Where to find unusual images for your design projects

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You need an image for your design quickly.  But sometimes you don’t know quite what you’re looking for. You want something offbeat, unusual or just plain weird… but you have a feeling you won’t know what it is until you find it. 

In such cases, it helps to be able to browse a load of images to give you ideas and inspiration. Here are some places you can go.

01. Stock image libraries

These days, stock libraries are less about airbrushed models than authentic shots of real people

Yes, we know. Many designers think ‘stock image’ and they think ‘polished’, ‘airbrushed’ and ‘anodyne’. But actually, the stock business has come a long way in the last few years. 

As creatives have demanded more down-to-earth, realistic images that represent real-life, not some idealised version of it, it’s responded in kind. And now you can expect to find the kind of images that look more like something you’d have art-directed yourself than 'obviously stock'. For example,  iStock’s  ‘Gritty Women’ collection focuses on authentic images of women that are a million miles from the traditional stereotypes. 

You’ll also find interesting approaches at niche libraries such as Plainpicture, which focuses solely on unconventional photography; Photoability, which specialises in images of people with disabilities; and YouWorkForThem, which is founded and run by designers, and offers niche, designer-oriented stock graphics, photos and more.

02. The British Library

This image was taken from page 13 of 'Round the Hearth [and other verses] ... Edited and arranged by R. E. Mack', and comes with “no known copyright restrictions”

Want to bring imbue your designs with the spirit of the past? Well one solution might be to recycle some of the most evocative images of centuries gone by, and do something creatively original with them. And the good news is, The British Library has made a surprisingly huge amount of such imagery available to download online. 

Its images collections on Flickr Commons offer access to millions of public domain images, including maps, paintings, photographs, advertisements and illustrations, which they encourage you to explore and re-use. 

With categories including everything from flora and architecture to ghostly scenes, there’s bundles of inspiration on display here, whether you actually incorporate it into your designs or use it as a springboard for your own photographic or illustrative ideas.

03. SpaceX 

Concept art of sending Dragon to Mars, one of the many public domain images on the SpaceX Flickr account

SpaceX is at the forefront of the new wave of commercial rockets and spacecraft. And its official Flickr account provides a ton of official images to the public and news media with no copyright restrictions. 

Most of these, naturally, involve rockets taking off, as well as space flight mockups. So whether your project is literally centred around a space or sci-fi theme, or you just want to associate a brand with concepts like futuristic thinking and the breaking of boundaries breaking, there’s a lot of great imagery here that might help bring your designs to life. 

04. Jay Mantr 

This image by Jay Mantri comes with the hashtags #parking and #dtla and is free to download and use in your projects

Jay Mantri is a designer based in Santa Monica who releases seven new photos every Thursday under the Creative Commons CC0 license. (This is basically an updated version of public domain, which means you’re free to use them in both personal and commercial projects without charge.) You’ll find a lot of cool landscapes and architectural details amongst this collections, including some quite abstract images like the above. 

05. Realistic Shots 

The free photos from Realistic Shots show a less airbrushed side to life

Realistic Shots is a project founded in 2014 by Henry Reyes @henryreyes9, a web developer and founder of Commit 2 Design

As part of the backlash against airbrushing and overuse of Photoshop, it provides exactly what it promises: a range of stark photography showing the nitty gritty of life, warts and all. 

Subscribe for free and you’ll get seven high resolution photos for personal and commercial use, every week, on constantly changing themes. Reyes just asks that you “make something creative” with them in return. 

06. Life of Pix 

This shot of French fries in New Caledonia by Slike is free to download for use in your projects

Every week Leeroy, an advertising agency in Montreal and its network of photographers, adds a bunch of high-resolution photos to its ‘Life of Pix’ library. 

These range wildly in subject but are all professionally shot and often offbeat and interesting. Not to mention they’re all public domain and can be downloaded for free and used in both commercial and personal projects (with the exception of mass distribution). 

Life of Pix also offers a great way to discover new photographers: every week it puts forward a new ‘Photographer of the Week’ and highlights 10 of their images on the site and its social media channels. 

07. PicJumbo 

Prague Metro Subway Public Transport Station by Viktor Hanacek

“I just want to make the internet a more beautiful place,” says Viktor Hanacek, a 22-year-old living in the Czech Republic. “I was a web designer, photographer and WordPress developer, and a few years later there were no free high-resolution images.” 

So he set up Picjumbo, which now houses more than 1,500 of his images in high resolution, for designers, bloggers and entrepreneurs to download and use for free.

Hanacek has quite a unique style and take on the world, and his site is full of fun and quirky shots, such as ‘Feeding Fallow Deer by Hand’ and ‘Woman Holding an Ice Cream in Front of Her Face’.

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