The Best Royalty-Free Stock Image Sites for Your Book Cover (and How to Avoid Choosing the Same One as Everybody Else).

If you’re indie publishing, you probably can’t afford a photo shoot. Fortunately (or unfortunately), these days major publishing houses can’t either, which means everybody is using stock photography.

Stock photos are royalty-free images you pay to download, that you can use for book cover designs or other projects.

There are lots of websites, and I’ll walk you through my favorites, before introducing some lesser known options for finding the perfect picture.

Why use stock photography?

The best thing about using stock photography for your book cover is that you can get a great cover for a low price – either by designing your own, or by paying a designer a lower fee (if you’ve already got the photo you want to use, a lot of designers will be flexible on their price).

You can probably do it yourself, if you stick with simple fonts and don’t do anything fancy.

If you’ve already chosen the photo you love, the book cover design process will be faster and easier.

An excellent book cover design starts with an amazing photo (rather than trying to mash a bunch of things together to create a complex scene – for that you usually need custom illustration, which is more expensive and probably doesn’t sell as well any way. Photos are more powerful.)

The danger of stock photography

The problem you’re going to run into is this: the better the picture, the more people are using it for their own book cover designs.

Recently I was working on a beautiful cover using a photo the author and I loved, until I saw this book cover, published by Penguin no less, using the same photo:

The designer had done a good job, adding in all the flowers, going up into her hand. But the face is so recognizable, we didn’t want to use the same photo (I’ve since seen about 5 other covers using the same picture. And I even so matching covers with the alternative we went with!)

You probably can’t avoid it completely. It’s going to happen if you use stock photos (unless you pick something nobody else will use for a book cover. Something boring.)

What you can do is make sure your text, style and effects change the picture enough that it isn’t exactly the same as another author’s.

What size do I need?

Even for an ebook cover, you’ll going to want the large or extra large size (at least 1500px wide).

The best stock photography sites

These are the ones I use. I’m sure there are more.

Istock Photo

Expensive – a photo can cost around $50 to $100. But they have some unique, amazing stuff.


Also a good choice, but more expensive, expect to pay around $10 per photo.

The following sites are about equal, photos usually cost less than $5:

You can also browse “Stock Exchange Photos“, they have a lot of free stuff.

A cheap trick: if you find something you like on a more expensive site like Istock, see if you can find the same photo on a cheaper site like Photodune. Sometimes you can.

Update: I usually use depositphotos now, because every year or so they have a big bulk credit deal.

Boutique photos for book cover stock

Due to the demand, some companies have started offering photography specifically for books covers – mostly cool protagonists in a variety of poses. There are some amazing options, but it’s a little weird that all the cover designers are using the same handful of models… I recommend doing a face-swap at least if you can.

3D character renders

Something kind of new, are people using Daz or similiar 3D software to render really amazing character art. Often these come as a transparent PNG so it’s super easy to use them. Personally, I would use a face swap with a real picture because a lot of readers don’t like the “plasticky” look of the models, however I expect in another year or so these are going to be photorealistic.

Some options for finding FREE pictures

  • Unsplash, Pixabay, Pexels

Some of these images should technically be commercial-free (allowed to use on book covers) however there have been cases of people uploading pictures that were not their own; or of buildings that can’t legally be shown; or of people/portraits without getting the models clearance.

For that reasons I would not recommend using these sites for book cover stock photos. I might use a small portion as part of the background, if I could find the author/photographer and make sure I have permission, but I probably wouldn’t risk using a model. However, these images might be OK for promotional images, blog posts, etc.

Check out Flickr‘s Creative Commons area. Many users post their photos and give you the right to use them in commercial projects with proper attribution. That means you just have to say “Cover photo by xyz user on Flickr” or something like that. Here’s the link to the Flickr Creative Commons Attribution page. You can search from there.

Flickr is a good spot for artsy, emotion pictures like this one (umbrella, right).

Search on Deviantart for some stock photography. Deviantart is home to thousands of artists, designers and photographers. Although they are usually very protective of their work, sometimes they post stock photos or extra stuff as “scraps”. Anybody is free to use them with attribution (Make sure you read each user’s usage rules, some are non-commercial. But many times you just need to credit them and add a link to where you’ve used their photo). Here’s a link to Deviant art Stock Photos.

Here’s another link (different section on Deviant Art, more Stock

Deviantart is a good source of wacky “stock” photos that need to be cleaned up by a graphic designer, like this one with the stick. Put some tattoos on him, put him in the wild fighting a dinosaur, and you’d have a great cover.


Taking your own book cover photo

If you have a smartphone, you can probably take a good cover photo of your own. Unleash your inner artist.

The reason I prefer smartphones is because you can use apps like Instagram or Hipstamatic to make amazing shots. A normal digital camera would give you a plain, boring photo – but on a smartphone/iphone you can style it easily. Make it moody, dark, cool – then upload it to your computer and add some text (you can actually make a complete book cover design on your smart phone, but I’ll write another post about that…)

What to take pictures of? An old church or building, ruins, the sunset, the forest.

Something to remember: People shots always outsell landscape shots.

A cover I like, that’s on a major publishing house book and selling well (can’t remember which one), is a blurry picture of some wet leaves, with a girl’s hand/arm running through it. This would be pretty easy to do yourself, just find a friend to model. Take off centered shots. Take a picture of them from behind, in the middle of an amazing natural scene (if you avoid face pictures, they can easily represent your main character…)

Here’s another one I like: The forest of hands and teeth. Simple, beautiful picture. I don’t love the font or text though…

A few more cover art ideas

A few more things to think about. If you want art/a painting, you can order a poster of just about anything from The trick is to find a painting that is not too famous, so it still has that mystique. You can zoom in on just one small piece, rather than doing the whole thing.

Order a poster, then scan it, then you can use the high-res version for your cover. Anything order than 70 years should be royalty free.

If you want something more modern, search or for paintings. Those artists are selling their original paintings, and they’ll probably be happy to let you use the cover (I would offer them $50 or $100 anyway, plus attribution in the book, just to be fair).

Paintings can make beautiful covers, if done well.

You can also go to your local library and browse the Art section; they’ll probably have color-printed books. You can get scans (you’ll probably need to scan at 600dpi, so that you can enlarge the image enough to use) and use them for your cover.

Where do you find your stock photos? Any creative source I missed?

Cover design secrets that sell books

If you need help, make sure to download my free guide!

I’ve helped design over 1000 book covers, including hundreds of bestsellers – download my free book to learn all the insider secrets I use to sell more books. Click here to get it now. I’ll also share some of the advanced book marketing tactics I’ve used to make a full-time income with my writing.

You can also grab some templates and tutorials at

Extra resources:

About Derek Murphy

Hey there! I'm a philosophy dropout and book cover designer with a PhD in Literature. After spending a decade as a starving artist, I vowed to create the life of freedom my restless spirit demands. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write young adult fantasy novels and do a few editorial critiques to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles. FREE GUIDE: Book Marketing is Dead.
Author Marketing Bundle! Get 84% OFF Just for Today