How to Find Free Images for Small Business Websites

By Helen Bradley | Posted February 13, 2014

It's ridiculously easy to find great photos on the Web. A simple Google image search brings up thousands of great photos matching just about any search phrase you can imagine. However, while finding great images is easy— finding ones that you can use legally for your business is a different matter. No business needs the bad publicity or legal grief that comes if you're caught using images without permission.

What's a small business owner with a tight budget to do? We'll show you how to find good images that you can use—legally—and some of the gotchas you need to understand.

Image Licensing Issues

Just because a photo is posted on the Web doesn't mean you can use it in your newsletter or blog. Legally, you can only use images that reside in the public domain or that you have express permission to use—and those permissions often come with conditions. Some images are licensed for personal use but not for commercial use.

Making matters worse, the definition of "commercial use" is difficult to pin down—millions of words have been written on the topic. However, if you're publishing a business newsletter or blog you arguably fall into the definition of commercial use. Err on the side of caution and look for images licensed for commercial use.

Creative Commons licensing is popular with content providers and people who want to use free content. The idea is that, for example, a photographer may license her work using a Creative Commons license, which allows others to use the work for various purposes implicit in the selected license type. There are a few different Creative Commons licenses, and one you should know about is called a Creative Commons Attribution license. With this license, the content owner gives you permission to use the image—as long as you attribute the content to the owner by printing the owner's details alongside the image when you use it.

small business websites: Creaative Commons licensing

Figure 1: The Creative Commons website provides lots of useful information about licenses and how to attribute images.

Here's another layer of image licenses confusion; a person who creates an image may license it for you to use, but you still may not be able to use it in certain circumstances. For example, if the image contains a recognizable person or property you must also have a model or property release.

Tools for Finding Licensed Images

There are a few websites that actually host free-to-use images, and there are other websites that help you find free-to-use images. Here are some of the best of both:

1. Stock.XCHNG

A great source for free stock photos, and the site doesn't require registration until you actually choose to download an image (registration is free). As with most free stock sites, the images vary in quality—some searches turn up good images and others, well, not so much. It's a good place to start, just be aware that the license requirements for individual images may vary. Make sure to read the terms carefully: some require you to apply for permission, others require you to attribute the creator, and some creators just ask that you tell them where you used the image.

stock image sites for small business

Figure 2: Stock.XCHNG is a free stock photography site with images that you may not find elsewhere.

2. Compfight

A free image search tool: type search details into the box on the left of the screen, and click to select the kind of license that you want —such as Commercial. Like many sites supported by advertising, the results show both free and for-fee images. In this case, the free images appear below the dividing line. When you find an image that interests you, click to see it and its license. You can then click the download link for the image size you want and also copy the html code you need to correctly attribute the image to its creator when you embed the image in your website or blog.

stock photograhy sites for small business

Figure 3: At Compfight.com you can search for and download images. The site also provides the code you need to correctly attribute the image.

3. Photo Pin

This site works similarly to Compfight, and it's worth exploring. It also searches for creative commons licensed photos on Flickr.

4. Google Images

Google's a good source of images—if you filter the results correctly. To start, go to images.google.com, type in a search word, and then click to view the results. Click the gear icon in the top-right of the screen and choose Advanced Search. Locate the Usage Rights option and choose "Free to use or share, even commercially" or another option appropriate to your intended use. Then click Advanced Search to filter the results. It is prudent to visit the image's source website to not only download the image, but also to check the license requirements.

find images for small business websites

Figure 4: You can filter a Google image search to show only free-to-use images. But it's still worth double checking the licensing before using the image.

If the legal rigmarole and confusion around finding free, quality, images sounds like too much work, then consider using a for-fee stock site. Buying stock images for few dollars from a stock photography site simplifies the process and, for a small outlay, ensures that your images are properly licensed. Examples of these photography sites include:

5 Tips for Avoiding Image Licensing Problems

  1. Always read the FAQs or license information at any free stock search website so you understand how the licensing is interpreted by that site - this can vary from site to site.
  2. Check the license for every image that you download—if you're not sure you're allowed to use it, you're better off not doing so.
  3. The CC Attribution license requires that you attribute the image to its creator. This site explains how to attribute images correctly.
  4. Be aware that free images can be protected in other ways and may require model releases or property releases for certain uses.
  5. CC licensing is complex, and there are different types of licenses and various combinations. Visit the Creative Commons website to learn more.

Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com

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