With 32% of marketers saying visual images are the most important form of content for their business, you need to start taking advantage of royalty free images.
You can use royalty free images for a variety of things, including in your marketing content, to jazz up your website or social media posts, or even to create some branded merchandise.
What are royalty free images?
Royalty free images are exactly as the name suggests – they are images that are ‘free of royalties’, meaning that rights to the image are sold at a flat-rate, for a one-time fee.
Not all royalty free images have the same usage rights. Some will be available for private use only, while others will be available for commercial use. Here’s a quick rundown of terms to look out for:
Rights Managed (RM) – the image is licensed for exclusive use by one client for a specific period of time
Rights Ready (RR) – like ‘rights managed’ but the license can be extended further
Creative Commons (CC) – the image can be distributed freely
Royalty Free (RF) – as mentioned above, royalty free images can be used freely, but usage conditions vary
Extended License – usually offers more uses than royalty free for a higher cost
There are hundreds of royalty free image sites out there, and not all of them are created equally. To save you some precious time, we’ve collated the 20 best sites for royalty free images in 2021, complete with pros and cons, pricing structures, and more so that you can find the best one(s) for your use.
Shutterstock boasts millions of royalty free images, and they don’t stock any other type of license so you don’t have to worry about possible restrictions or added costs.
Their images are split into easy to browse categories, such as Animals & Wildlife and Fashion, and there is also a search bar at the top of the homepage that allows you to search by keyword.
You can filter images in a variety of ways, including by size, orientation, and even image type. It’s worth noting that Shutterstock offers royalty free vector illustrations in addition to photographs.
When you find an image you like, you will need to create an account to download it. The catch here is that you need to choose a pre-paid plan before you can access the images you want. The minimum number of images you can order is 5.
For library size and ease of use, Shutterstock is one of the best royalty free images out there. But if you’re just looking for a one-off image, then there are other sites that require less user commitment.
Unsplash is a photo-only image directory with an intuitive search bar that offers lots of related suggestions to help you find exactly what you’re looking for.
They have over 550,000 free high-resolution photos available to download and use for commercial and non-commercial use. In their own words, you can ‘do whatever you want’ with Unsplash images.
When you find an image you like, all you have to do is click ‘download’ and the image is yours–no strings attached. You can credit the photographer if you want to spread the love, but it is not a requirement.
3. Image Source
Image Source offers both royalty free and rights managed images, so you need to be sure that you uncheck the little ‘RM’ box under the search bar before you get started:
Their library boasts 1.25 million authentic images and searches can be refined by brand, setting, viewpoint, composition, and more. It can be a little daunting for a photography novice!
The images are pretty costly, starting from £45 (approx $57) for the smallest size and reaching £460 (approx $583) for the largest, so this site is definitely only for those with the budget to spare.
iStock by Getty Images has a library of royalty free photos, vectors, videos, and audio files. The site doesn’t list exactly how many images they have, but one search for ‘fir tree’ resulted in 425,509 results so we can stab a guess at a lot!
As you can see from the image above, it’s easy to filter by price or quality, and you can also check out the newest results or browse related searches. Clicking the ‘refine’ tab allows you to narrow your search even more.
To download images, you will need to create an account. You can purchase single images for a one-off fee or choose a pricing plan to save money on multiple images.
It’s a little bit pricier than some options, but the website is very user-friendly and extremely easy to navigate.
5. Adobe Stock
Adobe Stock is home to a large library of assets, including photos, illustrations, and vector art.
If you’re using Adobe software to manage your designs, you will be able to preview watermarked versions of your images within your content before purchasing them by clicking the ‘save preview’ icon.
Their licensing information is pretty complex, with slight differences between standard license and extended license restrictions, so it’s important that you read up on that thoroughly.
Prices start from $29.99 for 10 standard assets per month, so this site is best for businesses who intend to utilise royalty free images on a regular basis.
As you can see from their homepage, Pexels has thousands of royalty free images and they are all available for commercial use. So you don’t need to worry when you’re browsing for images to use in your content!
Not only are they royalty free, they’re free free. Every single one. Their search bar isn’t the most intuitive–there are no ways to refine or filter your search–but it does the job.
When you find an image you want, all you need to do is select a size and hit the download button. No login or attribution required.
Bigstock is a royalty free image and video site. With over 72 million assets to choose from, there should be something for everyone (as the tagline suggests).
But if you can get past all that, the pricing model is pretty reasonable–and right now users can download 5 free images per day as part of a 7 day free trial.
8. Getty Images
Whereas iStock includes only royalty free images, its father brand, Getty Images, includes 3 different types of licence models: royalty free, rights managed, and rights ready. But this shouldn’t cause you any issues because you can easily filter results to only show ‘royalty free’ images.
While the library size and image quality seems similar to iStock, the prices are vastly different. Getty Images charges as much as £375 (approx $475) for a single download.
All of the 1.6 million royalty free stock photos and videos on Pixabay are free for commercial use with no attribution required. However, there is a donation button for those that would like to give something back.
It’s very easy to browse through the photos and illustrations on the site, but there are a lot of sponsored results by Shutterstock that can be confusing–as these require you to sign up for Shutterstock and one of their pre-paid plans.
With Stock Photo Secrets, you can browse over 5 million images for free. But if you want to download any then you need to sign up for one of their payment plans. Their plans are quite reasonable, with the most popular offering 200 downloads per year for £75 (approx $95). You can also purchase an image pack for less commitment.
All photos and illustrations on the site are royalty free and you can even search by image.
So if you find an image that you like and it’s not royalty free, you can paste it into the Stock Photo Secrets search bar and find something similar.
Depositphotos has over 80 million high-quality royalty free stock photos and vector images across more than thirty different categories. Like Stock Photo Secrets, you can also search by image as well as keyword.
They offer flexible subscriptions that suit a variety of needs and boast some impressive past clients, like Subaru and Bosch.
All of the images on Burst are free for personal or commercial use and there are new photos uploaded every day. This site doesn’t have millions of photos like some others on the list, but there is still a large variety to choose from and all photos are high resolution.
You don’t need to be a member to download photos, but by signing up to their email list you can get first access to free photos and other Burst content. The site also has a handy ‘Tips’ tab that gives advice on how to use stock images online, and a ‘Business Ideas’ section.
Possibly the most ‘artsy’ site on the list, Stocksy is home to highly-curated, hand-selected stock photographs. All of the images on the site are royalty free and users are charged a flat rate per download. It’s $15 for a small image and $125 for an extra-large. Users also have the option to purchase a ‘Market Freeze’ to use an image exclusively for a chosen period.
The library on Stocksy appears extensive, and it is nice to know that all of the photos on there are exclusives–so if you use them in your content you have more chance of standing out among the masses.
With 90 million stock images and 23 million users, Dreamstime proudly claims to be the world’s largest stock community.
The images on Dreamstime are all royalty-free (although extended licenses are also available for purchase if needed) and prices start from just £0.16 (approx $0.20) per download. The search bar is easy to use and both photos and illustrations are available on the site.
There is also a free section for users without a budget, but attribution is required when using these images.
15. Matton Images
Matton Images has the least user-friendly interface on the list. The site is difficult to navigate and images can only be found by searching for a keyword and scrolling through the results. It is also difficult to know the license for each image. To find out, you need to click on the small ‘view license’ button below the image:
Despite these drawbacks, the library is extensive (with over 13 million stock assets) and users can choose to view premium images or value images, depending on their budget.
123rf is a site that is both for people looking for content and also creators. They have a network of 300,000 creative contributors who upload 90,000 new assets every day. There is even a featured contributors section that showcases the work of some photographers and designers.
The site is very user-friendly with everything being laid out in easy to understand tables. The pricing model works on a credit basis (the more credits you buy, the more images you get for your money) and all of the licensing information is formatted clearly.
The site also has Photoshop and Google add-ons, so you can search for images without leaving the content you’re working on.
Storyblocks has millions of high-quality stock photos, vectors, and illustrations, and they are all royalty free.
The site is reasonably priced and fairly easy to navigate. The ‘similar images’ section is a great place to look for inspiration if you can’t quite find the image you need:
You don’t need to be a member to get started, but if you do want to sign up you can save up to 60% off ‘marketplace’ prices, and subscriptions start from just $5 per month.
According to Stock Unlimited, their mission is to “help you communicate beautifully without breaking your budget.”
Their site is run on a subscription-based model, and once you sign up you gain access to their complete library of one million premium royalty free assets, including photos and vectors. Like Dreamstime, there is also a free section, but this is very limited.
Searching for an image on Stock Unlimited can be quite overwhelming as the page fills with images related to your search term, however broadly. There is a ‘refine search’ section, but it only allows you to refine by display format, file type, and colour.
19. AP Images
Although not the prettiest site out there, AP Images means business–seriously. In order to view pricing for, and download, images you need to fill out a relatively detailed sign up form that includes Company Name and contact details.
There are 20 million images to choose from, although not all of these are royalty free so make sure you hit the ‘royalty free’ tab before you start searching.
The search functionality isn’t the most user friendly either. You can search by keyword, and even add keywords (like in the image below, we searched for images tagged ‘pineapple’ and ‘banana’), but that’s as far as it goes.
Photocase has a great brand voice–they’re fun and to-the-point. Their images aren’t the most expensive, starting at 4 photos for $49, but the basic license does require users to cite the photographer of the work. Extended licenses are also available for those who would prefer not to cite the content.
The search bar is very intuitive with a number of refining options, like composition and place:
If you’re into Photocase then you should also check out their newsletter which is full of inspiration, tips, and the occasional discount.
Our top 3 royalty free image sites
Unsplash makes sourcing royalty free images as easy as it possibly can be. You don’t have to sign up, there’s no confusing licensing information to wrap your head around, and every beautiful, high resolution image that you see is available for commercial use–for free!
Like Unsplash, the stunning images on Burst are all free for commercial or personal use. They don’t ask users to sign up to gain access to their content, but they do offer exclusive access to those that do. They also have lots of advice and ideas on their site to help users get the most out of their images.
Whether it’s about licensing, pricing, or even the creators that upload images to the site, 123rf is consistently transparent. The images are very reasonably priced and the fact that this is the only site to have Photoshop and Google add-ons makes it stand out as a winner.
Thanks for reading
The online world is becoming more media-rich by the second, so having a bundle of royalty free images at your disposal is a great way to make sure your content continues to shine.
Did you know we also wrote article about the 20 best royalty free music sites? Check it out, here.