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The ultimate guide to finding free, legal images online

Lesa Snider | March 23, 2015
You may not realize it, but if you use Google to find an image and then use it in a project, you're likely breaking the law. Unless you've been given permission to use the image by its creator, then you cannot legally or ethically use it.

You may not realize it, but if you use Google to find an image and then use it in a project, you're likely breaking the law. Unless you've been given permission to use the image by its creator, then you cannot legally or ethically use it.

Happily, there's an easy way to find images on Google that you can use, plus a slew of other sources for high-quality images that won't cost you a dime — either up front or later on in a lawsuit.

U.S. government sources

Did you know that you can get free images from public agencies such as NASA, the CIA, the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, and some libraries? They're free for you to use because you've paid for them with your tax dollars.

In addition, several historical image repositories have been funded privately for your use, such as Google's archive of photos from Life magazine from the 1860s to the 1970s.

The images in these collections are unique because their topics were professionally captured at an historically important time or location. And these resources are just the tip of the government-funded iceberg: For a much longer list of resources, see the U.S. Government Image Portal.

One of my favorite image collections is from the Hubble space telescope, which reveals the striking beauty of our universe. Heck, this one is worth exploring whether you need images or not!

If you're looking for images of Earth from space, try NASA's Visible Earth. And for NASA's cream of the crop in imagery, visit Great Images in NASA.

For health-related images, try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Image Library (http://phil.cdc.gov/)

Images from these sites can be used in any kind of project, legally and free of charge because they're "in the public domain." The images have no copyright holder so nobody will sue you for using it — an essential consideration when using an image in a project because copyright lawsuits actually happen.

Royalty-free stock photos

Another iron-clad way to guarantee that you can use an image without fear of ownership issues is to license it from a royalty-free image source. For example, iStock, iStockphoto, Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Bigstockphoto, Fotolia (now owned by Adobe and available inside some Creative Cloud apps), and Dollar Photo Club(owned by Fotolia) offer millions of high-quality photos you can license for incredibly affordable fees.

The only caveat is that royalty-free imagery can only be used for promotional purposes, so this isn't your chance to start a greeting card company or T-shirt company, though extended licenses for such things are available for additional fees.

 

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