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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Good, Free, Sources for Photos that You Can Reuse, Part 1: Find Photographers

by Steven S. Vrooman

You need to use better photos. You need to use photos you have permission to share. You need to use larger, higher-res photos. You need to use photos that are different than the same old things that get trotted out over and over again.

Skip to the 3rd section of this if you just want the list of photo sites.

But I'll bet you have a few minutes to find out why you should stop swiping photos and why you should use flickr more than you do.

Swiper, No Swiping! flickr Instead!

The first edition of The Zombie Guide to Public Speaking had only pictures that my family and I drew or took, partly because I was on a deadline and was leery about navigating the strange world of permissions and stock photography. Also, I wanted to keep the book inexpensive and didn't want to fall in love with an image I'd have to shell out money for. Low cost was part of the reason I wrote the book, as public speaking textbooks come in two price ranges now, $60ish and $130ish. That's nuts! (Especially since my book is waaaay better :)).

For the second "dead"ition, I decided to plumb the world of photography, looking for free and public domain sources.

The most important source is I know, you stopped using that site a few years ago when you decided Instagram was totes cooler.

There are some great photographers on flickr. The "advanced" search options are even better than the ones you can drill down to in a Google image search, and, most importantly for me, you can trust the attribution that an image is "free for commercial use" much more than you can with Google.

You are mostly okay with Google, but there was a week's worth of emails when I was planning my Power Point for TEDxSanAntonio on the Google image "free for ___ use" thing, primarily because of Google's reach. Plenty of people who just grab images from elsewhere slap them up onto their website with a Creative Commons license. It is hard to tell. That happens with some images on flickr, too, but it is easier to tell what you are getting because you can easily delve into the photographer's portfolio and see what is going on with their work.

So, in addition to the ethics of the thing, which you may be too "Information Wants to Be Free!" to want to hear, there is the extra work involved if you all the sudden decide to use content you've already created for commercial purposes. Sounds like double the effort for no good reason.

There's no good reason to swipe images! You do it because you don't know how to search as well as you think!

The rest of this post will help with that.

Anyway, here's how useful flickr is.

Right now, the third image on the "Commercial use allowed" page of my search for "zombie apocalypse" is one I used in my new book:

Stephen Dann

For more than a year now I've been looking for good images from zombie walks. I love seeing what people do for zombie makeup. The stuff on flickr crushes Google, which is kind of surprising to write. I'd put a picture up, but my friend Bob complains that it is too gross, so I'll restrain myself.

Lots of "pro" photographers upload piles of good stuff you can use for free. There are more than 1.6 million free-to-use photos of "mountains" on flickr, some of which are stunning, including this one:

Tom Hall

And just in case what you really want is the obscure, well that works, too. I never took a picture of my grandmother's 1978 Toyota Corona, which she sold me for $500 to drive to college. I wish I had. I have often searched Google for an image, but too much crap comes up, regardless of how I try to limit the search (Thanks, SEO hijinks peddlers, for ruining the Internet!). But here's one that's the spitting image of my car (Minus the fender crumple from when I sideswiped a support pylon in a parking garage in 1994):


See, you don't have to Google everything.

Free (Not Awful) Stock Photos

There are some great resources out there on this! I started with a blog post I put in Pocket and kept returning to, Justin Senos' list of free stock photo sites on If you just want his list of links, go ahead and go there now. I will only be a little sad.

The trouble with his list is that you just have to go to each linked site and poke around. Some do not have search capabilities. Plus, I think some of the links on his list are there because they are free, not because they are great. You know the kind of stock photos I mean: the goofy poses, the pointless props, etc.

So what I am going to do with the rest of this post is to explore some of my favorites of Senos' list as well as some new ones I've found, but do it more like a catalog. I will try to summarize what kind of photos you will get in each place and show a few representative samples.

As I argue in The Zombie Guide to Public Speaking, for Power Points: You should use images only for emotion, humor or demonstration. Everything else is a distraction and waste of time. The key problem there is demonstration. We don't for example, need to see a picture of your laptop on a table. That does not demonstrate anything we do not already know and puts the audience in a less-than-useful place. It also communicates, clearly, that you do not have enough good ideas.

Little Visuals

These are some great pictures by Nic Jackson, who died unexpectedly, leaving this as his legacy. There are great 1) detail shots of interesting textures, 2) moody landscapes, often with shadows, 3) off-kilter shots of city life and 4) geometric details from urban environments.

There's a reason why this and Little Visuals are the first on Senos' list. These are really great sources for photos with a point of view. This site is harder to summarize, as it is a kind of collective of submitted works, but it does allow you to search by keyword (in a small, unobtrusive and totally hard-to-find box on the top-ish left), so that's useful. There are quite a few boring, stock-photo-y set up images on this site, which are not my favorites, but here's a representative example of work from my favorite photographers on the site:

Aaron Burden (Natural and urban spaces, with lots of shallow focus)

Blake Richard Verdoorn (Huge, deep-focus landscapes, plus his photogenic dog and lots of images of coffee roasting)

Gabriel Santiago (Some interesting shots of city life that play with focus)

Julia Caesar (Interesting shots of people in nature, with lots of backlight)

New Old Stock

Public domain stuff curated from flickr, with a huge 60s-70s vibe and a fetish for NASA photos:


There is a lot on here I don't like, especially in the "whimsical" category. Silly setups that communicate, as do so many stock photos: "Yep, this picture is supposed to be funny. Do you recognize that humor is what we are going for? I know the pictures are not funny funny, but we are making a gesture toward the concept of funny" BUT, there are a few interesting things in the mass, and it is all sortable by category. The "objects" section is especially useful.

There are the requisite soft-focus landscapes on here, but for our purposes, the close details of textures are interesting and likely usable for a variety of Power Point tricks that don't suck.

And More Images

Here's a few places I've found myself over time. 


There is a lot of random here. But there are an interesting selection of abstract pattern-y things, as well as city life images.

The British Library

This is flickr again, but this is special: a huge set of images from the British Library. Some fascinating treasures here, especially if you are looking for history, maps, drawings and a massive amount of the depressing history of colonization.

There are more than 10,000 pages of images. Remember that you can search WITHIN a collection on flickr.

For example, I searched for a "map of Connecticut":

Cool. Nice and old. How about some ships? I just tried "HMS":

Okay, not the ship I wanted, but once you find something, their catalog is fantastic. Each image page allows you to click to a spread of all images from that particular book or that particular year. 


This one comes from my friend Pam Johnston, whose two blogs, The Family Foodie and She Dwells in Possibility have great content and great examples of how to use images effectively. Pexels aggregates lots of pictures from other Creative Commons sources, including many already listed on this blog (especially, as you can see below,

Like all of these photo sites, it does some things better than others. Lots of animals, cities, nature, etc, and the site's curator seems to love tricks of light. It's search feature is reasonable, though, as are it's "typical searches" collections:





This is another suggested by Pam, and it is an interesting conglomeration of a site. The best stuff is from what it calls "Volunteer Image Authors," which looks like people who upload their free-to-use photos, like this cool one of a basking shark:

You can click a "Coffee" button for these authors and it takes you to a PayPal screen, which is both cool and fishy. In the case of lizzybeth74, she only has two pictures up there and the other one is not underwater, so I wonder if this is really originally her photo?

But there are Volunteer Image Authors who are interesting finds, like SvenKirsh, who I discovered in a search for "zombie":

He's got a whole series of images from this shoot, which makes me feel better about using them.

The other interesting element on this site is the large number of animated images, including vector graphics you can download as an .svg file. If you use Illustrator or Inkscape, you understand how cool that is. At worst they are useless graphics like this:

At best, they are great fodder for Power Point, website and/or infographic design, like:

Snapwire Snaps

I saw this cited a lot on, and this is another interesting choice if you are looking for nature and/or texture. This is the free arm of the pay-for-download It is not searchable, but clicking through will get you a lot of things like this:

I will continue to make posts like this as resources as I find new things. People keep sending me sources all the time (please send me yours for the good of the cause!). The next one will be about how to get good images from reddit and Facebook is here), but that should be enough to get you started on your journey towards honesty and efficiency.

1 comment:

  1. I'm just finding this now, and wish I'd found it when you originally posted! Thanks for putting this together - so helpful.