The art of finding good photos for your site

Written by Philipp Steinweber

The art of finding good photos for your site

“A picture is worth a thousand words”. We’re repeating that phrase since 1911. But not only that – we also experience it every day. That’s why – unless you’re even more puristic than we are – you probably want to use pictures on your website for exactly that purpose: triggering a specific emotion, telling a story, connecting to your reader.

Today we don’t have to go out looking for a theme and take the picture ourselves. We can if we want to, but it happens less and less. We’ve got the internet! And the internet got pictures. A lot of them. In 2012 some dude estimated a figure of 348,524,702,773 images (without thumbnails and cached files, so it’s probably 10 times as many by now). And you can be sure that you’re not allowed to use most of them, and from the ones left over, most won’t fit the topic you’re researching. So how to filter through all that? We’ll have a look at commercial and free options that we use ourselves and recommend over and over again for finding good photos:

Paid options

Let’s have a look at the paid options first, so it will be clear what their advantage is over the free options. We’re obviously talking about stock photos now. Photos which you can purchase for using on your screen and in print publications. They usually come with a royalty free license. Let’s be bold from the outset: most stock photos suck. And we keep seeing the same pictures over and over again. Example? Ok.


Too generic, too artificial (shouldn’t even be called a photo), too noughties. So if you’re going on a picture hunt: stay classy. If you have a hard time distinguishing what’s cheesy from what’s cool, have a highly visual person help you.


It doesn’t get any more mainstream than Shutterstock. So the filtering which has to be done for hunting down good pictures is quite a task. But they are there! Their library is huge and it has a growing number of gems. What we really like about Shutterstock is the subscription model. Not only can you pay on a per-image-basis, but you can pay a monthly/yearly fee which gives you 25 images per day. This brings down the price to as low as €0.22/image if you’re fully utilizing the deal (no one does). The monthly price is €199 (USD price may vary). They not only offer photos, but also illustrations and other types of images. The format is limited to JPG and EPS. So you’ll have to remove backgrounds manually (even if they’re white), as there is no layering with pixel images. The EPS files have very poor quality sometimes, meaning they’re not optimized for making adjustments.

Check out shutterstock


If you’re looking for creative photography, Stocksy is the check out-worthy new kid on the block. They have a highly curated photographer list to make sure they don’t end up being a watered- down standard stock photo collection, but remain a classy, artistic photography archive. We usually go there if we want something that doesn’t look too much like a stock photo. Obviously their collection is way way smaller than, for example, Shutterstock’s, which makes it difficult to find images for some specific cases. Want some additional reasons for falling in love with Stocksy?

Their pricing model somehow manages to be fair to photographers as well as to clients: small pictures starting at $10 – for $25 you get them already in 1800px wide, therefore suitable for fullscreen backgrounds.

Check out stocksy

Free options

Of course there are cases where paid photos aren’t an option. If you’re just starting out and don’t get back a lot of dollars for each blog post, you might prefer not having to invest additional $. Many of our clients are willing to spend some money on key photos on the website, but not on weekly blog posts. And they don’t have to! There are many free resources out there, and licensing models that are easy to understand and to apply. In general we’ll distinguish between two kinds of free photo archives: searchable and unsearchable. While it sounds stupid to have unsearchable photo archives, there are more and more of those popping up. And their quality is tremendous at times.


Most of the searchable photo archives  scrape creative commons images from various sources like Flickr. Creative commons (CC) is a licensing model that allows or restricts certain use cases. So if you’re looking for images for your business blog, make sure the license allows “commercial use”. Some images  also restrict “adaptations” which means that you wouldn’t be allowed to use them in some sort of collage. Here is a list of useful creative commons search engines:

There are also more and more sites popping up that have their own, curated collection based on Creative Commons. And are searchable:

  • – Worth watching. So far the archive covers only around 1000 images (Aug 2014).
  • – Public domain images that are fairly browsable. The search is not always helpful, but at least it exists.


This category refers to all those new and hip (or old and hip) lists of free photos, which are unfortunately hard to use because you can’t search them by keywords. They can still be useful if you know your way around, and know which style you’re looking for. Let’s talk links:

This list shows some different types of curation of free-to-use photos and is not intended to be complete. We’re usually fine with the above – if you want more check out this list by Alexej.


The free options are growing in number and archive size, and sometimes have even more appealing photography to offer. But most of them are not easy to browse, therefore the “free” aspect might backfire and take up a lot of your time. A $10 Stocksy purchase might be more economical for some.

Do what feels best for the application. And: stay classy, stay Zen.

About the author

Philipp Steinweber

Philipp is the founder of Metamonks and Omooni, and passionate about personal growth. On Soulful Hustle he open-sources the strategies and insights learned from his projects.