Need that image that illustrates your point exactly for your slide presentation? Got to have the perfect photo that summarises your blog post? Is it essential to have the right kind of fern, or duck, or face, or tattoo, or map, or whatever it may be to go in that research or white paper? I reckon I would be correct that most people’s solution would be — just “Google it”. But that’s only the beginning of the process that so often leads to hours of sifting—and often frustration.
Unfortunately, (or maybe, fortunately) “Google it” isn’t the answer to everything. Google is certainly a powerful tool, and Google’s constant improvements are making it easier. Some time back, I wrote a post about how to become a Google Images as a power user, and that can be very handy as a first port of call. Sometimes, though, you need more, or, you want something that’s quite specialised.
And, of course, you do want the image to be copyright free!
And, that’s an issue, right? Of course it is. Actually, when looking for free images on the Web, you can’t help but notice the presence of Getty Images. They’re everywhere in one form or another! And there are a lot of horror stories about how they’re on the hunt for anyone that infringes the copyright of their artists; multitudes have received, not just intimidating letters demanding that images be removed, but they send exorbitant bills for the use of an image (some call this extortion)! Nevertheless, we do want to honour another’s artistic or intellectual property rights, just as we want others to respect our rights, I’m sure.
That said, we still want our image, and we want it preferably free. Well, we’re in luck, because there’s a lot of fabulous quality images offered free by various online services suitable for most needs of the poor educator.
There are basically three types of “free” images:
- Those in the Public domain
These are generally images whose copyright has expired, forfeited, or inappropriate, which includes images provided by government organisations. Here’s how copyright terms and the public domain works in the USA.
- Those governed by the Creative commons license
Creative commons is a non-profit organisation that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through legal tools. There are various types of Creative Commons licenses that range from allowing any type of use with no attribution to allowing only certain uses and no changes. They claim (at the time of writing) to have issued 882 million licenses.
- Those declared to be free for use by the author/creator
Some creators of artwork simply declare an image or artwork as being free for use by others. They may add conditions.
Following is a list of 20 sites that provide quality,useful images under one or more of the categories listed above. Most sites have search facilities as well as category pages. Unfortunately, adverts on some sites are mixed in with the content, and appear to be free, but aren’t. But hey! You can work with that when you’re getting something for free!
Necessary warning and disclaimers
With any photo containing a person, and in some cases a property, it must be understood that you need to ensure there is clearance for use of that image for commercial use. Make sure you accredit when asked; make sure you check with the creator or owner of the image if you’re not sure. Make sure, too, that you keep records.
I strongly encourage you to check the terms on each site to ensure what the owners of that site consider free. Also, check the terms for each image you find on a site; they may differ from image to image. Terms also change: the images on the sites below were free at the time of writing.
So, here’s the list:
Public domain photos:
This site searches all the U.S. government agency sites for public domain images. While specific to the USA, this is a great source of general photos over a wide range of subjects. It incorporates searches from:
- Agricultural Research Service
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Department of Defense
- Yellowstone National Park
- Antarctic Photo Library
- Public Health Image Library
- Grand Canyon National Park
- NASA Image Exchange
- U.S. Geological Survey—National Parks
- Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative
- Florida Integrated Science Center
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory
You get the idea. It’s actually quite a useful bank of sources for things a teacher or student may want — all from one place.
These are all photos taken by public service employees, and are in the public domain.
This site boasts of having over 96,000 photos and clip art that are in the public domain. They are free for commercial and personal use (each image page gives you the opportunity to buy the photographer a cup of coffee, which is fair enough). The category range is limited to 20, and some of those categories are rather limited. It has a good search function. The one thing I don’t like is how the Dreamstime and Shutterstock photos (you pay for these photos) are so in your face —but you get used to this. It even has free photography course videos available!
Wikimedia has a reasonable library of public domain images. This includes old maps and prints, as well as modern coloured photographs. The only problem I found with this valuable resources is access! I could not find an easily recognised link to this category within the Wikimedia site. It was only “Googling” Wikimedia, that the Public Domain option was apparent.
This site has a huge stock of mostly good quality and useful clipart on most subjects. You can download each image in either PDF, PNG, or SVG formats, and the PNG can be at small, medium, or large resolution.
Terms: all clipart on the site is put, by the individual artist, into the public domain.
Creative commons sites
The following sites provide images according to a creative commons copyright.
Wikimedia currently has a database of over 25 million media files including images, sounds, and videos. That's impressive! And the quality is quite reasonable.
Terms: Users may download almost all content, which may be freely used (subject to case-by-case restrictions) without seeking written permission unless you wish to use the content for other uses than those specified.
This search tool on the Creative Commons organisation's website allows you to search various other sites (such as Google Images, Open Clip Art Library, Photopedia, You Tube, Sound Cloud etc) for an item that comes under a Creative Commons license. You can filter your search to only search images that can be used commercially, and/or can be altered. At the time of writing the site has a notice that the tool is being replaced by a new one.
Is a great site for photos and while the quality may vary, generally, there’s usually something. It is best to use the advanced search feature, which allows you to search only for photos that come under the Creative Commons license. You can also limit the search to images you can modify or use commercially. Flickr has been working with various institutions to create a database of Creative Commons digital media. Be really careful, though: Getty images also licenses photos on Flickr.
There are a couple of really nice tool for searching Flickr:
This very nice site offers a good search tool, and it accesses all the free images in Flickr using the Flickr api. It provides the actual license for each image, plus adds the accreditation html code to copy and paste with the image.
Terms: Each image has a link to the terms for that specific image. You do have to check these as they vary. They are the Flickr terms and conditions.
Another nicely presented search tool that searches Flickr for their Creative Commons databases. You have to put up with a totally new window with Shutterstock opening up over the top of the main search window. Also, the first few lines of search results are from the same source, but marked “Sponsored”, so are easily identified.
Terms: The same as Flickr.
Free image sites and search tools
Has at the time of writing, 28,262 free textures and images. The range is limited and the quality is generally average, but it does have some useful images. What’s more the site is easy to navigate and it’s fast, so you can very quickly see if there is that image you’re looking for. Its search function works well.
Terms: You are free to use the images on this site
Yale announced in 2011 that they were making their resources free (at the time over 260,000, and many more to come). This is a massive resource for art, photos, architecture, archeology, books, maps and so on. However, there is not a quick-and-ready option. You need to check the copyright status on each item.
Cross Collection Discovery is a general search function of all their online resources.
Terms: As their notice says: “Not all content available through Discover Yale Digital Content is unrestricted. Please refer to the individual repository website and to the rights information in the record for each item.”
One of the best I’ve found for quality and range. Over 100,000 images. Nice clean site and user interface.
Terms: Free for most uses, but not for reselling. No accreditation is required.
Large range of images and illustrations. Nice clean user interface.
You are able to download a 400 x 400 image for free (attribution is required). Other sizes are available, but you have to pay for them (actually, they’re quite reasonably priced). You can either register or you must agree to their terms each download as well as supply an email address.
Terms: The free images and illustrations must have an accompanying acknowledgement of the Free Digital Images site and the image creator.
A reasonably large collection of images, of good quality. It has a search function, but when I tested it on the search term “school bell”, it produced pages of items, none of them resembling a school bell! The nearest was a bicycle bell. Registration (free) gives you access to a lightbox and other features. They also provide a free browser search plugin.
Terms: Images are free for use in almost any circumstance apart from resale of the image. Acknowledgement as a courtesy, but not obligatory.
This site contains a great range of high-resolution photos. It has an easy to read category list on the homepage (it comes in a dropdown at the top of the page, as well). You can also use the search facility. Quality of search results is okay, but a lot of extra unrelated stuff also appears in the results. It does have an Advanced search function, which is quite useful. You don’t need to register to download a photo.
Terms: The strapline that appears part of their logo says “Free stock photos”, but the terms are more ambiguous. You may download any photo where the author is “freephotobank” and use for any purpose apart from reselling the photo as is. You must accredit Free Photo Bank. On the other hand, they do not offer the same terms for any other contributing author. They provide you with a contact function so you can seek individual permission. A bit clunky.
This site is now owned by Getty Images. You must click on the “Free Photos” link, and there are over 34,000 free high quality high-resolution images. You don’t need to be registered to download images.
Terms: Images are free for any kind of use without attribution, but not for reselling as images.
Over 410,000 images. High quality photos. You must register and log in to download an image. You can search either by category or a search field.
Terms: Generally free for all uses (with standard restrictions), but also, the image creator may apply their own restrictions.
This site provides a search function that trawls many of the free photo sites including Flikr, Wikimedia and others for you, saving you the time. Its downside is that because it trawls free sites, it can collect a bit of spam, but by and large, it’s an excellent tool. You still have to check and make sure of license restrictions.
New Zealand Digital tools
Finally, two wonderful and powerful New Zealand-specific tools.
What a great site! They state that over 30,000 images, with over 17,000 that are totally free for use. Over 14,000 images available via Creative Commons (you must attribute the image, and they assist you in this process as part of the download process). It has an excellent search function.
Terms: The images on the site vary in copyright with public domain equivalent, creative commons, and all rights reserved categories. You are provided a copyright notice for each image, and assistance in contacting the owner of the image should that be necessary.
Here’s a relatively new tool that boasts access to more than 28 million digital files. Led by the National Library of New Zealand, this search tool has access to Te Papa’s collection (above) as well as the Alexander Turnbull Library, Auckland Art Gallery, Te Ara, NZ On Screen and nearly 200 other partners — an impressive list of meaningful contributors!
Not only do they have an excellent search tool, but you are able to set up favourite collection sets, which you can then share with others, such as friends, family, classrooms etc. It also has a specific section for schools, making this a very powerful and useful tool for educators and students alike.
Terms: Owing to the fact that the site draws upon so many partner databases, users are directed to the copyright notice for a specific partner site for each image or digital content.
Further information on copyright matters in New Zealand:
What about you?
Feel free to add further sites to the above list in the comment section below. Please make sure you say what you like about the site or service. Or, you may like to comment on your experiences with some of the above sites. We’re here to help each other.