Free Images Worth a Thousand Words

Finding a perfect free image can be trickier than you'd expect. (Photo: Paul Skorupskas)

Finding a perfect free image can be trickier than you'd expect. (Photo: Paul Skorupskas)

Images are essential to communicating data. A good photograph, even a stock image, can provide emotional context to dry statistics. Pictures also make publications visually enticing and break up long blocks of text. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The Internet is filled with high-quality pictures. But finding a free high-quality picture for your story can be a little tricky. Many images you’ll find on a Google image search results page, for example, are copyrighted and cannot be used without paying their owner. 

Fortunately, a number of sites offer diverse collections of free stock images as well. Here are some of our favorites.

Free Stock Image Sites

Pixabay (http://pixabay.com) is a good general-purpose stock image site. It has a wide variety of free images and its search function and navigation are user-friendly.

Freeimages (http://www.freeimages.com/) includes a wide variety of photos broken into categories. 

Unsplash (http://unsplash.com) is smaller general collection. Its photographs are often striking and artistic.

Picjumbo (http://picjumbo.com) features a more limited selection of photos—mostly taken by a single photographer—but many are high-quality.

Gratisography (http://gratisography.com), another smaller site, lets you browse free photos by subject, such as animals, nature, objects, and people.

Superfamous (http://images.superfamous.com) features intense pictures by a single photographer, including a good number of beautiful landscape photos.

Filtering by Usage/License

If you can't find what you need on free sites, Google does let you filter image search results by usage rights. To find this feature, go to "Search tools," select "Usage rights," and choose "Labeled for reuse." Now your image search results will only show free images. 

Flickr (https://www.flickr.com), a huge photo site run by Yahoo!, also enables you to filter your search results by license. Compfight (http://compfight.com) is another general photo site that lets you easily filter results by license. (The Creative Commons license often allows free reuse of photos, but may contain restrictions and requirements for attribution.)

Finally, LiveStories offers a collection of free stock photos as well. To get access, fill out the form here.  

Photo Search Tips

We recommend casting a wide net in your stock photo search. Try several different search terms on several of the above sites. See what images jump out at you from the various search results—if something catches your attention, it will probably catch your readers’ attention, too. Open photos you like in new tabs so you don’t lose track of them. Once you feel you’ve found enough good options, then start narrowing them down.

Have fun with your photo search, but be careful about accurately identifying the subject of a photograph in your caption. Unfortunately, many free photos do not include good information about what they actually portray, so it might be a good idea to keep your captions as general as possible. 

Do you have any favorite free photo sites or tips on gathering free photographs? Let us know in the comments so we can include it in this list.