This article includes modified content from Where to Find Free Images and Visuals for My Blog by Robin Good. It was updated in March 2016 by Laura Kindsvater.
To a struggling nonprofit or charity in need of images for its website or printed materials, the Internet might seem like one giant, free photo bank. But using copyrighted images without permission is illegal (yes, even if you're using them for a good cause).
There are plenty of places online to obtain images you can use legally. We'll show you lots of these, but first, it's important to learn a few guidelines for using images obtained from the Internet.
Copyrighted Images: Don't Use Without Permission
Copyright is the legal protection extended to the authors or owners of original published and unpublished artistic and intellectual works. In the U.S., a copyright grants the author exclusive rights to make copies of the original work, to make "derivative works" that vary from the original, and to publicly perform, display, or transmit the work.
This means that it's illegal for anyone else to use the work in these ways without the author's permission. If you carry out any of these activities without permission, you are violating copyright law and may be subject to legal sanctions, including fines. To err on the side of caution, you should assume that most images you come across online are copyrighted, even if they don't have a copyright symbol (©) or legal text.
Some copyrighted images are openly licensed, such as those licensed through certain Creative Commons licenses. This means you might not need to ask permission to reuse them (see the next section for more about Creative Commons licensing).
Permission Granted: When You Can Freely Use Images
In general, there are three instances in which you can borrow images for your website or printed materials without asking permission. In most cases, this will be quicker and less of a hassle than tracking down the copyright holder of an image to get the person's blessing. But no matter what your source, it's good policy to try to credit the artist when possible.
- When the image is in the public domain.
An image in the public domain has no legal owner. A work enters the public domain through a variety of ways: Either its copyright has expired, its copyright was never renewed, or the work has been dedicated to the public domain. Works whose copyright has expired are those that were published in the U.S. before 1923 or those that were published before 1964 whose copyright was not renewed.
If you are unsure about when a work was created or published, search the records of the U.S. Copyright Office. A notice that says "this work is dedicated to the public domain" is typically an indication that it is OK to republish without permission.
- When it has been designated "copyright-free."
There are many online photo banks that advertise themselves as offering "copyright-free" images (See Other Online Sources for Free Images, below for some examples). While these images are generally safe to take, always read the terms and conditions before you use anything. Just because an image is free doesn't mean you can use it freely.
- When the image is openly licensed.
An openly licensed image means that the copyright holder has decided to automatically grant certain reprint permissions. The most common form of openly licensing an image is to apply a Creative Commons license. There are a variety of different Creative Commons licenses, from fairly restrictive to very permissive. So if you come across an image that is licensed this way, make sure you understand the terms before you use it. In most cases, you'll need to provide attribution on who created the image (see Giving Credit: How to Attribute Images, below). You can find a list of the types of Creative Commons licenses on Creative Commons' website.).
- When the image is subject to fair use.
In some circumstances, you can use logos and product images from the manufacturer without permission. This is covered under the U.S. Copyright Fair Use Doctrine. There are some exceptions. For instance, you can't just put a company logo up on your website in a way that makes it look like your website is part of that company. As always, when in doubt, ask for permission.
Giving Credit: How to Attribute Images
Attributions give credit where credit is due, and so we advocate for proper attribution to the creator of an image. Attributions usually can contain three parts, which can be in this or a similar format:
Image (with a link to the original image URL): Creator name / License type (with a link)
If you alter the image, add that information to the attribution. Here's a Creative Commons example:
Image: John Tann / CC BY / text added
Thoughts on How to Use Images
For our own content at TechSoup, we have some guidelines on how to use images:
- Make sure photos are clear, in focus, and not blurry when displayed at the size you want to use them.
- Try to show the impact of your nonprofit's work. If you help people, show the people you're helping. If you clean up a park, take before and after pictures of the work you did.
- Wherever possible, choose natural or unposed images, rather than showing a group of people smiling at the camera. For example, pictures of volunteers working will be more compelling than a smiling group posed for the camera.
- For event photos, try to show more than the standard "person with a microphone" images. Mix it up. Use group shots, wide shots, and close-ups of attendees.
Once you've got that down, there are plenty of places online to obtain images you can use legally.
Searching for Openly Licensed Images
You can find free images for your website or other projects by searching for openly licensed images with the Creative Commons search tool or the Google usage rights search tool.
The Creative Commons search tool aggregates image search engines into one interface so you can easily locate content on the web published under a Creative Commons license. You'll still want to make sure that the images it finds are openly licensed, to be on the safe side.
Google Advanced Image Search lets you filter your search by usage rights. For instance, you can search for images that are free to use, share, or modify. You can add other criteria as well, such as type of file (like JPG only), type of image (like only faces), and even colors you want in the image.
Other Online Sources for Free Images
These resources offer public domain, copyright-free, or openly licensed images you can use for free on your website or for other purposes. Many just require you to link back to their website, but check with each site for specific (and current) guidelines.
Flickr has a worldwide community of contributors with more than 200 million photos that use Creative Commons licenses. With the large amount of content available, it's difficult not to find something that fits your needs.
You can use Flickr's Creative Commons page to find photos by license. You can also specify the type of licensing you need in the advanced search.
Getty Images probably has the largest selection of free images out there — 50 million of them. Getty Images made its images free to use in March 2014. Check out the Embed Our Images page to find out how to use the service. Before using Getty Images, you might check to see if your website can support iframe embeds (our blog, for example, currently does not). Also consider the possible downsides — there are some concerns that the embed code may later be used by Getty to display ads within the embed or collect visitor data on your site, and if Getty's service goes down, the images on your site will disappear.
Pixabay offers more than 520,000 quality photos, vector images, and art illustrations for free.
Compfight is an image search engine tailored to efficiently locate images. It provides good search results, particularly for Flickr images.
MorgueFile has more than 55,000 free, high-resolution digital stock photographs and reference images for corporate or public use. Linking to the website or crediting images is requested, but not required.
Wikimedia Commons has a database of more than 24 million freely usable media files that include images, sounds, and videos. Many of them are public domain. You can search by topic, location, type, author, license, and source. You can also search files by tags. This can be a good resource for maps, flags, and people photos.
Stockphotosforfree.com offers more than 100,000 free stock photos from around the world.
Pexels offers more than 6,000 public domain images and is adding more every month.
Unsplash is another good site to check out for public domain imagery.
Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is nothing less than the portal for all public domain and open-licensed digital content. Most of its vast archive is public domain and well labeled. DPLA is a great source for historical images, fine arts, and a wealth of other things. For more about DPLA, read Jim Lynch's blog post about it.
Internet Archive is somewhat similar to DPLA. Its advanced search is the place to search for images. The interface is a little challenging to use, but the archive has lots of Creative Commons images that are well labeled. For more about the Internet Archive, read Jim Lynch's blog post.
The New York Public Library has released nearly 200,000 public domain images in 2016.
Also, take advantage of this curated list from Canva, which includes a lot of links to specialty sites.
Stock Photos That Don't Suck hosts an ongoing list of its favorite free image sites, many of them specialized like The Pattern Library, Foodiesfeed, and New Old Stock for fun antique photos.
Verve hosts an excellent list of 27 different sites that supply images that can be used for free. There is some overlap with Stock Photos That Don't Suck, but it is a good big list.
Also check out Makeuseof.com's 6 Free Websites for Public Domain Images. It includes great resources like Public Domain Pictures, Public Domain Photos, Image After, and others.
The National Park Service has about 13,000 images of parks available in the public domain for use, free of charge. You must credit the National Park Service.
Free Images includes more than 350,000 high-quality photos taken by amateur photographers from around the world. Many photos can be freely used without requiring you to credit the photographer, but you should confirm this for photos you want to use.
Open Photo is a stock photography community and framework whose purpose is to allow photographers to share and protect their works through Creative Commons licensing. It requires you to credit the photographer.
Visipix is an art museum, clip art, and photo gallery with about 1.3 million "exhibits." All images are free, but the site requires that you credit the authors and Visipix near the photo.
Stockvault is a stock photography resource with more than 29,000 images for personal and noncommercial use. Linking to the website or crediting images is not required.
From Old Books has more than 3,500 images in the public domain (unless otherwise noted) that have been scanned from books. The site requests notification and that you to link back to it if you use an image.
PD Photo is a repository of several thousand free public-domain photos organized by category. Unless an image is clearly marked as copyrighted, you can assume it is free to use. Linking to the website or crediting images is requested, but not required.
Unprofound.com features a collection of photos sorted by basic colors instead of the usual categories (white is in the "everything else" category). You can use images any way you like, but don't redistribute them as photos. Linking to the website or crediting images is not required.
FreeImages.co.uk offers more than 6,000 stock photos. You are required to link to the website if you use an image online. A credit is required if you use an image in printed or other offline material.
FreePhotosBank is a searchable image bank of free stock photos. Giving credit is required.