August 12, 2010

Top 10 sites for free or low-cost photos

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Quality, affordable choices for your nonprofit include Fotolia, morgueFile, Bigstock

Target audience: Nonprofits, social change organizations, educators, foundations, businesses, individuals. This is part of Creating Media, our ongoing series designed to help nonprofits and other organizations learn how to use and make media.

By Kim Bale
Socialbrite staff

We live in a visual age. Top-tier sites like Mashable and TechCrunch discovered long ago that blog posts accompanied by an image attract many more readers than posts without a photo. So nonprofits and cause organizations should always be on the lookout for rights-cleared photos that can be used on your website, blog, in your whitepapers or reports, in your multimedia slide show — anywhere you make media.

Searching for the perfect image to accompany a project or blog post can prove time-consuming and exhausting even before you factor in the costs, rights and licensing issues. While the emergence of royalty-free stock photography websites has alleviated the stress of licensing concerns, the millions upon millions of images available can often be overwhelming, given the difficulty of choosing which site to use and whether to purchase a single image, join a service or opt for free photos. (Royalty free means you need to pay only once to use the file multiple times.)

Relax! We’ve compiled this list of royalty-free websites to help you make an easy, informed choice. You may want to begin with our Free Photos Directory, a pretty fantastic standing resource at Socialbrite. Sometimes, though, a small fee will deliver big rewards. Regardless of the nature of the project — or the budget — these stock photo sites are sure to deliver. Some are free, others cost just a few dollars.

Which photo services do you like? Let us know in the comments below.

Free stock photo sites

Freerange Stock: A free community service

1Freerange Stock is a completely free stock photo community, supported by advertising revenue and showcasing photographs from talented photographers. Community members can browse the site, download photos for personal and commercial use and sign up to contribute their own work for a share of ad revenue. Create a free account and you can take advantage of their photo tutorials section, browse thousands of royalty-free images and download high-quality photos immediately. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Email their support team and they’ll search for the image in their offline archives!


morgueFile: Comb through free 200,000 images

2The morgueFile is home to a very user-friendly stock photography database of more than 200,000 images spanning a wide variety of subjects. Anyone can visit the site, browse and instantly download photos and participate in community bulletin boards, all for free. The morgueFile license lets you download and adapt photos for personal or commercial use without attribution, and all contributors to morgueFile agree to this license. Register with morgueFile to upload your own work and take advantage of their Portfolio and Organize features.


Stock Exchange: A free service from Getty Images

3Sign up for a free account at stock.xchng and begin browsing more than 350,000 free photos provided by more than 30,000 photographers. These numbers are constantly growing, making SXC one of the leading sites for free stock photography. Community members take part in frequent discussions to tackle site problems and collectively improve the website. Owned by Getty Images, SXC is tied to prominent names in photography and strives to remain ahead of the pack for royalty-free images.


Flickr/Creative Commons: Share the creativity

4This is where we always start: Arguably one of the most valuable resources for a nonprofit, Flickr: Creative Commons boasts more than 100 million Creative Commons licensed images. These images are divided into different CC licenses (explained here) — we recommend nonprofits use the Attribution, Attribution-NoDerivs or Attribution-ShareAlike license. Once you’ve picked your images, you can optionally return the favor by adding a Creative Commons license to your own works.

stockvault No registration needed

5Easily search more than 18,000 high-quality stock photos at The website’s design is appealing and its image library is easily searchable, bringing you one step closer to finding the perfect photo for your project. No registration is necessary to download these free images and to use their section of helpful Adobe Photoshop tutorials, though creating a free account will unlock special features like organizational lightboxes, photo comments and emailing options.

Low-cost stock photo sites

Angry protest - Fotolia


Fotolia: Nearly 2 million professionals

6Joining Fotolia’s community of more than 1.9 million professionals affords access to more than 9 million images and illustrations for sale as single downloads or part of a subscription package. Registration is free, and if you don’t find what you’re looking for in Fotolia’s free downloads, you can buy single images for as little as 75 cents each or 14 cents each with a subscription. Customize your purchase by selecting from image sizes and resolutions suitable for the Web or larger print projects, or take advantage of Fotolia’s selection of high-def videos and other works. Socialbrite’s John Haydon uses Fotolia on his blog.


Dreamstime: Search on 9 million images

7Offering both free and for-purchase royalty-free images, Dreamstime invites registered users to browse, download and buy photos from a selection of more than 9 million images. Registration is free and images for purchase are priced as low as 20 cents each. Photographers either offer their images for a donation or attach a small price tag, and users can download the photos or purchase them using credits or through a subscription service. The flexibility and large selection Dreamstime offers makes it a valuable asset for any nonprofit.


iStockphoto: 10+ years of stock photography

8A pioneer in the user-generated, royalty-free stock photo space, iStockphoto offers free membership and downloadable files using flexible, pay-as-you-go iStock credits or as part of a subscription package. Each image is assigned a certain number of credits based on size, complexity of the work and the collection it belongs to. iStockphoto has also partnered with, a site offering a plan that allows subscribers to search images across stock photo sites, including iStockphoto, Getty Images, Jupterimages, Punchstock and Plans range from image packs (5 downloads for $59) to one-year subscriptions for $199 that are best suited for organizations looking to download images daily.


iClipart: Need clip art?

9iClipart sets itself apart from other stock photo sites by offering a large selection of clip art alongside photos and flexible subscription plans ranging from one week for $12.95 to one year for $49.95. The diverse library contains more than 7.8 million images that can also be purchased individually, without subscription. Pro and plus accounts unlock even more download options, and all subscription plans can be compared.


Bigstock: High-quality up and comer

10With more than 5 million royalty-free images, Bigstock is becoming a major competitor in the stock photo space. Bigstock is free to join and its design makes it simple for members to manage their account, purchase credits and add photos to their shopping cart for easy checkout. Photographers are also encouraged to upload their photos and earn 50 cents per credit spent on their work, which could add up to $3 per download.

Kim Bale was recently the community outreach specialist for The Extraordinaries. Follow her on Twitter at @balekimb.

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9 thoughts on “Top 10 sites for free or low-cost photos

  1. Another great site for free images is – 700,000 royalty-free images and you can get up to 10 photos a day for free. If you need more, they have almost 7 million images for a subscription of $9.99 a month. Worth checking out.

  2. You can find a lot of incredible and noteworthy free photos and images in this website I’ve been using it for quite some trust me it’s really worth it!

  3. Hi , I’m co-founder of the public domain image resource Pixabay currently offers about 65.000 manually approved pictures that may be used freely and without attribution for any purpose (Creative Commons CC0 – Public Domain).
    Within a mere two years, Pixabay has grown into the largest portal of its kind (PR 5, Alexa 7k). We think it would complement your article if you added it as another image resource, provided you like Pixabay, of course.
    Digital cheers :-)

  4. Finally, “free” stock images that are really free! Great selection. Quick and easy without an application that leads to your credit card number. Thanks MorgueFile!