Where to Find Free Images & How to Use Them

Using Free Images for Personal and Commercial Projects

A series of interlocking coloured rectangles with oval openings.So what is the best way to find free images with licenses that allow you to use the images in your projects, for personal or commercial use? Find out how, and learn simple ways to find the license requirements for the free images. Taking the time to read and follow the licenses can make life much easier for those who create products to sell or to use in commercial/monetized blogs and websites..

Not all images that are free to use may be used in commercial projects, so it will be important to understand how and when you can use them in products you want to market and sell (like cards, games, posters, scrapbook layouts and templates), or to use in monetized websites and videos.

Where to Start

Free Image Search results may not really be free images.

Just because it says free, doesn’t mean it’s really free.

So, where you do you get started finding free images? How? Searching the web can help you get started, but unless you are really familiar with copyright laws, you may run into problems. On a daily basis I deal with people downloading images they find on Google Image Search without regard to whether or not these can be used in any manner at all. Many images are not marked with copyright notices (they aren’t required to be, either, because all images are considered to be copyright to the creator, unless it is stated they aren’t); some are, but users ignore that; some are marked Creative Commons, Public Domain or simply “free to use”. One thing you should note: “free” images are NOT “copyright free”, and “royalty-free” images are often not free at all.

Vintage car turned into a red hot rod.Sometimes, you might find an image you like, contact the owner of the page to ask for permission (which they may give), only to find out later that the person you got permission from didn’t actually hold the copyright to the image, so finding freebies that are safe for use isn’t always as easy as doing a search.

As a creator of free images and textures, I like sharing my work for others to use in their projects, I don’t like someone else distributing my images, or claiming credit for them. I don’t mind people making a little money from using images within a printable project, or sellable game – that’s why I create free images, but I do mind people trying to sell my images just as they are. And this is something that is often included in the licensing requirements for using free images – that you don’t simply use the image for commercial purposes without making an effort to change it , or add to it.

Some Trusted Sites for Freebie Images

morgueFile: morgueFile provides free images for many uses directly from their creators. You’ll find images from professional photographers, as well as talented hobbyists and amateurs.

Seven Oaks Art:
An extraordinary animator providing free animated gifs – but not your average old fashion gifs. He provides 2-d and 3-d gifts created by his own hand. A master using Sketch-Up too.

No “Top 10” or “Top 25” Sites Here – Why “Top” site listings don’t always cut it.

I’m not going to give a “top 10″ (or more) listing of free image resource sites. The reason is simple. If you do a web search, you’ll find hundreds of blog No top 10 titles here.posts with headings like that. But each of those sites has almost all the same image sites listed, and reading through a lot of those posts, it seems that while they recommend them on the “Top 10″ of their site listings, they haven’t actually made use of the site, they’ve simply pulled the top sites from a list of search results. Not all of them – some actually do use them, so my thoughts on this are that people really shouldn’t recommend a site they’ve never used, and never used images from.

The reason you won’t find some of those “Top 10″ on my list: Some of my peers (and myself) have actually found some of our own images uploaded to those free sites by others. We’re happy to share, but not like that. In a couple of cases, it took some months to get the images removed, but in most cases sites like this do their best to remove infringements as quickly as possible.

user generated contentEnsuring that user-generated content is owned by the user isn’t easy, and some sites just do a better job of it than others, and because of that, I’ve developed a trust for smaller sites whose content isn’t user-generated (ie: the photographer is giving away their own work) and for sites like morgueFile, where I’ve been a contributor since 2004. They are quick to act if there is an issue, but in general, most new user’s uploads are reviewed before being allowed to go public, and long-term users don’t upload other people’s work.

Note: If you need to file a DMCA, visit Chilling Effects. Not only do they have blank copies of DMCA forms and letters, they explain the how and what to do to file a claim properly.

Downloader’s Responsibility

Blue glass vase with gold decorations and blue floral arrangement.As a downloader and re-user of free images, you should select sites you trust. As an example, almost all of the larger micro-stock sites offer free images, and those sites would be on my “trusted” list; places like Shutterstock, BigStock, Dreamstime, 123RF – and other similar sites with a good history and familiarity with copyright regulations are always a good source for free professional images. The drawback can be that these sites licensing may not always allow you to use the images for sales of printable products, so you do have to carefully read the licensing allowed for freebies.

No matter where you choose to get your images from, as a designer or creator of products you want to sell, it is up to you to know what you can and can’t do with a photo or image of any sort. Research is the key to “getting it right”. And asking the image provider, is never wrong – when you simply aren’t sure, ask.

Creative commons heart logoNote that some free image providers do allow for commercial re-use, however, that use is limited to the image/graphic not being used on it’s own, or as the primary reason for the product. A simple example would be sales of greeting cards – if you use a free image as “part” of your greeting card design by incorporating it into some of your own work, and then adding texts and borders, the “free” image use would probably fall well within the usage license. If you simply stuck someone’s image onto your greeting card, added the text “Happy Birthday” and then proceeded to sell that card commercially, you would be violating the licensing terms.

Just one of the reasons why it’s important to read the terms at each site where you obtain images. Not all free sites have the same license, but many doA stack of folded newspapers. – one example of this type of license is morgueFile. These images are free to use, but not copyright free and not public domain. There is a licensing attached to the use of these and that licensing states that images can’t be used in a stand-alone manner (particularly for a commercial purpose). So, you can’t sell the image itself, you can’t sell greeting cards, posters, or any other product commercially if all you’ve done is stuck the morgeFile photographer’s image onto the product. MorgueFile images are meant for use “within” your own designs, and not alone for things such as products you sell.

For use within blogs and websites where the image is only for illustrative purposes (as an “add-on” to your article) and not being “distributed” on or with a product, you aren’t required to alter the image.

A Few More Interesting Image Sources

There’s a couple more sites here of interest; one of them is a search bar that searches for Creative Commons images.

Photopin: A search bar designed to hunt for images licensed under Creative Commons.

Free Digital Photos: Another free image site for stock photos.

Free Pixels: Photo site with free photos and images.

Why Choose Amateur Images and How Can They Work for You?

One of the sites I use most often when I need something I haven’t been able to obtain by doing it myself is “morgueFile”. Besides the fact that I trust their site and contributors, I also like the fact that many images have not been edited. Whoa – yes, some of you may be looking at morgueFile images and thinking … “not very professional”. This is true sometimes, but it is also that which lends itself very well to anyone who is wanting to create a unique project from images they don’t own. Free images already fully edited mean you can use them right away (for example in a blog or website template), but you often can’t use them for commercial work without still doing further editing yourself.

cute kitten wearing hat on black background.

morgueFile images that require editing leave you a lot more room for using them in your projects. The downside is that you need to be well versed in editing, but most designers also have that knowledge and skill. Here I’ve chosen a morgueFile image – the original image hasn’t  much visual appeal to recommend it, but with a little editing, it can add impact to a project, so sometimes using an amateur or “less than perfect” image is really a bonus because you have control over the editing and can work the image into a finished product that looks the way you want it to look.

Editing a free image to make a different image.

Think outside the box when looking for free images – what you see in the free image might not be what you end up with after you’ve edited it.

Copyright Resources

Resources for finding information on copyright and licensing.

Public Domain Images – Information on the public domain; descriptions and timelines

Creative Commons:  Licensing Terms

The Creator Endorsed Mark – what it means and how to use it.

My Free Copyright – Register copyright to your projects free. It’s not the same as using the copyright registry office, but offers a date stamp of when you published your article or image.

Copyrighted – Another source to register your copyrights for free.

Copyright Laws by Country – A page from wikipedia that lists copyright laws for various countries, and resources

US Copyright Office – Copyright laws of the US.

Copyright and Fair Use – resources from Stamford U

Canadian Library Association – Copyright resources from the Canadian Library Association.

Canadian Intellectual Property Office – Covering copyright, trademarks and patents in Canada

UK Copyright Service – Information on copyright in the UK – fairly different from the US, so worth reading about.

India Copyright Office – Copyright laws and registrations for India

Berne Convention – WIPO/Berne Convention documents.

Chilling Effects – Instructions of filing DMCA notices, blank DMCA letters to assist with filing and other copyright information.

author: J. Gracey Stinson
September 3rd, 2013