Nothing in life is free, including many of the images you’ll find when you search for free stock photography.


I confess: I have an inordinate fear of free stock photography.

While my fear may be unnecessarily extreme, it’s not unfounded. In a previous job, I helped a super nice client put together a monthly e-newsletter. I wrote the articles, and the client selected the images.

Everything ran smoothly, until one day I got a call.

The client had just received an out-of-the-blue invoice for one of the images used in a newsletter, which was also published on the company’s website.

And although the client thought the image was available to use for free, it wasn’t. And someone, or some bot, had seen the image online and identified it as their own copyrighted image.

She had used it, so she had to pay for it. To the tune of $500.


If that wasn’t enough to scare me off free stock photography, there was the woman I worked with who liked to pull Google images to use in her print publication. She figured if she searched Google for an image, then clicked the Tools box off to the side, and then the Labeled for Reuse button, she’d probably be fine.

She figured that the images would only be used in print, so what was the likelihood that someone would run across them in her printed materials?

Umm. No.

In my mind, it’s always best to pay for imagery, whether photos or illustrations. They are the result of someone’s creative work. You get paid for your products and services, right? If not, you’d consider it stealing. So why shouldn’t photographers and illustrators get paid for their work?

Plus, some of those images are probably under copyright, which means they are likely rights-managed, royalty-free or even not for sale at any price. Even if their usage is allowed, there could be use restrictions, including how often the image is used, whether it will be used for commercial purposes, and whether it will appear in print or online.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of usage requirements, because it’s a complicated area. There are attorneys who can give you better advice than I can. Or graphic designers, who use images all the time and are skilled in how and when it’s appropriate to use them.

As any good graphic designer will tell you, there are better options for imagery than rolling the dice and Googling “free stock photography.” Here are a few:

Stock photography sites. There are tons out there, and designers have their favorites. Shutterstock and iStock offer good selection and value, and most of the images on those sites allow for wide use. Getty Images offers a wide variety of high design and editorial imagery. A quick image search should give you an idea of the kinds of images and illustrations they specialize in.

Use your own images. Aren’t smartphones amazing? With some thought and advance planning, you might be able to get the image quality you need for uses such as e-newsletters or blog articles.

Hire a professional photographer for a photo shoot. If you want top quality images that you won’t see anywhere else, hire a professional photographer and buy the exclusive rights to your photos. This option is obviously more expensive than “free” stock photography, but you can work with the photographer to get the exact images you want.

Go with a trusted source. Ragan Communications is a well-regarded resource for the corporate communication industry. Several years ago, it published a list of good sources for free stock photography. You’ll still need to check the terms of usage and restrictions for the image sites listed, but at least it’s a vetted list. And Ragan was nice enough to provide quick links to licensing requirements for each site.

I’m lucky that when I have questions about finding or using images, I can walk across the office and talk with one of the graphic designers on the Vela team. They know all about image rules and restrictions, and can help me select the right image or illustration for any project. They can help with your next project too, including arranging every detail of photo shoots and more. Contact Vela today to learn more about our services.