Seven ways to get beautiful royalty-free imagery.

Photography plays a massive role in a brands visual identity.

With the right imagery, communicators correctly convey their message and connect with the desired target. Unfortunately, sometimes finding that visual can be extremely frustrating.

We’ve all been there. Where do I search? Is the image royalty-free? Is it a high enough resolution for the application? Should I just take the picture myself?

It can be a big undertaking, but it doesn’t need to be! Read on to see some of my favourite royalty-free stock image solutions.


To be free or not to be.

In this post I break down the various options into three main categories:

Cost-Free Solutions. Pretty self-explanatory—these are free images. But, don’t equate these with copying an image from a Google search. These sites offer legitimate royalty-free photography often under the Creative Commons zero license or there own licensing structure.

Subscription Solutions. These are the mainstream stock photography options we all know and love. These services charge a fee per image or monthly subscriptions, and offer the option of more extensive licenses.

Hire a Professional. Learn why hiring a professional photographer is such a fantastic choice.

And without further ado let’s begin:


Cost-Free Solutions.

Unsplash

This Canadian site was one of the pioneers of the zero-cost royalty-free image model. When I first discovered Unsplash it absolutely blew my mind. The high-quality images were so candid and unlike anything I had found on a typical stock imagery site. It was a game-changer for the royalty-free image industry.

With over 800,000 images, there is a good chance you will find the image you need, especially if you’re looking for stunning photography or lifestyle imagery. The quality of the photography is truly impressive and I often peruse Unsplash simply for inspiration.

One drawback I often have with Unsplash is that the photo styles are almost exclusively lifestyle, and there is a noticeable lack of studio or white-background images. This is a bit restrictive when it comes to designing, or if your brand isn’t suited to that style.

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Pixabay

Like Unsplash, Pixabay is another pioneer of cost-free, royalty-free photography, but they also offer video and vector graphics to separate themselves from the expanding royalty-free market.

With an assortment of lifestyle and staged shots, Pixabay feels like a mixture of your classic stock image site combined with Unsplash. You will sometimes stumble upon the cliche dorky images that have spawned a whole comedic genre, but it is also easier to find very specific staged images or images on a white background. The lifestyle images aren’t quite to the artistic level of Unsplash’s, but they’re high resolution and more than adequate for most applications.

Pixabay offers such a wide assortment of creative solutions that there’s a good chance you find something of use to your brand.

Pexels

Pexels was launched in 2014 and since then has grown to house hundreds of thousands of cost-free and royalty-free images and videos.

There tends to be more staged shots with models or artistically staged abstract images than lifestyle images with Pexels, so if that’s what you’re looking for, this is the site for you.

Pexels also has a more extensive “explore” feature than others. This is great for tracking down images where you can’t quite find the right word to narrow things down in the search function. The “Photos by Colour” is especially cool! This feature is great for when you’re looking to curate a very consistent theme on social media.

Burst

Burst is Shopify’s in-house solution to royalty-free imagery.

A relatively new player in the game, Burst impresses by offering a wide variety of high-end studio shots, staged imagery and lifestyle photos. There is also an extensive “Collections” section that helps sort through the thousands of images cut down search time.

I have had very good luck finding the right images in a short period of time with Burst.

Burst is simply put a good all-around option.


Subscription Solutions.

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Death to Stock

Death to Stock is a unique option. They use a subscription model and provide exclusive images shot by their photographers. This model limits the number and variety of images, but you receive cohesive image packs and unique options not found anywhere else.

Death to Stock makes art. There are rarely generic photos and no awkward staged crap either. Everything is very clearly done by professional artists and photographers with experienced models. Because of this, I suggest looking at Death to Stock prior to building your campaign. This way you can build around the theme established by their cohesive image packs. If you are looking for a specific image to plug into your current theme, you may not have great luck.

While not for everyone, if you’re looking to build any kind of substantial campaign Death to Stock is definitely worth looking into.

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Adobe Stock

To be completely honest, Adobe Stock is only listed here because it is the royalty-free subscription option I use. I could of just as easily listed iStock, Shutterstock, 123RF, Thinkstock, Big Stock, etc. as they are all quality options. The convenient connection to Adobe’s Creative Cloud was ultimately why I made my choice.

The bigger point here is mainstream royalty-free options in general. While the Unsplash’s of the world are gaining market share, the reality is somebody, somewhere had to create these images. Paying for these services carries a certain ethical high, if you will, for a creative like myself and I definitely advocate doing so when you can.

That is not to say that these sites have no value and you’re paying simply out of pity. The classic royalty-free site has substantially more search options, allowing to narrow your search based within very specific parameters such as composition, the presence of white space or the focal point. Because of this I generally I have much, much better luck finding exactly the right image for what I need, in a shorter period of time.

If cost is a factor then these types of sites may not be your best bet, but if you have more demanding creative needs a subscription is definitely worth it.


Hire a professional.

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Hire a photographer.

Hiring a photographer and planning a day of shooting is by far the best way to go. To have all the perfect images, done exactly to your brands specifications, without fear of licensing issues is an absolute dream. And in reality, it really isn’t going to cost you that much. If you’re organized and have a clear visual strategy, it is possible that one full day of a photographer's time will garner you up to a couple years worth of photos.

If your visual strategy is set, take the time to brainstorm and determine a shot list of your specific needs and what is required to obtain those shots. Think about if this requires a studio or where the location might be, and don’t forget about models or props. While these things won’t be free, branded images for a year or more are well worth it.

On the day of, have the photographer shoot very specific things, like products or services as well as B-roll shots. While the specific shots get all the glory, the B-roll is really what sets brands apart. From a graphic designers perspective, B-roll provides excellent subtle backgrounds as well as potential design elements.

As far as which photographer to choose, that is entirely up to you and your desired style. I have my favourites here in Alberta, but your best bet is to find someone in your region. Instagram is a simple way to peruse through options in an convenient manner. I look for businesses or individuals in my region and take note of their imagery and simply ask who took the shot. Pretty straightforward!

Once again, if cost is a factor this may not possible, but I absolutely recommend at least looking into it. Photographers set their own prices, so it might just be more affordable than you think!


These resources will help get you started on your way to crafting an exceptional visual identity. Add your ideas in the comments below!

Cheers!