If folklore is to be believed, a picture tells a thousand words. In a time when our messages need to be short and sweet, yet informational, impactful and inspiring, nonprofit communicators can use all the help they can get. If an element of your message can be conveyed by a great photo, I say go for it! There are numerous stock photography sites offering images to help you tell your story.

People are drawn to photos

Whether you’re publishing a blog and need a compelling image to accompany the text, posting an inspiring quote to your social media channels, or livening up a presentation or report, photography can help you convey the context and emotion you’re aiming for. People are drawn to relevant photography and imagery that conveys a part of the story the text may not fully capture; the nuances of the story that can be better demonstrated visually.

Finding the perfect image

With so much choice, the challenge comes in finding the perfect photo, conveying the right message, with a price and licensing rights that meet your needs. Fair warning: searching for the right one can test your patience. Lots of stock images you’ll find could be described as cheesy, some may be too low-resolution for your needs, or the price may not fit your budget. There are some goodies out there though, so it’s worth the hunt.

When you’re ready to start your search, there are many stock photography sites to explore, and the following list is meant as a place for you to start. Full disclosure – there are many to choose from and I haven’t used them all. This list was compiled based on sites I have used, tips from fellow marcom professionals regarding their favourites, and sites that have been highlighted on best-of lists I’ve tracked over the years.

Here are 12 stock photography sites to check out

Death to Stock: looking to provide creators with images that don’t look hokey or staged, Death to Stock founders David Sherry and Allie Lehman say they wanted to help “brands create rich digital experiences that elevated their visual aesthetic… without shelling out wads of cash, or their sanity.” From the home page, sign up to their email list to receive a free packet of photos every month. Their premium plan offers access to all their photos, the free monthly packet of pics, a pack sent only to premium members, and cloud storage with 1-click downloads. A percentage of funds from their premium plan goes towards funding more photographers, who take new images, which are included in future monthly packets for users.

Dollar Photo Club (part of Fotolia): the details are in the name – this site offers high-resolution royalty-free stock photos and vector files for $1 (extended license available too). This site limits membership and you must apply so your application can be reviewed.

Getty Images: creative, editorial, video and music files are available, under several licensing agreements, including rights-managed and royalty-free.

Gratisography: creative and engaging photos by Ryan McGuire are offered for free under Creative Commons Zero license terms.

iStock (part of Getty Images): offers royalty-free stock images, media and design elements including vector illustrations, videos, music and sound effects. The site has a robust search function, allowing users to search by keyword and file type. Photos are priced in credits, so users buy a credit package or subscription to get started. Standard and extended licensing options are available. If you join, you can also access free downloads of a photo, illustration, video and audio clip every week.

Little Visuals: offers 7 high-resolution images zipped up and sent to your inbox every week. Highlighting creative commons licensed photos, the owners have made their work available to the public domain.

New Old Stock: describes their offerings as “vintage photos from the public archives, free of known copyright restrictions”. If you’re looking for historical photos to accompany your text, this is a great resource.

Public Domain Archive: Founder Matt says that the site is a “public domain image repository… a site where you come to explore and discover treasures by other great photographers. A place to find inspiration and photography that you can re-use in your creative projects.” You can download images one at a time for free, or become a premium member to do a bulk download of all photos added each month.

Shutterstock: provides downloads of royalty free stock photos, vector files, videos, and music tracks. Several pricing options are available: choose a pay-as-you-go pack, subscription, or a browsing account. Join the site on the home page and you get access to free downloads every week to build up your library of files.

Stocksy: this site is a co-operative that is owned and run by its artists, offering a royalty-free collection of curated images. Their images are provided under a basic license, although extended licenses are available to meet additional needs (ie: product re-sale or multiple seat licenses); details available on their support page.

Thinkstock (part of Getty Images): aggregating content from the other sites under the Getty name, this site offers “premium royalty-free images selected from Getty Images and iStock”. Several pricing plans are available, and you can search by keyword or category.

Unsplash: the folks here keep their description to the point – their images are free, high-resolution, and you can do whatever you want with them since they’re distributed under a creative commons zero license. They post 10 new photos every 10 days, and the photo subjects are diverse in look and composition. You can browse the site or subscribe to have the images sent directly to your inbox.

Being true to your brand

Any image you choose should be in keeping with the brand guidelines that have been established for your organization. Think about things like photography style and colour palette to ensure the overall look is what you’re going for. Anything you use should reflect your brand personality, and I’d suggest not worrying about getting too perfect of an image. People like real and relatable photos, and if something’s too slick looking they’ll skip it.

Use yourself as the first reviewer: when looking at stock photography site options, which image does your eye go to first? Where does your gaze linger? Why? If your answers are the same as what you’re hoping your audience’s will be, you’ve got a winner.

Taking your message from good to great

No matter how you choose to tell your story, an image can only enhance the idea or emotion you’re describing. Taking some time to incorporate a visual element to your storytelling will take your message from good to great.

Angela de Burger

Angela de Burger

Manager, Communications at YMCA Canada
Angela de Burger is the Manager, Communications at YMCA Canada, a charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of Canadians in body, mind and spirit. She is passionately curious about the way individuals and organizations express themselves.