5 great ways to source copyright-free images

The images used can often make or break a design, but they usually cost money. Here's how to get hold of the perfect picture for free...

In an online environment where you have about a second to convince people to stay on your site, pictures are everything. Unless your content is amazing and caters to a certain niche, Arial and the perfect line-height wont be enough to catch your readers' interest.


In the world of print even the most stuck-up high-brow journalist knows that the picture will sell the story. Sourcing good copyright-free images online can be a pain and if you want to play nicely it's always worth checking that the picture you're using is legit. Knowing a few tricks will make the process a lot easier.

01. Google

Creative Commons 1
Creative Commons will help you discover copyright-free images

The first place to start is of course Google. If you do a simple Google image search chances are you'll find some nice pictures, but not have any idea if they're copyright-free or not. Search Creative Commons will help you with that.

The alternative licence has a nifty search tool that allows you to search places like Google Images, Flickr, Fotopedia, and Open Clip Art Library. You can also search for other media like music on the Creative Commons website.

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You can search Flickr, Fotopedia, and more, as well as Google Images

02. Flickr

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Flickr allows a more in-depth search than through Creative Commons

Now why Flickr again you might wonder, since Creative Commons allows you to do a simple key-word search on Flickr through their website.

Flickr has a few tools that might help if you're looking for something very specific like an event or a person. With the help of their advanced search you can find creative commons images and users taking copyright-free photos of events, places or celebrities.

You can also start building a library of favourites that will make it a lot easier to grab pictures quickly. Make sure to link back to the photographer.

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You'd be surprised what you can grab for free... but link back to the photographer

03. Free stock-photo websites

Stock Xchng
Stock.xchng is now owned by Getty and has a large selection of free photos

There are plenty of stock-photo websites out there. Stock.xchnge (now owned by Getty Images) is one of the more popular ones with around 400,000 photos taken by amateur photographers around the world. But not all photos are free and it's worth checking the terms as photographers can choose how they want their images to be used.

Morguefile  and Stockvault are other similar resources, although Stockvault only allows images to be used non-commercially. Free Digital Photos is a good source for more classic type stock photos of laughing businessmen and the like - again not all images are free.

04. Copyright-free books and CDs

Dan Hillier
Dan Hillier creates his engravings using copyright-free illustrations

There are plenty of books and CDs out there full of images and illustrations that are out of copyright. London bookshop Dover Books is a great place to stock up on these books or to get the title and find them somewhere else.

Most images are quite different to what you might find on Flickr or a free stock-photo website. These books contain anything form old medical illustrations to Victorian engravings. They are also great resources for patterns and vectors. The Victorian engravings are popular with artists like Dan Hillier who creates his work using copyright-free illustrations.

05. Ask the internet

If in dopubt, ask your friends! Social media has opened up avenues to copyright-free image use

Still struggling to find the right photo? You can do what newsrooms have done for years, ask the public. Both the BBC and the Guardian have sections on their website showcasing photos from readers.

If you're looking for a very specific image it might just be worth seeing if the internet can help you out. Ask your Twitter followers. Find a blogger in the city you need a picture from. Ask a Swede to take a picture of some rag rugs. Ask your friends on Facebook.

As long as you ask nicely and promise a link to the photographer you will probably get your picture. Although if you're still struggling, just go out and take your own photo.

Words: Charlotta Buxton

Charlotta Buxton is a Fenno-Swedish-expat multi-media freelance journalist and digital communicator who lives in London.

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