Should You Use Free Stock Photos For Your Business?

by | Branding, Content Marketing, Marketing

At one time any business serious about their image and branding pretty much had to purchase stock photos for some if not all of their marketing needs.

The term high-quality free stock photos was an oxymoron. High quality implied purchased, free implied you were sacrificing quality. The two didn’t fit together. Stock images that were high quality and free were virtually non-existent!

Fast forward to today. While many question the value of using free stock images for their print and online needs, believing free means lesser quality than paid is no longer true.

And, while not every photo available on a free stock photo site may be high quality, a growing number of them are. In fact, there are literally hundreds of thousands of free stock photos now available online. And, websites like Unsplash have roughly 50,000 free stock photos, the majority of which are high-quality!

Add to that the insatiable demands the Internet has placed on our content development processes coupled with the information overload most of us are feeling, and free stock photos provide an economically friendly answer to our need for more visual content.

We suffer from information overload


The use of visualized information has increased


Will Free Stock Photos Work For Your Business?

Whether free stock photos will work for your business or not, depends on the types of photos you need and how you’ll be using them. As mentioned, there are literally hundreds of thousands of free stock photos available online so chances are you’ll be able to find at least some of what you need online.

Where stock photos, free or paid, won’t work, consider hiring a professional photographer.

But where stock photos work, check to see what’s available for free first. If you’re unable to locate what you need for free, then check sites where you can buy stock images. Sites like iStock, Shutterstock or Getty Images offer stock images for sale.

For many, if not most micro, small and even medium size businesses, at least some of the stock images they need for social media, website or print purposes can be found on free stock image sites. Many of the images are high quality.

But, will they meet your needs? The only way to know for sure is to have a look.

Stock Photos: They’re Not All Created Equal!

You’ll need to search and pick carefully through the free photos offered to find the one(s) that will work best for you. Most free stock image sites have some search features available to help narrow down your search.

You’ll need to search when looking to buy stock images as well. Not all images available, whether free or paid, are created equal.

Two of the main sources I look to for high-quality free stock photos are Unsplash and Pixabay. The creators of the free photos on these sites license their work under Creative Commons licensing. 

Creative Commons is, “a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.” To learn more about Creative Commons click here.

Some free stock image sites may require source attribution (e.g. Source: John Smith, Photographer) when using their images. Or, they have limitations on how you can use or what you can do to the photo.

Having to provide attribution limits your options for using the photos. However, there are many sites, like Unsplash, that do not require attribution.

Unsplash-License for Free Stock Photos


The ‘Unsplash License‘ shown on this page is an example of the type of permission several of the free stock image sites provide.

The free images available on Unsplash can be used for commercial purposes and without providing attribution.

On Pixabay a small number of photos have restrictions on how they are used. Any restrictions are available in the image download area for that particular image.

The quality of photos available through Unsplash is superb. Almost all of their photos rank high on the quality scale. With

With Pixabay you’ll have to search a little harder but they too have a good selection of high-quality photos. You’ll just need to look a bit harder to find them.

The number of free stock photo sites has grown exponentially in recent years. Check out this Forbes article for a list of “33 Epic Sites With Breathtaking Free Stock Photos’. Not surprisingly, Unsplash is listed first.

Paid stock photos from sites like iStock, Shutterstock or Getty Images have limitations on how you can use their photos. The license you purchase for the photo determines whether you can use the image for commercial purposes (i.e. on a product you will sell) or not.

There may be other restrictions as well. Be sure to check the licenses and limitations of use out carefully when purchasing stock photos.

Won’t Using Free Stock Images Hurt My Brand’s Image?

Don’t assume that buying stock photos from places like iStock, Shutterstock or Getty Images is any better than finding a high-quality free stock photo on Unsplash, Pixabay or some other site. It isn’t!

Yes, the free stock image you find and use MAY also be used by another business. But paying for a stock image doesn’t guarantee this won’t happen also!

Stock photos are available for purchase to anyone willing to pay. Purchasing a stock photo doesn’t guarantee your competitor(s) won’t buy the same photo! In fact, it’s possible that dozens, hundreds or even thousands of others will buy that same stock photo that you love and think is perfect for your business.

Buying a stock photo from iStock, Shutterstock or Getty Images won’t give you exclusive rights to the photo. If you want exclusive rights to the photos you use, the best way to do this is to hire a professional photographer to take pictures and secure exclusive rights to the images.

Whether a stock photo you download is free or you pay for it, there is always the potential that another business may use that same image in the same or some other way. 

So, should you use free stock images for your business? Absolutely, if you can find images that work for you, that are high quality and that you can do what you need to do with them. If not, pay for your stock images … or hire a professional photographer to take the photos you need. If you have to.

A Few More Reasons To Take Advantage Of Free Stock Images!

We live in an online world … a visually oriented online world.

Today, a business website, blog and/or social media presence needs visual content.

Visual content is a huge piece of print marketing and an equally, and possibly more important, piece of online marketing.

The following content marketing statistics come from the HubSpot article ’42 Visual Content Marketing Statistics You Should Know in 2017′:

  • When people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retained 65% of the information three days later. (Source)
  • Eye-tracking studies show internet readers pay close attention to information-carrying images. In fact, when the images are relevant, readers spend more time looking at the images than they do reading text on the page. (Source)
  • People following directions with text and illustrations do 323% better than people following directions without illustrations. (Source)
  • Tweets with images receive 150% more retweets than tweets without images. (Source)
  • Facebook posts with images see 2.3X more engagement than those without images. (Source)

Making Stock Images Fit Your Unique Needs

Stock photos, and custom professional photos, have many uses today. We’re familiar with the print uses of these in sales flyers, brochures, rack cards, posters, advertisements, etc.

When it comes to online applications there are even more opportunities to use stock or custom photos on a daily basis. For instance, photos provide visual proof or support to written content in blog posts and other areas of your website. They draw attention to and reinforce your message in social media ads, social media posts, and websites. And, for those of us who share branded inspirational quotes online, they offer a wide variety of interesting and diverse backgrounds for our quote text.

When using stock images online keep the following in mind:

  • Use high-quality photos … nothing blurry or that will reflect poorly on your brand.
  • Ensure photos enhance and fit or speak to what you are sharing.
  • Use photos that your target audience will relate to.
  • When using text on the image use a colour that will contrast, pop or stands out against the background.
  • Optimize images for use online. Print quality images are too large for use on the web. This article from Shutterstock addresses how to prepare an Image for Web vs Print.

Ultimately, whether you use free or purchased stock images or custom photos is irrelevant. What’s important is that the images you do use work well for your business, your customers and your messaging.