Whether you use free images for blog posts, or create your own, you need images. You need those visuals on your post.

People click on images more than anything. People who are scanning a page will see an image before reading. People love to share images on social media (especially if you make it easy for them to do so). People judge a post, a blog–even you as a writer–by how your site looks and the images found there.

Images break up the written space, they support the post with additional information in the form of charts or graphs, and they complement the mood or emotional tone that you are going for. They prevent your blog from being a huge wall of text in a world where most people don’t actually read vast amounts of text, particularly online.

Having an image, even a not so great one, would be better than nothing, right?

The Case Against Stock Or Free Images For Blog Posts

The generally accepted understanding of images is that professional stock images will make your site look exactly that: professional.

Maybe so.

This can be the case if you have a big budget to afford the higher-priced images that are unique and, because of their higher price, not used as often by other bloggers. However, there is a particular feel to stock photography, a bland, sanitized, staged look that is easily ignored after a while. There is a fine line between looking professional and looking like just-another-boring-blog.

Stock images are often boring.

There are some stock images you should stop using immediately. For example, the generic pretty office people, the stick people, the words on a computer keyboard, the female hand making a heart symbol or holding an apple or plant. Don’t use them. They’re everywhere. They weren’t boring the first time, but at this point, their ubiquitousness makes them boring.

In fact, if it’s an image that reminds you of other blogs and you think with relief that “that’s what everyone uses”, stop.

That is not a reason to use it. It is a reason to avoid it. When someone shares your post on an image-centric site (like Pintrest or Tumblr) your post won’t stand out at all. It’s then that you realize the importance of amazing original graphics that people haven’t already seen before.

stock photo

Finding a stock photo that best fits your post can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience. (And yes, the use of a stock photo here was on purpose :)

Finding the perfect stock image is a huge time suck.

Finding a good stock or free image takes time. You are at the mercy of how the photographer and the site has arranged them and which words have been used to tag them.

To find stock photography, you’ll be searching terms, sifting through pages of images, trying to find one that fits your post and your budget, trying to ignore the temptation to just grab anything and dump it in your post so you can publish.

Far too often, stock photography is about you making your content fit the image. More than once have I struggled to find the “perfect” image and grabbed something that I’ve clumsily referenced in my post so it made some kind of sense to my reader. It’s even worse when I have to find an image for a post someone else wrote. What were they thinking when the wrote the post? Does this image best capture what they intended?

What To Use Instead Of Stock Or Free Images

At this point, you’re wondering what in the world you’re going to do if you can’t use stock images for your blog posts.

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Use your own art or photography.

Before you tell me that you can’t draw, hold on. You don’t have to be a visual artist to make this happen.

Recently, on my personal blog, I made the decision that I wanted all imagery to either be my own art or photography, and that the only exception was if I was talking about a specific thing which would need to be illustrated otherwise. This makes my blog distinctly mine and it also showcases my art. It gives readers a taste of my personality and who I am beyond what I can write with words (this is good). On occasion, I draw an image for posts on this blog, too.

But maybe you don’t draw.

Even if you’re not an artist, you can still keep your eyes open every day for opportunities to take photos with your smart phone (though you should avoid getting people in your photos unless you have their written permission). First into the movie theater? Take a photo of the empty seats and use it the next time you write a blog post about knowing your audience. Take photos of what I call “standards”, things like traffic lights and fast-moving cars on the freeway, gear mechanisms or silhouetted trees–images that can stand in for other topics (e.g. traffic lights for a post about web traffic, trees for a post about growing your readership).

Essentially, you’re creating your own stock imagery, whether as a photo or as art. The difference is that it’s coming from you, your life, and your viewpoint. And you’ll better know the images and how they should fit with a blog post.

Hire a designer to create a set of standards.

Hire a designer (or artist, or photographer) to create a set of images that you can use repeatedly as your featured image.

This is particularly handy if you have a WordPress blog theme which lists your blog posts and shows a small featured image thumbnail on the main page. Have a standard image designed for each category. The designer could make you several backgrounds that you could add quotes and text to in image editing software. While you may need to use a stock image periodically, at least you have unique and cohesive imagery for your blog that you can use regularly.

Choosing Stock Or Free Images For Blog Posts

Perhaps you’re not convinced, or you just can’t imagine dealing with creating imagery on top of writing posts, and you’re unwilling to give up stock or free images for blog posts. Fair enough.

When it comes to choosing a stock or free image for your blog posts, there are several rules you’d do well to follow. Any image that you choose for your blog post:

Must be copyright free. You must make certain that you have permission to use the image as you intend to. You must attribute where you got the image from is that is part of the restrictions of use. You must must must do these things or you run the risk of copyright infringement in an age where there are no shortage of people seeking to enforce copyrights. You might think of it as a simple mistake, but it can cost you. You can’t say you’re sorry and plead ignorance. According to blogger Kari DePhillips, fair use won’t get you off the hook, either, with image copyright laws saying that you are financially liable when you publish a copyrighted image even if, according to DePhillips:

  • You did it by accident
  • You immediately take down the picture after receiving a DMCA takedown notice
  • The picture is resized
  • If the picture is licensed to your web developer (Getty Images requires that you get your own license, thankyouverymuch)
  • You link back to the photo source and cite the photographer’s name
  • Your site isn’t commercial and you make no money from your blog
  • You have a disclaimer on the site
  • The pic is embedded instead of saved on your server
  • You found it on the Internet (that’s not an excuse!)

So. Your image must be one you have permission to use. (Yet another reason to create your own images and not worry about copyrights.)

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Should relate to the blog post and beef up the headline. Here’s where that stock photo time suck comes into play. It’s mighty tempting to grab anything that relates remotely or shallowly to the post, but you want your photo to strengthen your headline, not water it down. For example, let’s say you have a blog post entitled “How To Make Your Blog Audience Love Your Content” and you were trying to decide between a few stock photo options:

free blog images

Which of these stock images from iStock photo would better sell your headline?

Which image would be the most likely to get your reader’s attention and support that post? A good image sells your headline, and consequently, sells your post.

Should make readers curious. Let’s look at those two images one more time. Which one makes you more curious about the post? Again, your image must pull its own weight. It, like your headlines and subheadings and opening lede, must convince the reader to read.

Should be strong enough to stand on its own. You can’t think simply in terms of the image and the text going together. Social media sites like Pinterest and Tumblr emphasize the image and it may be that your image will be forced to stand on its own without the headline or text to carry it.

Should be large enough so that it looks great on social media. Be sure that your image is sized in such a way that it will look appealing on social media sites. With stock photography, the smallest-sized images cost less, but you’ll pay for that in a different way. Get the larger image, at least 1000 px wide, so that your post will shine no matter what network it is shared on.

Shouldn’t scream “stock photography” or otherwise give your blog a cheap feel. We’ve covered this a bit at the beginning, but if you’ve been on stock photography sites for a while, you’ve likely noticed that after a while, the images all feel the same. We have used iStock Photo in the past, and one thing I do if I find a photographer who has a unique vision is to save that photographer or a few photos in my account so I can find them quickly the next time I use the site. If you find a photographer whose work doesn’t scream “stock photography!” bookmark them. Save yourself the time of finding them again later.

Should be memorable enough and different from other blogs. Ever get the feeling that you’re on the same blog, because you see the same stock image of 3D white stick people holding a sign, or some other similar image that the blogger has grabbed on the go from a stock site? When a blog looks similar to other blogs, it is easy for readers to forget it later. Which blog was it? Where did they read that great post at? They don’t recall; your site looked like a hundred other sites because the graphics were the same everyone had. If you’re not going to create your own graphics, definitely add text or some other element to an image (if its license allows you to) so that you make that image unique to your site.

Should have your website’s URL on the image. Orphaned images are everywhere; people are pulling them off of Google images searches, and finding them on Pinterest with the URL stripped away. You can’t control what people do with your image, but you can at least mark it so they know what site it came from.

Because aggressive copyright action against bloggers, both legitimate and by trolls, has become more commonplace now, and since there is no shortage of blogs and no shortage of bloggers using the same stock and free image sources for their blog posts, I have a preference for creating my own graphics and images. It’s the safest way to protect yourself, and the best way to ensure that your blog stands out as unique.