Whether for your blog, a Facebook post, or an informational brochure, images, illustrations, and videos can enhance your content, endowing it with added value. For those without a media budget, free offers are often the first stop. In our comprehensive EXPERTE.com comparison of the best stock photo platforms, we looked carefully at three free providers alongside 10 premium ones.
But "free" can quickly become expensive should the media you use turn out to be protected by copyright. And the platform you sourced it from? As a rule, free stock photo archives generally do not offer indemnification (legal protection) for content posted on their portals. This stands in marked contrast to free media from subscription-based professional services like Dreamstime or Adobe Stock. Of course, with them, the selection isn't as far-reaching, but you'll be on the safe side of the law, so long as you pay attention to the licensing conditions. In this guide, we'll show you the best and safest ways to utilize stock photos for free.
Your text is ready and you've finished laying out your website, but you're missing an image to tie it all together? The quick and simple fix is to check a free media archive like Pixabay. All you'll have to do to download images or videos there is complete a captcha, as accounts aren't required.
Pixabay made a good impression with us owing to its tidy homepage and the high quality of the images it offers. However, finding the right picture can be frustrating owing to the lack of search filters and the hit-or-miss nature of results. Supposing that time isn't an issue, you will definitely be able to find what you need on Pixabay, eventually.
Many of the motifs might seem familiar from other websites. Since photos are free on Pixabay, they see quite frequent use. In both the video and audio archives, you'll find some nifty clips. Particularly among the latter, there's an abundance of nice background music for self-produced YouTube videos.
Pixabay is one of the most well-known sources for free stock photos.
However, a word of warning: Because anyone can anonymously upload content to Pixabay, regardless of whether they actually own the rights to it or not, you might be inadvertently infringing upon the creator's copyright. For its part, Pixabay does not check whether media hosted on its platform is copyrighted by third parties and offers no indemnification. Should legal consequences arise, you'll be left to face the claimants alone.
Compounding this, Pixabay also (fairly recently) updated its licensing conditions and terms of service. In the past, its license was similar to Creative Commons Zero (CC0) and stipulated that all media found on its platform were free from copyright-based limitations. Free usage continues to be permitted without the requirement to provide attribution of its creator or source, however, distributing images digitally or uploading them to databases is no longer allowed.
Attribution not necessary
Poor search filters; inaccurate results
Own license with limitations
Offers no indemnification
If you type "free stock photos" into a search engine, one provider will likely appear near the top of the list of results: Unsplash. In March 2021, the platform was purchased by the premium stock photo giant Getty Images, however, it continues to offer free stock visual content. Just don't expect any animations, videos, or audio files.
Like Pixabay, you can also start downloading stock photos as soon as you like, since it isn't necessary to create an account. The service's homepage is clearly structured and easy to navigate. Keyword searches work well, however, keep in mind that English is the website's language, so searching for foreign terms can be a bit challenging. Unsplash offers countless, high-quality images, as well as a special concept for brands to advertise themselves by paying to upload branded photo content to the community.
Unsplash only offers free stock photos, meaning that you won't find any clips, animations, or audio among its archives.
As nice as Unsplash's photos are, it can be a challenge to find the right motif. This is because the platform's filters only allow rudimentary sorting and search results aren't particularly accurate. Anyone keen on high-quality images will find a veritable cave of wonders. Should you be more in the market for content to be used on an everyday basis, it's advisable to be patient.
In a similar fashion to Pixabay, it's also good to be aware of the legal repercussions which might accompany using stock images sourced from Unsplash. It too has moved away from CC0 and developed its own license. This is intended to prevent copycats from using and offering the platform's images on their databases or selling them to premium providers.
The main problem with Unsplash is that it provides no indemnification for copyright infringements arising from the use of images it hosts. In such cases, users will have to contend with all legal consequences on their own.
Free and possible to use without an account
Attribution not necessary
High-quality images, unlimited downloads
Does not provide indemnification in the event of copyright disputes
Lacks animations, videos, and audio
Poor search filter options
Pexels is another platform that offers free stock photos. Here too, you'll be able to download content (images and videos) without an account. The platform's database is clearly structured and its pages are intuitive to navigate. Pexels emphasizes inclusion, so those searching for LGBTQ+ content, for example, will find plenty to choose from. Overall, both the quantity and quality of images and videos are good.
Unfortunately, the filter options are less stellar and don't always work as intended. This makes searching for content frustrating and time-consuming. Similarly, the accuracy of results leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Well-structured, but lacking filter options: Pexels offers free stock photos.
Media hosted on Pexels comes under the platform's license which allows everything that isn't explicitly prohibited. Content can be used for free without attribution, and even modified if desired. Selling images or using unaltered copies of a photo or video on a product intended for sale is forbidden.
As is the case with the other free stock photo providers mentioned above, Pexels is not liable for any copyright infringements which might arise owing to the use of content hosted on its platform. Thus, users who publish media from Pexels run the risk of exposing themselves to legal action.
Free and possible to use without registration
Attribution not necessary
Good media material, unlimited downloads possible
Doesn't offer indemnification
Only images and videos
Too few filter options
The service which performed best in our comparison, Depositphotos, also offers around 70,000 free stock photos. And just in case you were wondering, these aren't inferior in any way to the provider's subscription-only content. In contrast to the other three services we mentioned above, attribution of both the creator (or author) and source is necessary. Still, you'll have access to high-quality images, vector graphics, editorial photos, and videos, as well as confidence that you can safely and legally use the content.
There is one limitation though: Even though you can search among free stock content based on its type and according to keywords, the platform doesn't offer any filters for further refining these results. Considering what's available, we didn't mind investing a bit of time and energy into finding the right media.
Depositphotos also offers a sizable collection of free stock content.
Our best-in-show isn't free from minor issues, however, these relate mostly to its somewhat confusing pricing structure and limitation of special offers to corporate clients. As such, our qualms aren't particularly relevant when discussing the platform as a source for free stock content.
Anyone looking to secure high-quality media that they can safely publish should definitely have a look at what Depositphotos has to offer.
High-quality free media
No filters for free content searches
Another premium provider that also offers free stock media is Adobe Stock, formerly known as Fotolia. All 800,000 of the platform's free stock media files are covered under a regular license and can be used without a second thought. You only need to provide attribution when using the file in an editorial context or on social media.
We found the platform's filter options to be highly convenient and easy to use. Alongside free stock photos and videos, Adobe Stock also offers videos, animations, layout templates, and even 3D models.
With Adobe Stock you'll also be able to select from a variety of high-quality, free stock photos.
Adobe appears to want to include as many different kinds of content rather than alternative options for popular motifs. As such, when searching, you might be surprised at the lack of variations upon a particular theme. This is also intended to encourage users to book a paid subscription so that they can access more options.
All the same, you'll still be able to find useful and legally safe media for everyday usage. One of the few downsides to Adobe Stock is the difficulty in reaching its support, however, this shouldn't be a big issue for those after free content covered under the provider's standard license. In any case, Adobe Stock is worth checking out, not least because new, free content is regularly added to its archives.
Formidable selection of free stock images
Possible to find content for niche topics
Excellent filter options, also for free media
Pricey, should you decide to upgrade to a paid subscription
Difficult to reach support
How Did We Evaluate?
In order to thoroughly assess the performance, advantages & disadvantages, as well as the specifics of all platforms from our sample, we created an account with each provider. Services could receive a final score between 1 and 5, with 5 being the highest and 1 the lowest. This final score is comprised of scores awarded in the categories detailed below.
Configuration & Usage
When registering with a new service, we paid attention to how quick and easy this process was, and whether we could do so via email or social media logins. All of the providers from our sample performed above average in this area. Pixabay, Pexels, and Unsplash, free services, didn't even require registration, making it possible to quickly get an image when time is a factor.
Registration was fast and straightforward with all of the providers from our sample.
Stock photo websites should also be intuitive and easy to navigate. In addition to a logical structure, databases scored higher with us when their searches were efficient, had fresh or innovative layouts, or offered helpful tools, such as lightboxes for storing and organizing media. Another important aspect was how accurate searches were and the presence of filters to refine results. Among these last two points, free providers didn't fare as well as their premium counterparts.
Irrelevant: A girl holding a mobile phone doesn't have much to do with "web hosting", the phrase we searched for.
Selection of Stock Photos
How user-friendly or well-designed a platform is are largely matters of taste. However, the relevance of search results and their applicability to what you intend to use them for can be assessed more objectively. For that reason, we used the same five keywords and phrases to search for stock photos within each provider's database: web hosting, ecommerce, antivirus, business, and email marketing.
Platforms that offered creative or innovative suggestions to our search queries could earn bonus points.
We rated results on the basis of several criteria. First, how well the database understood the terms we had input; second, how relevant the results were; third, the quality of the results, and finally, whether the search filters were effective. Bonus points could be earned for interesting or creative results that broke with the mainstream.
Browsing through stock photo archives, you'll often find images that depict similar scenes or are even identical to those available elsewhere. Those providers who had the courage to offer unusual and atypical content performed better in this category.
Selection of Videos, Audio, Vector Graphics & Illustrations
In this category, we also took a look at how accurate and relevant results, filter options, and searches were. Additionally, we paid attention to the quality and quantity of different types of media on offer. Generally, services lacking one of the file types scored lower.
Some providers, such as Storyblocks, even offer After Effects templates.
What's allowed? What's prohibited? When it comes to using media, you should ask both of these questions, so long as you want to avoid expensive copyright infringement suits. For that reason, in our EXPERTE.com reviews, we paid particular attention to each provider's licenses for content sourced from their platforms. This included how straightforward and understandable these were. The more transparent, the higher the score.
What's allowed? What's prohibited? Free stock photo providers often have their own licenses for content sourced from their platforms.
We also assessed whether the platform offers indemnification for media that they host. Free providers generally do not, meaning that users will have to deal with any legal consequences on their own. Accordingly, these providers scored lower in this category.
When it comes to support, we paid attention to two important factors. First, how easy it was to find contact channels on the provider's website. And second, how quickly and competently the provider's support reacted to our query.
Some providers lapsed in the first area but made up for it in the second with comprehensive and quick responses. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we doled out high scores on several occasions in this category.
Right off the bat, whether for a blog, website, catalog, or social media post, you won't need to spend years setting up your own media archive to use images, videos, or animations for your project. There are dozens of professional providers that offer both free and paid stock content. To be on the safe side, we recommend premium providers, since they also offer free media that won't get you in legal hot water.
Over the course of our assessments, we determined that the most expensive platforms weren't necessarily the top of the heap, especially if you'd like the best price-performance ratio. As such, we invite you to check out our comprehensive EXPERTE.com assessment of 13 leading stock photo providers.
This depends on the exact license the content is under. As a rule, such media can be used for both commercial and non-commercial purposes, with limitations only in regards to reselling images to third parties, or when it depicts recognizable individuals in an offensive fashion. What is and is not allowed ultimately varies from provider to provider, so we recommend carefully reading through their licensing agreements.