Where to Find Royalty Free Photos and How to Use Them

Taking a picture -- getting images for your website

One of the biggest problems that anyone working on the Internet has is finding pictures for their sites. Now before you go and tell me, what? It’s easy – I just head out to Google Images and grab something, I’ve got news for you: you’re letting yourself in for a big lawsuit if you do that. Here’s what you need to know and how to do it correctly:

Images Are Copyrighted

Just like documents, just like movies and songs, photographs are copyrighted the moment that they are created. This means that the moment you snap a photo of your kids, it is legally protected under United States copyright law and under applicable treaties which cover pretty much the entire globe.

You may choose to also register your copyright with the United States copyright office for $20. However, even if you don’t do so, if you can simply prove where the image originated and on what date, then you can claim copyright on the image and you can file suit against someone who uses your image (or any other intellectual property you own) without permission.

The reason it doesn’t usually happen is because very few websites actually make money. As such, unless your image happens to get placed on a website which becomes really popular and which makes a lot of money, it’s just not worth suing for it. However, the fact that it’s unlikely doesn’t mean it can’t happen. That’s why you need to arrange for images that you really can use.

Royalty Vs. Royalty Free Photos

Okay, now that we’ve established why you need images that are legal, let’s get into what it means to get a royalty free image: There are actually two types of images available for use on your website (legally I mean).

Rights Managed Photos (Royalty Photos)

Note: A kind commenter pointed out that I used the wrong term here, which is why I’ve changed it. The industry term is “rights managed” photos, not “royalty” photos.

The first option, which I don’t recommend, is a rights managed photo (basically, a royalty photo, or one you pay royalties on). This means that every time your image is displayed, you pay a fee. The fee may not be much money – it could be one or two dollars per thousand impressions, but there is a fee nonetheless and for however long your image appears on the website, you’ll continue to pay royalty fees for using it.

Royalty Free

Royalty free does not mean you pay nothing for the image (we’ll get to that in a moment). It means you pay once and then you own the right to use that image as many times as you care to do so. If you buy a royalty free image for a dollar, you can legally run double page ads in the New York Times every day for a year with that image and never pay a penny more for it.

What About Free Royalty Free Images?

It may sound a bit like a tongue twister, however, I prefer to use free royalty free images for the websites I put together. The image above this blog post for example is a free, royalty free image. This means that I am legally entitled to use it without payment because the owner of the image has released rights to it.

Types of Rights

Now, are you ready for things to get a little more complicated? Just because I’m legally entitled to use a photo doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want. Sometimes, an image owner will release rights to a photo only for non commercial use. This means that I can use the photo only on personal websites. Professional sites like this one would be a no-no.

Sometimes, there are commercial reuse rights without modification, meaning that I can use the image on this or any other commercial site, but I’m not allowed to change it in any way. Then, there are the commercial reuse with modification rights where I can reuse the image and change it if need be (so for example, if the image is a stamp which says “60 day guarantee,” I can change it and write “No 60 day guarantee.”).

Attribution Requirements and Model Release

Two more things that are important to mention before I get to where to find images (I promise, it’s coming and I’ve got a couple of phenomenal resources for you), are about attribution requirements and model releases.


Attribution requirements mean that you may find an image and it will say “attribution required.” At times, the site will specify that attribution means you include a sentence with a link back to the owner’s site. If nothing is specified as to attribution requirements, you can simply add a note at the bottom of the image “Photo by: John Smith” (Of course, replace “John Smith” with the name of the owner).

Model Release

Now, one last thing you need to be aware of is model releases. In many cases, when you get a free image, there is no model release on file. This means that if a person’s picture is shown and the person is personally identifiable (a crowd is not a problem, but an individual is), then you may not use the image without the express consent of the person pictured, even if you have legal rights to the image.

There are exceptions to model release requirements, however they’re complicated and as such, my suggestion is that you simply stay away from this to begin with by avoiding photos which require model release (unless the site you get them from specifies they have them on file).

Where to Find Photos

There are hundreds of sites on the Internet which will sell you royalty free photos and dozens of sites where you can find them for free. I only use three of these sites and have literally never had a problem with finding what I need. Here they are:

Every Stock Photo

90% of the time, I’ll find what I need using Every Stock Photo. They have a meta search service which searches about 15 different sites which offer free images, including a large number of professional quality images. The image above was found through them for example.

The only catch is that you need to register with the individual sites that they index and follow their rules. This means for example at Flickr, you’ll have to do attribution every time, at Stock Exchange, you may have to give attribution and or leave a comment saying where the image is being used, etc.

Generally, I find that the three sites that have the most images available at ESP are Stock Exchange, Photo Express and Morgue File (and no, that doesn’t mean it’s pictures of dead people – the morgue of a newspaper is where old editions and images are kept and this site simply lists lots of great images).

I tend not to look at Flickr even though there are lots of images there because most of those images are snapshots rather than professional level photos. You can click “Advanced Search” and choose which sites to search. Just remember to register with sites that require registration (it’s free) and pay attention to attribution and usage requirements.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons is actually supposed to be indexed by ESP, however I find that they often aren’t fully indexed. On the rare occasions I can’t find anything on ESP, I head to Wikimedia Commons next. This is especially helpful when you need older photos or photos of famous people. Again, just make sure to follow the rules for individual images.

Google Image Search

Now I know what you’re thinking. I told you at the beginning of this blog post that Google Image Search was a bad idea. It is. However, if you click “Advanced Image Search” and then click “usage rights” you can choose to search for images that are labeled for reuse (choose the least restrictive option, “labeled for commercial reuse with modification.”).

9 thoughts on “Where to Find Royalty Free Photos and How to Use Them

    1. Could you specify specifically what you found so helpful? I find that too many people post these kinds of generic comments using automatic software.

  1. hhhmmm..thanks for the post. This is very useful especially for those who doesn’t know about the right way on finding photos for their sites. By the way, I think kozzi is also following the idea of royalty free in sharing their photos to users with no restrictions. You can look into their site anytime you want. 🙂 🙂 🙂 thumbs up for this article. yeeey!

    1. Royalty free and free are two different things. Royalty free means that you pay a single payment. Free means you pay nothing at all, but may need to include attribution. Not sure if Kozzi is free or royalty free.

  2. Really helpful article, I am always looking for pictures for my blog and website. You provided some sense of information. It is really great information for people like me, who is looking for royalty free images and wants to get rid of from burden of copyright issue.

    1. Glad we could help. I’m thinking about doing a more extensive look at this because there are lots of other places I’ve found for pictures like this plus lots of ideas I came up with but this is pretty good…

    1. Glad we could help. I’m thinking about doing an update on this because I’ve found new sources of materials…

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