Coffee Cups, Country Lanes, and Everybody's Cat

3 Fast Ways to Find the Free Stock Image You Actually Need

March 14, 2016

The “do whatever” Creative Commons Zero (CC0) wave has allowed publishers to pull amazing images from a motley crew of sources. For those unfamiliar, CC0 means the owner of the photograph has waived all rights and copyrights, and the image can be used commercially, in any setting, for free.

There are many sources available for stock photos, but not all are equally equipped to support your hunt for content-relevant images. It is easy to get lost in the gorgeous, sweeping photos available on sources like Life of Pix or Magdeleine and from top photographers like Jay Mantri. Misty beechtrees, latte art, pets, and sunsets are bathed with Instagrammy edits, giving them a distinctly hipster, arty feel.

Thanks to their sheer aesthetic power, sites like these top out nearly every free stock recommendation list. They make fantastic browsing, and sometimes they’re exactly what you need. But more often than not, you need images that suit what’s already written, which requires a broader selection of images and the ability to search.

Find What You Need

Over time, I’ve developed an efficient do-whatever stock workflow for my own projects. All of the images on Naytev’s blog are copyright-free, and we’re always looking for new ways to integrate the great patchwork of no-attribution collections into our everyday work. The steps I follow allow me to find the perfect image as quickly as possible, while still allowing the unexpected to catch my eye.

When You Need It Now

There are alternative services, but Pixabay is my immediate go-to for image content. Doubly so when I’m tight on time.

Pixabay deserves its effective, one-stop-shopping reputation. I’ve had very good luck finding pro-level, real-life shots from many perspectives and contexts. Pixabay’s diversity is its greatest strength.

Many other image sites try to curate a cohesive collection with a “look.” Pixabay just throws it all at you, clip art included (though you can filter that out).

To allow for this approach, Pixabay has a thorough search and tagging system. You can plug in just about anything and get at least one interesting result. For example, I searched for “poverty” to get this image from Nepal.

The system also handed me an educational coloring book vector of the Cynic philosopher Diogenes living in a barrel, among pages of other choices.

While I don’t need a naked Greek man in a barrel at the moment, I appreciate that my search turned up such an indirect but related result. It’s a good demonstration of a smart system. If you’ve ever searched a paid stock site for an abstract concept like “poverty” or “hunger,” you’ve learned to expect the cringe-inducing studio shots of shiny, clean models pouting and holding their tummies. Pixabay will struggle with some nunaced searches in the same way, but it will handle quite a few of them with grace.

Additionally, you can trust that whatever Pixabay returns is truly no-strings-attached. There are no caveats anywhere on the site. That’s surprisingly rare among the bigger “free” image repositories. Some sites will promise freedom of use on the landing page, then quietly mutter that you need to check each individual photo’s rights for details. It can become too easy to make a mistake in such a system. Pixabay never requires extra checks or fuss.

In short, the site is fast, logically designed, and consistently impressive. If you want to replicate the ease of paid stock sites, this comes closest.

(Sidenote: They’re also among the few no-attribution sites that pull those semi-awkward, infographic-ready digital illustrations you’ll need at some point.)

  • 2. Unsplash, Splitshire, and Pexels

When You’re Prioritizing Tone Over Subject

Sometimes, you’ll be looking to reach out to a certain demographic, strike a certain note, or find a visual representation of a certain context. You don’t specifically need a woman in a power suit holding a watering can next to a sportscar, just an image of a relatable person who fits in with your content.

That’s where Unsplash, Splitshire, Pexels, and their ilk can help. They all have semi-decent search functions, but they shine in categorization.

I found the young woman above on Splitshire. I knew I wanted a photo of 18- to 35-year-old women with a calm, confident feel. I happened upon a wintery image I liked under “People,” then spent about two minutes looking for a similar image with a contrasting tone under “Fashion.”

When I ran searches for “woman cold,” “girl coat,” “snow fashion,” and similar combinations, Splitshire rolled its eyes at me. I tried the same searches on Pexels and Unsplash. None returned these images, or any like them.

These collections allow for useful deep browsing, not swift searching. Even though the process is slower, I still found two very different versions of what I wanted in under ten minutes, and hit inspiration with some photos I passed on the way.

Each of these three browsable sites has slightly different strengths:

  •    Splitshire offers a large range of useful categories displayed in big, scrollable streams. These run from the generic “Fashion” to the surprisingly robust “Low Poly Backgrounds,” but the list is not comprehensive. You’ll usually need to start very broad and browse your way inward.  
  •    On Pexels, I recommended ignoring everything else and heading straight to the “Discover” function. You’ll be offered a variety of photo categories and of specific photographers. Once you choose one, you get something very much like a Pinterest wall – perfect for zooming down until something catches your eye.  
  •    Unsplash is even more Pinterest-like, with a huge Boards-like perk for the user. If you leave the primary stream of images, you’ll find users’ “collections,” which operate without larger site-controlled categories. You’ll have to scroll through collections until you see one that strikes you; they aren’t organized in any regular way. That’s not as awful as it sounds, though. Most of the users are trying to do precisely what you’re doing. Best of all, you can easily create your own collections and save images from around the site into specific nooks. With this capability, you can manage projects and stash things you like for later right on the site.  
  •    3. The Classics  

When You Really, Really Need That One Thing

You already know these resources. They’re the classics: Wikimedia Commons, Morguefile, The Public Domain Archive, and Flickr. I find the most professional-grade images by following that order.

Sometimes you just need a picture of a particular species of ladybug, and nothing else will do.


You’ll notice I needed to credit that. That’s why I head to these sources last; the requirements really do vary image by image, and I end up losing time and great finds. Flickr, at least, is theoretically set up to let you filter for usage types, but it’s undependable.

Sometimes, once you know what you need by site, you can dupe it (unlabelled) from more general sources that you know are CC0. But not always.

At that point, I’m happy to pay for traditional stock or give full credits. Keep an eye on the time/cost in your search. Know when to leave CC0 behind and grab an expert.

Over the last five years, the CC0 image community has become a powerful resource for publishers, supporting and enhancing all kinds of content. On your next project, skip the stock packs and reach out to these artists instead.

And if you find yourself returning to a resource or artist frequently, please donate whatever you can to their coffee fund. These sites are filled by generous volunteers at personal cost. Help keep CC0 alive!