The 9 Best Paid and Free Stock Photo Sites
A picture is worth a thousand words, but what is a stock photo worth? Depending on who you ask, nothing to $500. The online stock photo landscape is vast and constantly expanding, complete with confusing price structures and even more complicated rights agreements.
We know this is a difficult world to navigate, so we drew you a map to the best stock photo sites out there, whatever your needs and budget.
Best Stock Photo Site for Most People
A few years ago, whether it was women laughing at salads or limited ethnic representations, Shutterstock was starting to become Laughingstock. Now, between their fairly helpful Authentic and Ethnicity search filters and their premium Offset series, it's pretty easy to find what you need on the site.
These updates combined with the sheer depth and complexity of their catalog has kept Shutterstock on top in the increasingly competitive stock photo world.
There are over 200 million images on Shutterstock. Some of them are still a little inauthentic, but many are starting to look more realistic. Plus, unlike heavily curated services like iStock or Getty Images, there's substantial diversity in photography style, so you get different types of photos in every search result.
The individual photo pages also offer model and property release information and requires that applicable photos have these releases, so you're protected for commercial use.
You can search for these photos using Shutterstock's comprehensive filters or by simply dropping an image to find similar photos. Though the site's search has gotten better over the years, the "search by image" function is the easiest way to find a photo fast. Find something on Google you love, but don't have the rights to use it? No problem.
As media professionals take on more and more hats, we appreciate that Shutterstock's monthly plans include access to their photo editing app. Through the app you can make simple edits without needing to buy and learn Photoshop.
Shutterstock's editorial photos currently pull — on a delay — from deals with Associated Press, european pressphoto agency (epa), and SilverHub (an archival photos service).
What Could Be Better
Despite having the Authentic filter turned on, some very artificial photos can show up in your search results. But even if half their photos still scream "stock photo," the other half leaves them with a bigger library than their competitors.
We also found the usefulness of the "related images" pretty hit or miss, but we liked having different options for browsing.
Shutterstock uses standard and enhanced licenses, but special enterprise licenses can be created by reaching out to their team.
Best Free Stock Photos for Most People
Unsplash features a well-maintained photo library that can be used for free. Their high quality images are some of the best out there, especially when it comes to free stock photo sites.
The photos are carefully curated before users can find them. Directly after they're uploaded, the photos are flagged. Once approved, they're only visible on the photographer's profile; a second approval allows the photos to be found via search. If the Unsplash team really likes a photo, they'll feature it prominently on the site.
Since anyone can upload a photo, these quality gatekeeping steps keep Unsplash's library to a certain standard. Finding these high-resolution images is easier than on many free sites, but the search isn't always as targeted as it could be due to few tags.
We also liked that the related images were actually relevant, thanks to their constant curation. Brands, people, and Unsplash alike can create collections that narrow down photos under broad terms or specific styles.
What Could Be Better
Photographers agree that they have model licenses when they upload to Unsplash, but this seems weakly enforced and hard to check on the consumer side. This means that you might not be protected from legal recourse from the models for use of their likeness, which may happen if you use these images commercially.
The library is on the smaller side at roughly half a million photos, but Unsplash values quality over quantity.
The Unsplash License is very similar to a CC0/Public Domain license, but you cannot use photos to build a competing site and there are protections for images of people. Also, if you resell the image, as part of a website or merch, the image needs to be changed creatively from its original state.
Best Premium Stock Photos
iStock by Getty Images houses millions of meticulously curated stock photos. The entire site oozes quality, from the layout to the photos to searches. If it's within your budget, iStock is worth the upgrade.
No matter what we threw at iStock, from two word keywords to full phrases, we could find at least one great image on the first page. Their search filter options are less comprehensive than filter-heavy Shutterstock or Klaud9, yet more effective. We also loved the search by image feature which provides great results when you can't find the right words.
Image not quite perfect? You can resize (including aspect ratios optimized for social media), add text or a graphic, and add a filter before you even hit "download."
What Could Be Better
Though you can buy images a la carte with a clear price, the credits system removes you from the actual cost of each image.
A bigger issue for some is the homogenous nature of the iStock catalog. Though these photos are objectively stunning, they reflect a very particular photography style which might not be right for all of your photo needs. A site like Shutterstock might have more inauthentic photos, but they also offer a wealth of style choices. If you have very specific content, you might find iStock's library limiting after a while.
You can get photos under a standard license on any plan, but you need credits to add-on an extended license.
Best Editorial Photos of Current and Past Events
Associated Press (AP) has been around almost as long as photographs have existed and has shared photos since 1935. AP is still highly respected for its ethics, stylebook, and images, the latter of which have won Pulitzers.
If you need a photo of an important event, whether it happened yesterday or in modern history, AP Images is your best bet. Their newsworthy photos are rivaled only by Getty Images, which is a much more expensive service, and Reuters, a service that's barely accessible to individual users. AP's user-friendly, a la carte system is especially great for sites that might only need news photos occasionally.
AP Images has over 14 million editorial photos available in its constantly growing library. The site's search is one of the most comprehensive ones we found, but it's not without its kinks.
The a la carte licenses are very user-friendly, providing six dropdown menus for a customized license. If you need numerous images for a project or publication, you can save your choices for the future.
We also enjoyed, in addition to AP's other sports coverage, their NFL partnership. Their deal makes AP Images the only place you can get NFL photos for commercial use.
What Could Be Better
The longest you can license a photo (using their website interface) is two years which means you'll either have to renew the license, or remove or replace the image. If you need the image for longer, you can customize your license even further by reaching out their team.
The current AP images site was launched in 2013 and it definitely feels that way, especially thanks to their subdued image layout. Although nothing is particularly difficult to use or find, looking for photos isn't a streamlined experience.
Plus, even on individual photo pages, pictures are small and often low-res. This dissuades screenshots, but incorrectly showcases image quality.
Though you can customize a license for individual photos based on metrics like use cases and audience sizes, some general rules apply. The photos can't be altered to change the meaning/context, and they require captions and credits. Most notably, if any impropriety is brought to AP's attention, they can cancel your license(s).
If you want to get a subscription for your workplace, you'll have to contact the PhotoChoice team.
Best Free Stock Photos for Bloggers
Creating a blog, portfolio, or other website in this day and age requires some captivating visuals. Kaboompics offers easy-to-use photos that look great while also feeling like an average person could have taken them. If you're looking for a worry-free way to use photos for your website, look no further.
Our favorite part of Kaboompics is the color palette feature. Each individual photo page includes the hex codes for the main colors in the image to help you create a cohesive design for your website. We also like that, in addition to choosing from some standard sizes, you can set the width you'd like the image to be before you download it.
Though the first related images are from iStock, the in-site related images are often very relevant which helps make up for the mediocre search.
Most importantly, the photos require model licenses in order to even exist on the site, so you can feel comfortable using the images without needing a robust legal team. You do have to watch out for trademarks, however, like the Apple or Coca-Cola logo.
What Could Be Better
The photo library is small, sitting around 7,700 images, and it doesn't have the best search. The small catalog helps with the latter, so you either find what you're looking for or run out of options.
The website and main photographers, based in Europe, don't seem to feature any photos of non-white people. There are many well-composed pictures of objects and landscapes that we think are still valuable to most bloggers/web designers.
The Kaboompics license allows you to use any of the photos for any reason other than to create a competing website.
Best Free Stock Photos for Small Businesses
Whether or not you're already using Shopify — though it helps — Burst is a great free stock photo service for online businesses. The images are held to a certain standard and can be easily applied to a variety of use cases.
The photos are authentic and look beautiful, plus you can download them in a high or low resolution to skip resizing for certain web limits. These sizes are definitely optimized for Shopify stores, but can be used anywhere.
What Could Be Better
The search is very simple and not always helpful, but we found it easier to discover great photos through their collections.
Photos are either listed under the CC0 License or the Burst License, the latter of which prohibits photos of people being used in slanderous and/or immoral ways.
Best Stock Photos of Millennials
Twenty20 is here to fulfill your millennial stock photo dreams. Full of beautiful, authentic images, the site is a great tool for building a brand or completing an article.
Though it's not perfect, Twenty20 has one of the better searches out there, especially if finding the right license intimidates you. In addition to size and orientation, you can filter searches by commercial or editorial usage, plus popular use cases like email marketing.
While the search is generally reliable, the collections offer a great way to discover the perfect photos. Instead of just having a separate section of the site dedicated to collections, relevant ones also pop up at the top of search results. Plus, in all of our searches and browsing, we never came across an image that felt staged or otherwise inauthentic.
These photos also clearly state in the description whether the photo has model releases and whether it's cleared for editorial and/or commercial use. If a photo doesn't meet one or more of these criteria a small info icon provides more info on why when you hover over it. This helps you make an informed decision about how you can use the image without any legal or financial backlash.
What Could Be Better
The beauty and downfall of Twenty20 is akin to Wikipedia; anyone can upload an image. The Twenty20 team eventually reviews each photo to clear them for commercial use and perform other quality/decency checks. Even so, some unrefined ones can be available to download for editorial use immediately.
Though we enjoyed most of the photo discovery process, we found the related section of individual photo pages wasn't always unhelpful. You can see collections the photo has been saved to as well as other photos from the photographer, but those can be tangential at best. If you don't like a photographer's style, you have to hope they or someone else saved it to a niche collection.
Twenty20 offers standard and enhanced licenses. All of the photos can be downloaded on the standard license directly from the site, but an enhanced license — great for merch and more than 250,000 print runs — needs personal attention from their support team.
Best Stock Photos of People of Color
TONL made waves when it launched in August 2017 as a comprehensive stock photo site that showed diverse people doing normal things. Instead of a sea of white boardrooms and coffee shops, you get to see real people of color in authentic scenarios.
These photos showcase people in real scenarios and just add a diverse element to it. Black people enjoy avocado toast and Native American kids play football. As a society, we know these scenes play out, but a combination of racial bias and bad search algorithms/tags lead to white-washed stock photo sites.
The photo discovery options on the site more immersive and personal than on other stock sites. You can choose from Collections, like Taste or Tradition, or from Narratives which are accompanied by articles, typically highlighting one of the main models.
Speaking of models, thanks to their partnership with Nodumo, a woman with albinism, TONL has the most natural photos we found of an albino person. Many other sites showcase albino people in high fashion photoshoots, adding an ethereal quality, but many of the photos of Nodumo are playful and scattered throughout New York City.
What Could Be Better
TONL's Collections and Narratives save it from it's very simple search. Two word searches frequently return zero results and most of the photos have very few one word tags to begin with.
TONL notes in their terms that they try to obtain model releases whenever possible, but you'll need to reach out to their (very responsive) team in order to find out the status of particular photos. This means that it's risky to use these photos for commercial use.
Their photo catalog currently only has about 3,000 images, but the site is constantly growing.
As of this writing, you purchase a standard license for each photo on TONL. This gives you editorial and personal use of their photos, but prohibits any commercial use. If you need to use a photo commercially, you'll have to reach out to their team. They are working on a site update that will allow you to choose your licenses directly on the site.
Best for Photos of Asian People and Places
Need great photos of Asian people or places? Well, this site might not be heaven, but it's definitely Klaud9. This Singaporean company offers great, slice of life photos of different kinds of Asians.
Instead of broadly searching for Asian people or particular nationalities like Chinese or Japanese on other sites, the baseline is Asian people. Plus, the advanced search filters let you break down your options, region by region, so you can find less represented populations like Malay more easily.
We also liked that you can save images to mood boards and share those boards with others before committing to a purchase. And it doesn't hurt that model releases are clearly stated in each description, so you can feel free to use these photos commercially without recourse from the subjects.
What Could Be Better
Prices are always in Singaporean dollars, which generally converts to less than the listed price in U.S. currency at checkout. Since the exchange rate ebbs and flows, the cost per image fluctuates over time.
Though their advanced search is meant to pin down the best photos for you, we found a handful of photos that were not tagged properly. Unfortunately, these results also were not immune to unnatural stock photos, but most of the images felt fairly authentic.
Ironically, many of their Premium photos have a traditional, inauthentic feel because the Asian market prefers them. The more affordable Select photos tend to seem candid.
All photos can be downloaded under a standard license, but you can upgrade the license directly from any photo's page.
What You Need to Know About Copyrights and Licenses
Creative Commons (CC) includes not one, but seven licenses, most of which require some combination of attribution or editing restrictions. The CC0 License places a photo in the public domain and allows it to be used for any purpose for free without restrictions or attributions. Other Creative Commons licenses are all a type of copyright which might just require attribution (CC BY) or also prohibit changes and commercial use (CC BY-NC-ND). CC0 images are what you think of as copyright-free.
With royalty-free images, the copyright either belongs to the photographer or to the stock site. When you license a royalty-free photo, you can use it forever without having to renew the license.
Photos taken on private property or of a person should have a property or model release. Public domain photos typically don't have these, but paid sites either require them from photographers or will note the status of the release(s) in the image description. These releases are especially important if you're planning on using photos commercially or for sensitive editorial topics like drug use or sexual activity. Without a release, models can take legal action against you for using their likeness, especially if they find the use slanderous.
Generally, you pay for a Standard License. Most paid standard licenses allow you to use a photo personally, editorially, or commercially in up to 500,000 printed copies (which sometimes extends to digital views), but prohibit you from using photos on merchandise or other materials you might sell such as templates. There are also restrictions on video and advertising uses that vary from service to service.
Standard licenses can also be limited to one person, depending on the website and the payment plan you use. You might need a different license or a team plan in order for multiple people to use the photos/download photos onto more than one computer.
Some free sites also use this terminology in their proprietary licenses. Those free proprietary licenses usually include clauses preventing you from uploading their photos on competing sites, using the photos for illegal activity, using photos of people in slanderous ways, et. al. They essentially mix a CC0 license with the protections of a standard license and/or model releases.
Enhanced License and Extended License are sometimes used interchangeably, but occasionally they mean different things. The details will vary from site to site, but you can expect a wider audience for print uses and more comprehensive commercial use allowances.
Commercial Use often refers to advertising within a standard license. Extended and enhanced licenses allow you to use the photos for merchandise or large budget TV ads. Personal Use generally refers to small (definition of small varies based on monthly views) blogs or personal/academic projects.
Editorial Use (definition varies, but generally includes news coverage and blogs) photos are usually neither copyright- or royalty-free. Attribution is almost always required, and in certain cases, there's also a time limit on how long you can use the photo before you need to renew the license. Most notably, Getty Images licenses editorial photos for 15 years while AP licenses photos for a maximum of two years (customizable licenses through AP and Getty's support teams can have longer or indefinite usages).
Additionally, if a photo is flagged for editorial use only, even if you have a standard or enhanced license, you cannot use it for any commercial purposes. Partially because of this, editorial use photos don't really require model releases. These photos also typically can't be altered or edited beyond cropping and resizing.
Close, But No Cigar
There are a few heavy hitters you might think we overlooked, but they ultimately fell short in some way. 123RF and Dreamstime are very similar to Shutterstock in their design, but fewer of their images impressed us in our searches while creating this guide. Certain images lacked quality control, which most frequently resulted in noisy photos.
Pexels is a crowd favorite, but it's largely an aggregate and many of their photos are hosted on Pixabay. Pixabay has a much bigger catalog than Unsplash, but their quality standards fell a little short and they had a decidedly worse search/discovery experience. We are more than happy, however, to recommend Pixabay as a free stock video website.
Stocksy was a serious contender for our premium photos pick, but we couldn't get past their comparatively limited inventory to iStock. Plus, we liked that iStock allows you to edit photos before you download them, beyond just resizing them. Stocksy's photos range from hyper-stylized shots designers would love to visceral photos of everyday life. If you can find what you need there, we say go for it!
If you're looking for a constant stream of current event photos, you'll likely need to call up Reuters Pictures, Getty Images or our pick, AP Images. Online, AP is cheaper ($30–300 per full-sized photo) with highly customizable licenses, but you can only license a photo for up to two years. Getty's editorial images are yours to use for 15 years under a standard license, but that will cost you $175–500 per photo (the $175 photo is barely good enough for Instagram).
You can extend the length of your license by creating a custom plan with Getty or AP's sales team. Reuters' images start at $75 and have various license lengths, but editorial use only photos are typically licensed for as long as your publication exists.
We're not recommending Getty Images because it's more expensive to use than our pick AP Images. This might be hindrance to smaller publications. We do consider it to be an intuitive site with high quality photos. Reuters Pictures was also considered, but their price system isn't as transparent as our pick, and you need special authorization in order to purchase any license.These two services work best for large companies with deep pockets.
In any case, AP offers the best images at reasonable, transparent prices for the widest variety of publication needs.
It's important to note that many paid services have great editorial use photos, they just might be slow to update. So, if you need a picture of Taylor Swift, you can find one on a site like Shutterstock or the faster Adobe Stock — they get news images on a 1–2 day delay from Reuters. If you need the photo of Taylor Swift at a hot event last night, head to Reuters Pictures, Getty Images or our pick, AP Images.
Adobe Stock benefits from its many partnerships, from Reuters to Pond5 to Stocksy, but we and other media professionals often have a hard time finding the images we need. We do think Adobe Stock is a great place for stock vectors, illustrations, and videos, if that's what you're looking for. Their Reuters deal also allows you to license the editorial photos indefinitely, if you don't mind the lack of timeliness.
How We Chose
We created a (long) list based on what we knew about the stock photo world and made it even longer through polls of media professionals and the recommendations of other publications. We dove into each website to get a sense of how user-friendly the site's search and categories were while also sizing up their image quality standards.
We searched for a variety of simple topics, from "doctor" to "cooking," to gauge the relevancy of the results as well as the level of diversity in the first few pages. For the latter, we looked at both ethnic diversity and variety in photo composition and style.
We then searched slightly more complex terms like "field of flowers" and "black doctor." Most free sites floundered here, even when queries were placed in quotes, returning results of sports fields and black and white photos, respectively.
We also considered the availability of different image sizes and the helpfulness of the "related images" sections. We added affordability to the mix for paid services and determined which stock photo sites were the best.
If you are also looking for an online printing service, check out our sister site CNET's guide to Online Photo Printing Services.
Disclaimer: The Guide is a part of CBS Interactive which uses a few of the stock photo sites chosen and/or mentioned. The Guide team uses Shutterstock, but the company also supplements its proprietary photos with Getty Images, Reuters, and AP in several of its publications.