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How to search for images you can (legally) use for free

How to search for images you can (legally) use for free

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Use these methods to find free images online

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

If you’re looking for an image that you can repurpose for one of your projects and aren’t able to take a photo yourself, there are a ton of free images you can use online without running into any copyright issues — you just have to know where to look.

Here, we’ll go over different places where you can search for free images on the web. It’s worth noting that when searching for free images, you’ll often come across the Creative Commons (CC) license that lets you use an image for free. But depending on the type of CC license an image has, there may be some limitations that require you to credit the original artist or prevent you from making modifications to the image.

That’s why it’s always important to read up on the license it possesses before using an image. You can find more information on the differences between specific CC licenses here.

Now, let’s get into all the different ways you can find free images.

Find free-to-use images on Google

There’s a common misconception that you can’t legally reuse the pictures you find on Google Images. While this may be true when you conduct a general search, Google has ways to narrow down your results based on image usage rights. Here’s how to do that:

Choose “Creative Commons licenses” from the “Tools” dropdown menu.
Choose “Creative Commons licenses” from the “Tools” dropdown menu.
  • Head to Google Images, and type in the image you’re looking for.
  • Select Tools > Usage Rights, and then choose Creative Commons licenses.
  • Google will then display images that have been licensed under Creative Commons.

Before you reuse an image, make sure to check the type of CC license it uses, which you can typically find by clicking through to the image’s source.

Use a stock photo site

One of the easiest ways to find an image that’s free to use is to search for one on a stock image site, like Pexels, Unsplash, or Pixabay. The images on these sites are free, and providing credit to the artist is optional (although it’s still a nice thing to do).

You’re also free to modify the images for commercial and non-commercial purposes, but you just can’t sell the images without significant modification. You can read more about what you can and can’t do with these images on each site’s licensing page: Pexels, Unsplash, Pixabay.

For this example, we’ll show you how to find images using Unsplash. The steps are largely the same, no matter which site you choose to use.

In Unsplash, you hit the arrow next to “Download free” to choose a resolution.
In Unsplash, you hit the arrow next to “Download free” to choose a resolution.
  • Open Unsplash, and search for an image.
  • When you find an image you like, hit the dropdown arrow to the right of the Download free button in the top-right corner of the window to choose the resolution you wish to download the image in.
  • While the process isn’t exactly the same for all the stock image sites out there, the steps are still quite similar.

Search for free images on Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons, a site owned by the same nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, is another great place to find free images. While all the images here are free to use, they have different licenses with different usage requirements.

You can find more information about an image’s license by clicking on it.
You can find more information about an image’s license by clicking on it.
  • To get started, open Wikimedia Commons and then enter a search in the top-right corner of the screen.
  • From here, hit the License dropdown to filter images by restrictions that come with their license. You can choose Use with attribution and same license, Use with attribution, No restrictions, or Other.
  • When you select an image, you can see which CC license it uses, as well as learn more information about any potential restrictions by clicking on the included link.

If you still can’t find the image you’re looking for, Flickr is a great alternative. Not every photo here is free to use, however, so make sure to toggle the license you need in the Any license dropdown to narrow down your search.

Find free images through the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has an entire digital collection of free photos you can use. As noted on its site, it houses content that it believes is “in the public domain, has no known copyright, or has been cleared by the copyright owner for public use.”

You may not find generic stock images here, but it’s a good resource if you’re looking for historical images of landmarks, notable people, artwork, and more. Here’s how to use it:

I searched for “Empire State Building” using the “Photos, Prints, and Drawings” filter.
I searched for “Empire State Building” using the “Photos, Prints, and Drawings” filter.
  1. Open the Library of Congress’ free image database.
  2. When you arrive on the homepage, you’ll see free image collections bundled by category, such as “Birds,” “Natural Disaster,” and “Independence Day.”
  3. To search for a specific image, use the search bar at the top of the screen. With the dropdown menu to the left of the bar, you can filter the content you’re searching for by category, such as “Maps,” “Newspapers,” “3D Objects,” and “Photos, Prints, Drawings.” You can also choose “Everything” to search through its entire database.
  4. After selecting an image you like, choose the image resolution you prefer from the Download dropdown menu beneath the image, and choose Go.
  5. If you scroll further down the page, you can hit the Plus icons beside Rights & Access to learn more about the limitations of using the image.

Other great resources for free images

If you still haven’t found the image you’re looking for, there are museums, libraries, educational institutions, and more that offer open-access images you can use:

  • The Smithsonian: Smithsonian open access offers millions of copyright-free images of wildlife, architecture, art, landscapes, and much more. As noted on its FAQ page, all of the images here are in the public domain.
  • National Gallery of Art: If you’re specifically looking for free artwork that you can reuse, check out the NGA’s collection. Each image is in the public domain, letting you copy, modify, and distribute any images. You can read more about the NGA’s open access policy here.
  • Art Institute of Chicago: You can search for more art in the public domain through the Art Institute of Chicago. When you browse its collection, be sure to tick off the Public Domain filter beneath the Show Only dropdown on the left side of the screen before starting your search.
  • New York Public Library: Like the Library of Congress’ collection, the NYPL also offers a ton of historical images that you can browse through and download. When you search for an image, make sure you check off the Search only public domain materials option that appears when you click the search bar.
  • Creative Commons’ Openverse: Creative Commons, the same nonprofit that devised the CC license, has its own open-source search engine that you can use to find free images. All the images here are either in the public domain or have a CC license. Make sure to check the specific image’s license before reusing it.

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