And then you got a little older. Those bound bits of art transitioned to seemingly bland books that were nothing but page after page of black type on plain white paper. Writing can create vivid mental imagery, but maybe there’s a small part of you that can’t help but think that something was lost, along with all of those art-filled pages.

This is a big part of the reason why people gravitate to websites that make heavy use of color and imagery. Heck, look at the front page of our own site (which we just redesigned, so please take a sec to appreciate it because it will make Josh, our founder, very happy). As you scroll down, there are photos and illustrations and things that move and shake and twirl and bounce. Websites that engage their audiences on that visual level take advantage of the fact that our eyes are just as hungry as our stomachs. A website without pictures is as barren as the driest desert.

But you can’t just go and throw any photo you like up on your site. Those darn copyright laws…

The cereal company that makes Trix wouldn’t have to spend nearly so much on advertising its bright sugar-infused balls of cardboard if they just used pictures of Bugs Bunny in their ads and on their boxes. And why can’t Big 5 or some other sporting goods store just borrow photos of LeBron James from the latest issue of Sports Illustrated and use them to promote their basketball equipment?


It can be a pain, but copyright is a necessary evil. It would take a book to explain the details of copyright protections and how much they’ve changed even in just the last few years. But for our purposes today, all you need to know is this–pictures, just like movie, music, and books, are protected by copyright laws, and you can’t just take any picture you find on the Internet and use it on your site. Posting a photographer’s photo on your site without their permission is more or less the same thing as using your site to share a copy of Star Wars or the latest Taylor Swift album.

Stock Photography

There are a few different ways to deal with this. Many people choose to buy stock photos from sites such as Shutterstock, Depositphotos, or one of about a billion other stock photo sites. Stock images are photos taken by photographers, who then upload their photos to a stock photo site on which they’ve created an account. Then, visitors to the site can select photos that they like, and purchase licenses to use those photos however they wish for commercial and personal purposes. The site takes a cut of the money, and the rest goes to the photographer. It’s a huge industry, and it works pretty well for everyone involved. The majority of stock photos are royalty-free, meaning that you don’t have to pay each time that you use the image somewhere. But some photographers do charge royalties for their work. It all depends upon the license.

However, there is an alternative to paying for images: stealing. No wait, that’s not what I meant. I mean, stealing is technically an alternative, but not a good one. Let’s try that again.

There are online sources of images that you can use for just about whatever you want, for free.

Free images are images that are in the public domain. This term is much more complicated than it sounds, especially since public domain laws vary from country to country and can also vary according to the type of media in question (writing, audio, video, etc.). However, public domain images usually fall into one of two categories: historical images that are so old that copyright protections have expired, and more recent images whose creators have made their work freely available for reuse and modification. The latter is sometimes referred to as “copyleft,” the most common form of which is the Creative Commons licensing system.

In most cases, chances are that photos of Queen Victoria or Abraham Lincoln aren’t going to be very useful for your nail salon’s site. So what you probably want are modern photos that have been licensed under Creative Commons or a similar system. However, it can be tricky to distinguish images that cannot be reused from those which can. Just because an image turned up in a Google search doesn’t mean you can use it for your site or product. Thankfully, there are some very handy sites out there that make it easy to find free to use images and the details on their licenses.

A quick note before we get to business: the details of licensing an image for public use can vary greatly. Some images can be modified, some can’t. Some images can be used for commercial purposes, some can’t. Some images can be incorporated into works that are restrictively copyrighted, some can only be used in works that are also free to be reused and distributed (so if you sue somebody for reusing a work of yours that incorporates material licensed under Creative Commons, you might have a real bad day in court). Read the terms carefully. Some creators are much more lax about enforcing licensing terms than others. At the very least, when you use such images, you should mention the name of the work’s creator, and if possible a link to the creator’s page, the original source of the image, or something along those lines. If you want to be very by the book, you’ll also want to mention the type of license the image is covered under, and provide a link to the license (look at the Creative Commons licenses overview for some examples). Now, on to the fun stuff.

Wikimedia Commons

Sources of Free Images - Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons is a part of the Wikimedia Foundation (best known for Wikipedia) that is a repository for free-to-use media files (images, videos, and audio clips). At the moment, the site states that it has more than 25 million files available for download and use. It features a mix of recently taken and created images that are licensed for reuse, as well as historical photographs and illustrations that are in the public domain. One especially nice thing about the site is that it usually provides information on the creator of the image, as well as the details of the licensing, if there is any involved. If you click on an image, a full-screen version will pop up, with a “more details” button in the bottom right corner. Following that link will provide you with background on the photo, the date taken, and the license info. Wikimedia Commons is a great resource, once you get the hang of navigating it.

Flickr’s The Commons and Creative Commons Pages

Sources of Free Images - Flickr's The Commons

Flickr is an incredibly popular site among photographers, both amateurs and professionals. So it should come as no surprise that it can be a great resource for consumers as well. It actually offers two separate resources pages. One is The Commons, which is a user-maintained index of photos that are in the public domain due to age, abandonment, or because they were created by the US government (little known fact: photos produced by NASA, the various arms of the military, etc., are for the most part automatically in the public domain).

Sources of Free Images - Flickr's Creative Commons

Their second resource is their Creative Commons page, where users can browse images that have been grouped according to the details of their respective Creative Commons licenses. These categories are very useful, as you can hone in on photos that have rights agreements that meet your specific needs, such as photos that can be used for commercial purposes, or which can be edited or changed.

Google Image Search

Do you remember how earlier I said that just because you can find an image using Google, doesn’t mean that you can use it on your site? Well, there’s kind of an exception. If you go to Google’s Image Search page and do a search for something, there’s a little settings bar that most people don’t notice where you can make some tweaks to the search results. In this case, I did a search for “dogs.”

Sources of Free Images - Google Image Search with Usage Rights Filter

Once you’ve gotten your image search results, click on the button below the search bar that says “Search tools.” This will drop down another row of options, where you can filter the results according to size, color, image type, and so on. One of the options reads “usage rights.” If you click that button, it will give you a drop-down menu where you can filter images so that it only shows images that fall into one of four reuse license categories. However, be careful, as I’ve seen Google make mistakes with this. If you find an image you like, go to the page on which it’s posted and verify that there’s info indicating that the image is actually licensed for reuse.

And a bonus resource: New Old Stock

Sources of Free Images - New Old Stock

I’ve avoided sites that just collect random old stuff that’s in the public domain, because as I mentioned early on, a bunch of old black and white photos probably aren’t going to be much good for your site that sells knock-off Chia Pets. However, this site is too fun to not mention. New Old Stock is a Tumblr page that collects old, free-to-use images that are particularly interesting or unusual. Currently, the first image on the site is a photo of a woman in a showdown with a bunch of seriously annoyed lions, so you know you’re going to find some cool stuff. If you click on an image, you’ll be taken to the source where it was found. In this example, it’s the Flickr account of the National Media Museum, which offers a small selection of some of the historical photos in their collection, which turned out to be interesting as well.

New Old Stock is basically a great place to find inspiration, as well as interesting repositories of images and other media that you might never have stumbled across otherwise, such as the National Media Museum. If nothing else, it’s a great site to browse through during your lunch hour to raise your mood a bit, and get some mojo going for writing an awesome blog post.

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