From publishers to bloggers, many organizations depend on the work of photographers to give further life to their content. But in the digital age, with the ease of finding reusing a photo, people must ensure they are acting in line with copyright law. Copyright infringement is a serious issue, and photographers rightly want to protect their work while ensuring it is used correctly.
The good news is there are plenty of free-for-all images on the web that you can use ethically and lawfully, but you need to know where to look.
Public domain images are available to anyone and can generally be used for whatever purpose you like — even commercial use. Images may end up in the public domain for a number of reasons. The copyright may have expired, the images could have been photographed by a government branch, or the owner may have just forfeited his or her rights for whatever reason. Although there is a ton of places to find public domain images online, many of the sites offer limited and lackluster results that are more of an eyesore than eye candy.
Here are our favorite places for downloading public domain images. While the rights are typically a little different, we’ve included some free stock photo platforms as well to help you find the image that you’re looking for.
Disclaimer: Copyright properties and conditions vary from one image to the next. Make sure you have an understanding of the license and abide by any restrictions it may have in order to avoid legal penalties and action. Publish at your own risk.
Our favorite public domain image sites
Creative Commons is one of the best choices for public-domain content, whether you’re looking for photos, audio, or something else. The site’s handy search utility allows you to enter a search term in the upper-right corner and filter the results based on Flickr, Fotopedia, Pixabay, Google Images, and a number of other reputable spots for hosting photos. You can even search for images that are part of the Met Musem’s public domain collection.
Keep in the mind that the site searches for images that have Creative Commons licenses, meaning the images might not necessarily fall under public domain. They can often still be used, but might have stricter limits. The site should also automatically search for content that can be used commercially, but it’s a good idea to double-check the license just to be on the safe side.
EveryStockPhoto has an attractive, easy-to-navigate interface and displays some of the most popular searches on the left-hand side for easy access. When you use the built-in search bar, the site compiles images from a wealth of resources and showcases them in a classic thumbnail view or a column view that sorts them. Once you click an image, EveryStockPhoto will show you the photographer, the license type, resolution, and a few other tidbits of information. Unfortunately, you must register for a free account depending on the image source.
With more than 54 million media files available for free, Wikimedia is another great tool for finding different kinds of public-domain content. Users curate the elaborate site — uploading, tagging, and categorizing the files — and most of the content is available and can be modified as long as you attribute the original author or licenser.
Wikimedia features a fairly extensive list of categories, from nature to engineering, and there is even a public domain category to greater filter your results. When using the search bar in the upper-right corner, try entering “PD” before your search term to limit the results exclusively to public domain images. For instance, try searching “PD Abraham Lincoln” to show only public domain images of the late president.
Flickr doesn’t just house millions and millions of protected images. It is also a great source for finding Creative Commons-licensed material and some that have made its way into the public domain spectrum, as well. The site features a wide array of images and the comprehensive search function allows you to sift through images much quicker than the built-in image browser.
Many images on Flickr are free to use as long as you credit the photographer. After typing a term into the search bar, use the drop-down menu on the upper left that says “any license” and select the use you are looking for to sort the images. Like the rest of the sites in our roundup, it’s best to avoid any legal trouble by looking at what the original content owner’s restrictions on the image are. Some images on Flickr aren’t subject to copyright at all and thereby can be used for anything (including commercial purposes), while others merely require a simple attribution or hyperlink back to the source. Be sure to check out the Library of Congress’ photostream, if you happen to be looking for a great collection of historical images.
If you’re looking for a place to download a collection of resources for designing a personal or commercial website, IM Free offers everything you need, whether you intend to build a personal blog using one of the best blogging sites or create a commercial enterprise using Wix, Weebly, or one of the many quality website builders out there. IM Free bills itself as “a curated collection of free web design resources, all for commercial use,” meaning that the assets can be used in for-profit websites. However, it’s important to note the commercial use clause, as many images and textures are free to download but lack a free license. On the stock photography side, IM Free handles all model and location releases, so you don’t have to — just make sure to verify if the image you’re using requires attribution.
Behance is another extension of Adobe products. It’s a platform where photographers, graphic designers, and creatives can come together and share their world with the world. It’s also a great platform for publishers, bloggers, and the like to source images that they can add to their content. Not every image is free to use, however, and those turning to Behance to get images should read each user’s permissions before downloading an image. Many photographers on the site are happy for redistribution, giving you full Creative Commons permission to feature their work. We would also go as far as to say that the standard of photography on Behance is extremely high, so you will never struggle to find quality content!
Dreamstime has a similar look and feel to Shutterstock, but includes a selection of free photos as well. The site does ask for a user sign-in, and there are some photos that require credits to download, but it does have a substantial selection of free images. In fact, compared to the other sites in our roundup, Dreamstime has the best variety, given it pulls from Creative Commons and many other websites. The search is accurate, too, so long as you keep your search queries broad. It also offers a slew of generic categories to browse through, if you’re looking for something less specific. Most of the free images also require attribution — and be prepared for the ads to actually buy an image from the stock photography company.
Death to Stock Photos is not what you might expect. Paid subscribers get access to an online library of photos with new images monthly, but simply signing up for the platform’s emails will get you a few free photos delivered to your inbox occasionally. Co-founders David Sherry and Allie Lehman noticed it can be difficult to find compelling photos for free use on blogs and personal websites, so they decided to offer their own. The platform is now a place for “non-stock” photos. While this used to be a monthly delivery, the free photos are now delivered “occasionally,” according to the website. For an additional $12-15 a month, you’ll be granted access to the site’s entire library and receive an extra pack of monthly photos. Part of that money goes to different artists, allowing for greater variety in the library.
Unlike waterfalls or puppies, photos of space can be more difficult to capture for the home photographer. That said, NASA is the place to go to for all of your cosmic and otherworldly needs. The independent agency offers mind-blowing photos it has captured over the years, entirely for free. The site also has a number of galleries you can browse if you’re in need of something specific. Whether it’s retro shots of Neil Armstrong on the moon, photos that highlight the surface of Mars, or something more recent, NASA probably has you covered. And if you’re in need of rocket images or those relating to other spacecraft, check out SpaceX’s Flickr page.
Pexels offers photos that carry a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, which pretty much means there are no strings attached. You don’t have to attribute the photos to the photographers, and you are free to edit and redistribute them to your heart’s content. The photos are sourced from either Pexels users or other websites that offer free-to-use images, including Unsplash (see above) and Little Visuals. The company says it adds hundreds of new photos every day, so the size of the image library is continuously growing. If you use Pexels often, consider contributing CC0 images to its portfolio, so you can return the favor.
Stock photography is nothing new to the internet, and there are plenty of royalty-free and copyright-free alternatives worth looking into if the aforementioned sites don’t pan out for you. Most of them offer high-quality images with a few stipulations — such as attribution or restrictions on non-commercial use — but some do offer public domain images or free stock photos. Below are a few websites of note.
Freestock features a diverse selection of images, logos, and videos that are free to download. The site often requires you to link back if you plan on using content on a website, but otherwise, places no restrictions on you. Videos of waving flags and glittering water are prime examples of the kind of stuff you might not find elsewhere, and the site has a neat “keyword” feature, which makes it relatively easy to browse similar photos.
As one of the first to enter the stock photo scene, Morguefile has been around since the late 1990s. Although the images are not in the public domain and you cannot claim ownership of them, they are still free to use in creative projects. Whether you search or browse the links, be sure to click on the Morguefile on the left — the others in the navigation bar lead to paid stock photo websites.
You have to register for a free membership in order to download images using Freerange, but it’s quick and gives you access to a vast archive of quality images that can be used for both personal and commercial use. You’ll see some advertising, but it’s for a good cause; the photographers get paid when users click on the ads next to their submissions.
Touting more than 20 million free images, StockVault is great for photographers, designers, and students looking to share their work for both personal and non-commercial use. The site has a clean design and simple navigation, but search results often include images from both StockVault and Shutterstock (which requires a fee). Regardless, the site offers an admirable collection of images, no matter the topic.
Getty Images acquired Stock.xchng and renamed it Free Images, bolstering traffic and making the site more popular than ever before. You need to sign up for a free account before you can download anything, but there are around 400,000 images to choose from once you’re up and running. Some are free to use, while others require notifying the artist or abiding by a standard set of outlined restrictions.
As another free site maintained exclusively by its users, Public Domain Pictures hosts a hodgepodge of images that users can download at any time; you can also upload images to contribute to the library. Clicking on a photo will provide you with detailed information about the camera used, the artist, license, and several other technical features. If you’re feeling generous, you can also pay for premium downloads or choose to buy the artist a cup of joe – which basically deposits money in the artist’s account via PayPal.
Free Digital Photos offers both premium and free versions of its images for personal or commercial use. Nearly every image is available as a free download, but there’s a fee if you decide to ramp up the resolution and overall image quality. The site offers a nice selection of categories, from travel to architecture, and an option to filter search results by photos, illustrations, or a specified image ID if you already know what you’re looking for.
Like the title implies, Textures.com (formerly CG Textures) offers mainly textures. Made by a graphic designer for graphic designers, this site makes creating textures super easy and fun. Everything featured on the site is free, but it does require you to sign up for a membership to access the entire photo collection. The site also provides an assortment of traditional photos, such as animals and skulls, if you don’t mind taking the time to browse for them. It even houses a neat gallery that showcases how people have successfully used the textures in the past. It’s a great way to spur some ideas for a potential project, or to be horrified by what people are capable of making.
Built by a photographer and graphic designer, PicJumbo caters to users who are looking for premium, stylized images that are free for commercial use. Unlike many stock photo sites, PicJumbo’s images often have a clean and fresh look that’s appealing to many lifestyle and photography enthusiasts’ aesthetic. PicJumbo is also neatly organized into “collections” that can be downloaded as individual downloads, or as a package by upgrading to a premium subscription. PicJumbo even has a Photoshop plugin, one that allows you to search the site’s image library without even opening your browser.
Run by an Ireland-based company, PikWizard offers free stock photos on a variety of different topics, including images with people. The platform is run by the same company that created Design Wizard, so images can easily be integrated into designs with just a few clicks. Paid photos are mixed right in with the free photos however, so you’ll want to browse the results looking for images without the “premium” mark in the corner. Like with all free stock photo websites, be sure to read the full user agreement — if you make a creative derivative, for example, Pik Wizard still owns rights to the image.
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