Maker Monday: Stock Photos That Don’t Suck

Confession: For the longest time, I couldn’t have cared less about using royalty-free photos. I grabbed the first internet photo that served my purpose and didn’t think twice about it. Now that I’m a little further into my life as a designer, I understand the importance of using royalty or copyright-free images in my work when I’m not supplying my own. (Well, like 90% of the time.*) It’s not just a legal issue, but a moral one because you’re basically using someone’s property without their permission.

"We're Coming to Get You, Barbara", (2013) Aerosol on canvas, 12x24

I painted this a few years ago from an iconic photo from the classic Night of the Living Dead… Do as I say, not as I do.

So, I’ve now become a stock image junkie. Maybe it’s a sad addiction, but it’s better than heroin or Diet Coke, amirite? Anyway, finding good free stock photos for your designs can be tough. More often than not you run into page after page of leftover snapshots, point-and-shoot pictures of pets and pics that are so generic, commercial or overly-specific that they’re not much help. But hopefully I can be.

I have a whole bookmark folder full of stock photo websites. Here’s a list of my top 5 favorite places to find free high-resolution images to get you started!


217H  246H is always my first stop when I’m looking for a truly original stock image; especially ones that are a little kooky. Ryan McGuire’s photos really pop. The people are incredibly expressive and interestingly posed, but the weird ones are beautifully bizarre and are my favorites. New photos added every week!


photo-1433185000771-ec45c869c61b   photo-1428959249159-5706303ea703
If you do a lot of artistic compositing in Photoshop, especially of the landscape variety, is a godsend. There’s lots of great sky and landscape shots, with a healthy dose of architecture and a handful of nature. I pull a lot of my compositing elements from this site!

firestairs   unionstation
Jay Mantri runs a Tumblr account that curates copyright-free images from across the web. What I love about this site is that Jay curates with a designer’s eye (and with my same obsession with texture!). The photos are always beautifully composed and generally feature land/cityscapes. the main reason I go there, however, is for the abundance of rich textures that I use in layering and creating PS brushes. Updates to the page are sporadic, but it’s a great place to fatten your personal library!

pixa2   pixabay1  pointer-310275_640

Pixabay is kind of the grandaddy of all free stock websites. They really do have it all. Not only do they have the widest array of stock photos, but you can also find copyright-free video, vectors and illustrations as well! That being said, the vector selection is pretty thin on the ground. Mostly ugly clip art, MS word stylee, but there are a few gems tucked away here and there. I generally use this site to quickly find relatively standard, but interesting photos.

The Public Domain Project
2  3   4
This site is actually a recent find for me ( I know), but it’s very, very cool. It’s a collection of vintage and contemporary images completely free of copyright and attribution. Not only are there a lot of quality historical photos, it’s an absolute treasure trove of vintage ephemera like postcards, labels, documents, government election campaign propaganda and tons more. Very cool collection.

Those are my top 5 favorite and most-used stock sites! Hope you’ve fount them helpful. Below is a short list of other good sites I use from time to time, but for whatever reason, didn’t make the shortlist.

Negative Space – Pix with room for copy
Pexels – Standard fare with a commercial gaze
New Old Stock – Nice collection of vintage photos, snapshots and slides
SplitShire – Huge collection, easy to navigate. Includes blurred backgrounds, abstracts and video
Picjumbo – 2.5 million images. Quality is a mixed bag.


{*A note on derivative work and other fair use:

Full disclosure: I have been morally corrupt enough to feel pretty much ok using likenesses from screengrabs of tv shows and movies as source material for my physical art in mixed media and stencil form. In this case, my official stance has been, and to an extent continues to be, “better to ask forgiveness than permission” (though I no longer do stencil art).  At the end of the day, I’m just an artist in a local art community that is largely pop culture-centric and I have bills to pay. I’ll risk it sometimes. I have, however become much more mindful and selective in these images I use and how I use them.
Now, first of all, I AM NOT A LAWYER. But, there is a grey area here when it comes to copyrighted images in art, and that grey area is called fair use.  In a very small nutshell, fair use is a legal concept that allows an artist to use copyrighted imagery under certain conditions. They must be considered sufficiently derivative and/or transformative or serve to function as parody or to a much narrower extent, satire in order to fall under the category of fair use.
If you are concerned about whether or not your artwork infringes copyright under these circumstances, I encourage you to thoroughly explore the links above. Pay special attention to the primary sources to determine whether your work qualifies as fair use and to make an educated decision regarding the risks involved. Ultimately it’s up to you how fast and loose you want to play under the banner of fair use.
A full-on delve into copyright infringement and fair use is beyond the scope of this article and it is a deep and murky subject, but here are some others if you’re unsure about your work or would generally like to know more:

Fan Fiction and Fan Art Legal? by Lauren Davis at io9
Copyright: How Did Transformative Use Become fair use? by Mark Meyer Photography
Fair Use or Infringement? by Linda Joy Katnwinkel Esq. at
Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors from Stanford University Libraries
The Messy World of Fan Art and Copyright from Plagiarism Today}

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