozzi.com: Royalty-free, on a credit-pricing plan.
stock.xchng: Recently bought by Getty, these images are royalty-free. Great images and a decent search function. However, the sign-up process requires a home address, which some people may find a bit dodgy.
What Does Creative Commons Mean?
To most people, Creative Commons is synonymous with free media like photos, sound, and video. However, Creative Commons is actually a nonprofit organization based in California, and there are varying levels of freedom associated with media submitted. Check this infographic about how to correctly attribute Creative Commons.
There are two attributions to look out for if you're using images for business needs. These include non-Commercial (NC), which means not used for business intentions, and No Derivative Works (ND), which permit only the original work to be utilized. To ensure the media you wish to use is not restricted in any way, confirm the license is a CC, which waives all rights of the creator in the public domain.
Another license with limited requirements is CC BY, which means users can edit the work and use it for commercial benefit as long as attribution to the original work is followed. For more info on creative commons, click here.
What Does Royalty-Free Mean?
Royalty-free means that media may be used without paying royalty charges or a license fee for each use; however, there may be a one-off payment to obtain the image (this is what I noticed on many sites promoting RF images). Please note that with a royalty-free image, the owner (who may or may not be the creator) still retains the copyright.