The top 10 + 1 free image databases

The top 10 + 1 free image databases

Graphic artists or marketing managers looking for images to use in their creative projects will usually first stop by one of the commercial stock photo sites such as Getty Images, Shutterstock or Fotolia which charge them to download photos from their vast libraries. But there are also a lot of lesser known alternatives where users can download free images.

A generous estimate would put the number at 40+ such image libraries. Upon closer examination, however, many of these providers fail to meet our expectations. To save you time and effort, we checked out some of the free stock photo sources and list only the free image databases that are worth visiting.

So before busting your budget and spending a lot on purchasing images, you should first go and see whether you find what you are looking for at one of the free alternatives. For our test, we searched for photos related to the search term “apple” in all free image databases.

1. Pixabay: Tested quality

Picture of an apple.
At Pixabay you will find compelling subjects and a large selection of images.

Pixabay comprises more than 550,000 images, illustrations, vector graphics and videos, making it the biggest free source of images which inspires users with high-quality photos. All images are checked by an editorial team. So it is not surprising that the quality of the images is superior to many other free photo stock agencies.

When downloading free images, the user can decide to use the image completely free of charge or to make a small donation to the originator. Pixabay also encourages users to place a link to the page with the photo or to share it on social media. No registration is required to download images.

Pixabay's homepage.
Screenshot of the Pixabay start screen


2. Pixelio: The second best address for creatives

Basket with apples.
© . mb / If you download images at Pixelio, you should carefully read the terms of use and licensing conditions first.

The Pixelio image library was established in 2003 already. What began as a hobby for initiator Stefan Hein has become one of the best known image libraries in the German speaking community. It is often one of the first stops for people seeking free image material for their graphics project on the internet. The image library presently contains more than 500,000 images with 100,000+ downloads each month. According to Pixelio, the quality of all uploaded images is checked by their image editors. However, their goal is not to compete with commercial stock photo agencies and they deliberately set themselves apart from the latter’s uniform visual language. To download images, users have to be logged in and need to register first. If you don’t find what you are looking for in the image library, you can ask the forum whether someone can provide the desired subject or help obtain it.

As with all other image databases, whether free or not, you should carefully read and comply with the terms of use and the licensing conditions. Otherwise, you may be in for trouble. Pixelio does not generally allow downloaded photos to be used on social media platforms. To do so, a special approval from the originator is required.

Pixelio start screen


3. Unsplash: 10 images every 10 days

Apples hanging on a tree.
130,000 images are downloaded from Unsplash every day.

In mid-2013 or so, Mikael Cho, one of the co-founders of the Canadian company Crew, asked a photographer to take photos for their new website in a coffee shop in Montreal. Only one of the photos was used for the template in the end. So they asked themselves: “What should we do with the rest of the material?” As a proponent of the philosophy of sharing, Mikael decided to make the remaining images available to other creative professionals free of charge and what is more: He resolved to add ten new high-resolution images every ten days although it was still unclear at this point where these photos would come from. This is no longer uncertain today with between 100 and 300 new images being uploaded to Unsplash every day. Some of the photos are from famous photographers such as Jeff Sheldon, founder of t-shirt and lifestyle label Ugmonk, Paul Stamatiou, photographer and one of the designers of Twitter, and Caroline Gutman. The freelance photographer shoots for well-known companies and editorial houses and takes photos for National Geographic EDU, among others. The image library presently comprises 8,300 images. 3.9 million images were downloaded in January 2016 alone.

Unsplash's homepage.
Screenshot of the Unsplash start screen

4. Pexels: Selection and quality that inspires

Apple on a wooden table.
If “apple” does not match any results, try “fruit” instead.

Pexels is a great place for users looking for free stock images. The brothers Ingo and Bruno Joseph created the site for free stock photos in 2014 and have expanded the service since. It currently includes about 5,000 photos with 20 new images being added every day. Pexels’ strength is the large selection of images and the professional quality of image composition. Subscribers to the newsletter get access to 40 free images they can download immediately from architectural shots to food images and animal photos. You can search for English terms only.

Pexels homepage.
Screenshot of the Pexels start screen

5. Death to the Stock Photo: sharing images to empower creatives

Apples on a scale.
We found this image of an apple at deathtothestockphoto.

The US image resource Death to the Stock Photo was founded by Allison Lehman and David Sherry in 2014. The two photographers were frustrated to have hundreds of images on their hard drives that people would never see when their friends could be creating amazing things with them. So they decided to share their images with others. They created a freemium offer where some services are free and other features must be paid for: The premium membership ($10 monthly) gives immediate access to all images (about 1,300 plus 30 new photos every month) uploaded since the site was established with 20 new images mailed on the first of each month. Subscribers of the free basic account get ten new images only and no access to the remaining stock photos. If you are patient, the basic account might be a great option for you as it provides high-quality photos of sometimes unusual and extraordinary subjects.

Death-of-the-stock-photo homepage
Screenshot of the start screen of Death to the stock photo


6. KaboomPics: We want more of this!

Two apples on a board.
Mouth watering presentation of two apples on a cutting board.

Abstract, City & Architecture, Fashion, Food, Landscapes & Other – KaboomPics offers free images in these categories. The image database was launched by designer Karolina Grabowska and provides mostly good photo material albeit with a limited selection of currently 1,280 photos. The pictures show new perspectives and attractive settings. The image compositions are very tasteful making users of this platform want more photos from Karolina. The images are published under the Creative Commons license. The only thing that is not allowed is to resell the photos. Otherwise, you are free to use them for commercial or other purposes. You should quote KaboomPics as the photo credit.

Kaboompics homepage.
Screenshot of the start screen of KaboomPics


7. Stokpic: rapidly growing stock photo resource

Apple with love.
Right through the heart – we found this photo at Stokpic.

Established by Ed Gregory in 2014, Stokpic is a young image database that offers free downloads. Like “deathtothestockphoto” and “Unsplash” , Ed’s initial motivation was to share his images with others. He launched his project on a weekend and was surprised to find how well his database was received. Within shortest time, several thousand images were downloaded from his site and he received numerous thank you e-mails encouraging him to continue. Today, more than 100,000 users from 200 countries use his image library. Stokpic currently provides some 1,000 photos. But Ed wants more. To assure fresh photo material, he sponsors various photographers by co-funding the purchase of their camera equipment. In return, they deliver 50 brand new photos to Stokpic for a year. This way, new photos arrive virtually every day.

Stokpic homepage
Screenshot of the start screen of Stokpic


8. PhotoPin: Made possible by Flickr

Apple picture found at Photopin.
PhotoPin will probably never run out of apple photos.

The PhotoPin image library has a puristic layout. The search function is the core feature. The images in the first two rows are obviously sponsored photos of a commercial stock photo agency. This is followed by free photos found by an API connection to image hosting service Flickr which had more than 200 million photos already in 2011. Users can select the type of licensing, i.e. whether images may be used for commercial and/or non-commercial purposes. Users don’t need to register to download images. Flickr is one of the 50 most heavily frequented websites and reports to have 5,000 uploads per minute. Flickr also provides the possibility to search in different languages.

Photopin homepage.
Screenshot of the start screen of Photopin


9. Picjumbo: quality first

Breakfast with apples.
Sometimes you have to make compromises as here at Picjumbo.

The free Picjumbo image database of Czech photographer Hanacek was established in 2013. Before that his images had been rejected by commercial stock photo agency due to poor quality. But creatives loved his images so much that three years on his website records nearly three million downloads. Compared to other image libraries, you may be disappointed about the quantity which is a bit meager at just above 800 downloadable photos. But this is compensated for by the quality of the images which is similar to commercial stock photos. Users can download the images without having to register first. The “AQ and Terms” on the website clearly state the terms of use. The images can be used freely for many purposes; donations are welcome. You have to be careful when using the images on social media.

Picjumbo homepage.
Screenshot of the start screen of Picjumbo


10. Piqs: A community to download images

Apple picture found at Piqs.
(c) MNGrafiX-picture / Some rights reserved Apple with splashes – Only one of several apple photos available at Piqs.

At first sight, Piqs appears to be a community rather than an image library. This is because the website was not created by a graphic artist. Piqs was established by lawyer Christian Solmecke and provides free images, information on copyrights, reviews of digital cameras, a forum, posts by members and some news articles. Since virtually anyone can upload images, the quality of the shots is mixed from snapshots to ambitious photographs. A lot of nature and animal images, some close-ups, architecture, people, technology and photo art. You will surely find quite a few interesting images you can use for sketches or to illustrate blog articles. Users who register at Piqs get 50,000 start credits. You have to pay with credits when downloading images depending on the resolution. If you upload photos, you get credits. You can also build credit balance by writing an image review. Users have to register before they can download photos. The Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 applies. The photos may be used for commercial purposes. When using the images, you have to include in the photo credits, the name of the photographer and the notice “Some rights reserved”. When using a photo downloaded from Piqs in a magazine, the full link to the license has to be written which looks a bit cryptic.

Screenshot of the start screen of Piqs


10 + 1. Gratisography: quirky and creative

In the absence of apples we opted for bananas.

All images at Gratisography are from Ryan McGuire, a graphic artist, web designer and ambitious experimental artist who has both talent and a great sense of humour. In addition to the standard categories such as animals, nature, objects, people and architecture, his image platform provides the remarkable “Whimsical” section which contains a variety of bizarre subjects. New photos are added weekly and can be downloaded directly without registration in high resolution. The library presently contains 200 images. Unfortunately, there was no apple, so we took bananas instead.

Gratisography homepage.
Screenshot of the start screen of Gratisography

(All information subject to change without notice.)

What’s the motivation behind all these offerings?

An altruistic motivation is behind a lot of these free image databases. The initiators want to support other creatives with implementing their ideas and projects. Especially those still at the start of their careers benefit from such free offers.
But despite their noble intentions, the free image libraries also have to finance somehow. The nice background stories are often used to ask users to make a donation. Other platforms generate profit by showing ads or running a freemium model with free basic services and paid premium options. Others work together with paid photo stock agencies harnessing the general buying readiness of someone who has been looking for suitable photos for too long.

Our conclusion

Admittedly, the visual language of the photos from free image databases occasionally stands in sharp contrast to that of the commercial providers. But it is just this difference that may provide the decisive edge in certain situations. But you have to invest some time to find the right subject and to work through the terms of use and license conditions. The latter is also necessary for commercial photo stocks.


All screenshots: © of their respective owners