Paid stock photo sites have many advantages over the free ones because of their massive collections, efficiency of search filters, light boxes for saving favorites and (hopefully) better pay for photographers and illustrators. On the other hand, commercial photographs are often repetitive, soulless and unimaginative. (See 21 Reasons Why Stock Photos Make Me Cry.)
Many of us must work on projects with small budgets that require free resources. Fortunately, free or inexpensive stock media sites can save the day. In the last several years, the quality of free media has soared. We now have access to free high quality and high resolution graphics. So here are some options for free or inexpensive stock media. To compare sites, I searched for “city” on every site and discuss my results in the description. I’m assuming that there is an inventory overlap on several of these sites.
Be sure to check the license agreements in the fine print before using the graphics as in some cases you are required to give credit to the photographer or there are limits on the number of copies you can reproduce in print.
This list is in alphabetical order. I hope you find some new resources.
This is not your typical stock photo website. Rather, it is a service that sends packs of, “beautiful photos straight to your inbox.” The free version does not allow you to search for the photo you need. But it will allow you to build up a photo collection. The premium version does allow access to all the photos and provides search functionality.
The photographs are sensitive and imaginative and not always applicable to corporate eLearning or training slides. On the other hand, some will work perfectly and may provide just the creative spark you need. You can browse through some of their photo pack themes. Most recently, there were packs titled, Tactile, Wild Imagination, Equinox and Ride or Die.
Strength: Interesting photography, allows you to build a collection
Search Results Test: Search function is only available with premium subscription
Freepik offers photos, illustrations, icons and PSD (Photoshop) files. I’m impressed with their selection of vector graphics—both illustrations and icons—as most freebie sites focus on photography. If you are not familiar with vectors, they are graphics that can be scaled to any size without loss of resolution as long as they are in the appropriate format (EPS, AI, SVG).
Freepik has both a free mode and an inexpensive premium version. With the first, you are required to give attribution to the artist or designer. The premium license allows for usage without giving credit.
A site with similar offerings is Pixabay.
Strength: Inexpensive monthly plan, large collection, vector graphics, likely to find photos for work projects
Search Results Test: 16,000 results for “city” including photos and illustrations
Are you looking for stock photos that are unusual, fun or maybe even whacky? You might find what you need at Gratisography, offering the photographs of Ryan McGuire. He has beautifully and creatively executed every image. His pictures are composed to catch your eye. They can serve to liven up your work, as metaphors, or to prove a point.
The site is easy to use. No registration is required. Browse by category or search. Then select and download your choice. It’s that easy. Click on that “Buy me a coffee button” and help Ryan out.
Strength: Fun, unique photography
Search Results Test: A search for “city” reveals around 30 photos, many unusual, like the one on the right above
This is a site with thoughtful and sensitive photography evident in the free high-res photos taken by “Karolina” and her friends. There is a bit more functionality here than at most free sites. You can search and then filter by orientation and color. You can also download your selected image in a pre-determined size or in a custom size by entering the width you need. No registration is required to download the photos.
Strength: Sensitive photography, creates custom-sized photos, search filters available
Search results test: A search for “city” resulted in two tiled pages of photos (around 80-100)
This offering from the New York Public Library’s collections includes over 700,000 digitized items. These are public domain as well as copyright photos and drawings that are vintage, quaint and often about New York.
You’ll find retro magazine covers, too many old maps, wonderfully dated photos of New York and lots more. It’s a long shot, but if you can think of a creative use for these archives, they are here and free. There is a filter for searching only in the public domain. Images are available in a variety of sizes.
Strength: Big collection of old and retro photos
Search results test: A search for “city” results in 96,000+ hits. Many are maps so a better search term, like “city buildings” is needed if you want city imagery.
One of the larger, well-known collections of free photography, Pexels offers it’s photographs with a Creative Commons Zero license. This means photographers opt-out of copyright protection and do not require credit. You’ll find some standard stock photography fare as well as unique imagery.
Strength: Large collection, attracts wide variety of contributors, likely to find photos for work projects, CC0 license
Search Results Test: Entering “city” shows an endless tiled display of results.
This free stock photo site has one main focus: individuals and teams who work in the technology sector. The collection is not large, but it is a source for photos of people with laptops, whiteboards, and office equipment close-ups.
These are not professional images, but more akin to polished photos taken in your office. As they say on their site, “Startup Stock Photos was started as an outlet for photos we were already taking on a regular basis. It’s grown to be much more than that.”
If you are looking for something different from the usual pictures of people with fake smiles, try this. You will not get thumbnails. Click the ‘Load More’ button to get ten pics at time.
Strength: Decent collection of office tech workers
Search Results Test: No search feature, so you need to browse
StockSnap is following the trend of providing well-designed high resolution stock photos for free download. Inventory can be searched or you can browse by topic or trend. This is the photo site for Snappa, an online graphic creator and editor. The collection is reasonably large and the photos do not feel like typical commercial fare.
Strength: Likely to find photos for work projects, large collection
Search Results Test: A search for “city” results in over 6600 photos, ordered by relevance
This seems to be one of the earlier stock photo sites to offer artistic high-resolution photography for free. It’s popularity keeps growing. Unsplash has an intuitive user interface, search box and a large collection. I’ve been able to make use of their wonderful photographs in presentations and in the occasional eLearning course as the quantity of contributors and photos continues to increase.
Strength: May find photos for work projects, creative photography, search results are organized in several ways, including helpful theme categories.
Search Results Test: A search for “city” results in over 1500 photos, organized by themes, like Cyberpunk City, City Life and Cities of Old. Or you can browse through a tiled display of photo results.
Although this site is currently not adding any more pics, the 500+ collection is available on this Flickr page. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of diversity in typical stock photo collections so this site is not only needed, but beautiful and refreshing.
The entire collection features women of color technologists leading meetings, brainstorming, using the whiteboard, head shots, close-ups of laptops, etc. The pictures are clear and the quality is good. It’s easy to download from the Flickr site. You need to attribute images to the main site, WOCinTech. All image resolutions are available, from the lowest to highest to the original.
Strength: Likely to find photos for work projects, fills a gap
Search Results Test: Not applicable