The internet can be a fantastic source of information, images and photos for graphic designers, writers and marketers. But beware: using any old image – even a stock image – can get you into trouble. In this article, we delve into some of the confusing terms and explore what exactly royalty-free images are. We explain why a brand might want to use royalty-free photos in their creative projects and explore the potential pros and cons of using royalty-free photos or images.

What are royalty-free images?

Stock images are mostly copyright protected and incur a fee per use, which typically includes a ‘royalty’ payment that’s passed to the creator. That means you pay every single time you use the image or photo. In many cases, the agreement runs out after a certain time or number of uses and has to be renegotiated (usually for more money). This can get pricey and become a bit of a hassle, especially if you have a large print run.

Royalty-free photos or images have a specific kind of copyright licence. This means they can be used for personal or commercial reasons more than once – sometimes open-ended – for a one-off fee, or even for free.

Benefits/drawbacks of using royalty-free images

In theory, royalty-free photos are quick and easy to source. The internet has everything, right? Type in ‘man and child eating ice cream with their dog’ and hey presto! As well as saving time, this potentially saves you money because you don’t have to commission a photographer to take the specific photo you want.

And the beauty with royalty-free images is that you usually pay just once and retain the right to use the image as often as you want for as long as you want – and often in multiple projects. This is fantastic for promotional material of any kind – including point-of-sale items.

On the negative side, these images and photos still aren’t exactly ‘bespoke’. It may be that you can’t find exactly what you want or that these images feel too contrived or ‘posed’.

They can naturally be used by other people too, so you won’t generally have sole use.

You need to pay attention to the terms and conditions of the source website too, as any misuse could still potentially incur a penalty or enhanced fee.

Read more: POS Display Design: 7 Tips For Success

Do you have to credit royalty-free images?

This depends on the supplier of a given royalty-free image. Generally speaking, however, you pay a one-time fee for using the image (although they can be free). Having paid for rights to use the royalty-free content, terms of use should be clearly laid out by the provider. Most often, it isn’t necessary to credit the artist but be sure to check.

Legally speaking (and some would argue morally, in the case of unpaid contributor images) it does no harm to credit the photographer or artist and even the source.

Best royalty-free photo websites

Royalty-free images or photos tend to be listed on curated websites. Sometimes artists and photographers contribute them for free in return for exposure. Here’s a list of our favourites:


Provides images contributed by a community of photographers. With the ‘Unsplash License’, photos are free for both personal and commercial use (but can’t be sold on). Permission need not be sought, but credits are appreciated!


This is a free stock video and photo website. It has a similar working model to Unsplash and, again, credits aren’t necessary.


This is an award-winning online publishing and design platform with templates and photos for internet, social media and print use. Some of these are free but there are also Pro and Enterprise levels that incur annual or monthly fees. 

Royalty-free photos, images and videos; to date more than 350 million images. There are various paid subscriptions available depending on company size and demand for images.

Getty Images

This is one of the most established image suppliers around. Flexible pricing makes royalty-free photos and images available, enabling creatives to control and customise their content according to their needs.

iStock by Getty Images

The younger sibling to Getty Images offers some free royalty-free images or photos. iStock is another subscription service and its content is only available royalty-free. Fees include legal protection.

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