Finding a picture online without paying a cent seems like an easy task. However, there are instances when you would face a major fine. Let’s see how to use free images without going bankrupt.

What Do You Need Free Images For?

This might seem like a rhetorical question, but many advertising and media professionals would object to that because each and every project should be unique, they would say. And they would be right. But there are instances when you would need to find free images even while working on a unique commercial project.

Some of the most common free photo usage cases are:

  • As a template – you’ve come up with a concept, and you’re looking for examples that would illustrate the template of the project to your client. You’re looking for the free images that would represent the idea of your future photoshoot. So the free images serve your own internal purpose.
  • Something went astray. Things might not always work out the way you want them to: the photos from your shoot are a little off, you’re going over the budget. Free photos with commercial use license save the day.
  • All the photos have already been shot. Sometimes you need the kind of pictures that have already been taken a thousand times. There’s no point in arranging a special session with professional lights and background if a simple picture of a green apple is everything you need, and that snapshot will only take up 1% of your layout.
  • Your personal situation matters. Some small, intimate projects, like housewarming invitations, might not be worth it to spend a lot of money creating a special image when a free one would suffice

What Is a Copyright?

Each and every image has its author and an owner.

Copyright attaches as soon as the original work is created, and applies to both published and unpublished works. As soon as you click the shutter on your camera, you’ve got a copyright.

Copyright, by the US Constitution, gives every author the exclusive right to use their work. This is a United States federal law, it’s uniform across all states, and there’s a variety of international copyright agreements signed, which makes this protection functional essentially worldwide. This makes photo copyright laws very broadly applicable to online content creators.
Source: 17 USC Section 106

So you’ve found an image on the internet, resolution, and quality seem just fine, and there’s no apparent watermarks or copyright signs. Don’t just assume that it’s available for your own personal or commercial use. You should check the source of an image first and contact the rights holder.

A word of warning – it is easy to track the copyrighted image posting. Many photographers are using Google Images search, uploading their photo and tracking the websites it has been used at. So if you’re taking and using any photo off the internet, this may result in monetary damages and lawsuits.

Some people might think that cropping the watermark or erasing identifying information in Photoshop would be a good idea. Still not – many photographers are embedding their copyright info into the source code of an image.

Also, you cannot just go ahead and use photos found in social networks, you will always need to ask for permission first, otherwise this may be qualified as copyright infringement.

Copyright Infringement – How Much Being Careless Can Cost?

With copyright infringement, you cannot claim you didn’t know what you were doing. Infringement of copyright may result in monetary damages, lawsuits, legal fees, and under some circumstances, even criminal charges.

However, most authors are happy to settle out of court with a nice payout. Imagine that a random, seemingly free picture of the internet could cost you more than $5,000.

Cropping the copyrighted image is another potentially costly idea – the penalty for doing so is very stiff, up to $25,000, plus attorney fees and damages.

Are You Saying Free Pics Don’t Exist?

Free pictures do exist. This does not necessarily imply they’re illegitimate or donated by a volunteering photographer. Actually, the fact that there are pictures available for free is quite rational:

    • Stock image resources use their free photo collections as one of the means to attract more customers. Having used several free photos, you might consider paid ones later.

Icons8 Photos provides free photos as many as you need, as long as you credit the website.

  • Photographers regard free photos as one of the means to promote their portfolio. A potential customer is likely to view the whole portfolio if the free photos appeal to them.
  • Sometimes stock photo websites would compensate the photographers for the old unpopular photos that have previously been for sale, and transfer those pictures to the free segment.

Again, remember that free photos still have a copyright, make sure that the author declared the image as free to use.

Important Rules

This is what you need to keep in mind before publishing a free photo of the web in your materials.

Stock images have different right limitations. You get nearly unlimited use for some and restricted for the others, as established by the specific license agreement.

  • In most cases, you get nearly unlimited use and you can utilize the photo in virtually any application, both personal and commercial, without paying anything.
  • Make sure you’ve read the License agreement first. Most stock photo resources comply with the Creative Commons license. There are various types of Creative Commons licenses that range from allowing any type of use with no attribution to allowing only certain uses and no changes.
  • Royalty-free images can come with different types of license. Read the specific terms and conditions and make sure you comply with the rules. Sometimes you will have to pay for the license itself, or, the right to use the image might be restricted.
  • Look for the specific license guidelines for each and every photo–even within a single website. For instance, certain images are not cleared for commercial use, but are instead created for the use of media and will be marked “editorial use only”.

Using Images for your Website

In case a third-party has created your website, you are still responsible for ensuring that the images are licensed correctly. If no valid license applies, the liability of any infringement still falls on the end client who used the content for their website.

When the royalty-free images are used, there’s normally no expiration date on the license. However, when using rights-managed images, it is best to keep all licenses organized so that you keep track of the expiration dates.

All of the images on your website must be properly licensed, regardless of the nature of the content, be it a commercial site or a personal blog.

The best way is to source your image from a licensed supplier. If you do that you should be covered against any legal dispute. Model releases and property releases are the first lines of protection concerning photos that include people and objects that are not public property.

What Stock Photo Sites Are There?

There are hundreds of free stock photos resources out there, and you will find some excellent examples below.

Large free galleries at the large paid resources

iStock
New free photos are added weekly; register to get the full access.

Dreamstime
Has a separate free imagery section that gets updated frequently. Registration required.

Large free photo stocks (with paid extended use options)

Pixabay
Free image database with no copyright restrictions on a Creative Commons license.

Free Range Stock
Free high-resolution image resource. Authorizing via the login required.

Free Photos Bank
A nice free photo collection, images available to download without registration. Images are broken down into categories, you can browse specific topics and search using keywords.

Public Domain Pictures
Quick registration required. Paid account needed to download the high-resolution images.

Free Digital Photos
Large resource is broken down into categories. All images free for educational, personal or commercial use.

Free Images
Large gallery with more than 35 thousand images, broken down into categories and available for thematic search. To download, authorization required.

Pickupimage
A large online free stock photo collection, mainly sceneries, available for editorial and commercial use. No registration required.

Small-scale collections

IM Free
Graphics and photos out of legitimate open sources available for commercial use. Supports keyword search.

Stockvault
Stock photo resource designated for designers and photographers, images available for non-commercial and personal use. No registration required.

Morguefile
Photography collection available for non-commercial editorial use. Registration and attribution required.

Rgbstock
Free stock photo website for photographers and editors with required one-click registration, great stock available

Free image search engines

Compfight
Flickr mage search tool. Uses Flickr API together with the search parameters.

PhotoPin
Flickr based search engine for the Creative Commons licensed images.

Foter
Flickr search engine with image license options

Every Stock Photo
Free photos search engine that uses multiple sources and allows license type search.

All the Free Stock
Another free stock photo search engine

Thematic sources with specific photos

Ancestry Images
Free stock images for genealogists and ancestry researchers offering scans of old and antique prints and maps for family history research.

New Old Stock
Vintage photos from the public archives. Free of known copyright restrictions.

Startup Stock Photos
Free business stock photography collection for young creative professionals, freelancers, and startup community.

Travel Coffee Book
Travel moments photo stock. Anyone can upload their own photos and use everything free of copyright restrictions.

Art projects

Little Visuals
7 high-resolution images zipped up in your inbox every 7 days. Hand-picked photos, be it industrial landscapes or peaceful sceneries.

Superfamous
The Los Angeles-based studio of Dutch interaction designer Folkert Gorter. Materials are published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, attribution required.

Jay Mantri
Free hi-res stock photos from Jay Mantri. All photos are free from copyright restrictions – no attribution required.

Moveast
A gallery of a Portuguese photographer, that decided that every photo should be used for free.

Stock Photography Services

Icons8 Photo

Besides the unique images that cannot be found elsewhere, Icons8 Photo service provides you with an option to edit the images right there. For example, you can change the background color in the picture you choose. The service allows you to download the images in limited resolutions for free, attribution required.

So… What Do We Do Now?

Let’s sum it up. Define your purpose (personal, editorial or commercial image use) and look for the sources offering imagery and conditions that suit you best. Always do your own research when using an image to ensure that its license allows for what you plan to do with the photo.