How To Find Images That Are Free To Use

If you write for the web, then you’ve probably used a copyrighted image without realising at some point. It’s easy to do online, and working out what is and isn’t allowed – and in which country – can be confusing. Images are a great way to bring your posts to life, but not at the risk of receiving a huge, unexpected invoice from Getty Images.

Fortunately, there are lots of great places to get your hands on free, good quality images, even for those of us who are sick of the same old lame stock photos. Here’s our advice.

Why include images in your posts?

Images can work wonders to enhance and improve understanding for online readers. You can use them as thumbnails or featured images, to introduce a message, to support a point you’re making, or simply to break up a long piece of content. What’s more, if you tag them up correctly using alt-tags and keyword-optimised file names, you can use them to boost SEO. We all prefer to see an image-rich website than a vast expanse of black and white copy.

colourful images

Basic royalty-free terms

The terminology around image usage can be a little confusing. Here’s a quick guide to what it all means:

  • Royalty-free: you are free to use intellectual property (in this case, an image) without paying royalties or license fees
  • Public domain: any image created in the United States before 1923 is automatically part of the public domain, which means you are free to copy, alter and distribute them
  • Creative Commons: these images are free to use because the artist has waived their rights to their work. It’s still wise to review the terms before use
  • Commercial use: royalty-free images that can be used for any type of business purpose
  • Attribution: you can use the image, but you must credit the source
  • Membership: this requires you to sign up to a website before you can use the images – some of which may charge a fee

Free stock photo websites

There is a HUGE range of free stock photo websites out there that offer royalty-free images. The quality of stock photos has really shot up in the last five years or so. Some of our favourites here at include Pexels, Pixabay, Unsplash and Burst. All of the images used in this article are sourced from Pexels (or screenshots).

But these only scratch the surface – there are several more you can choose from:

Creative Commons

If you’re struggling to find what you’re looking for on free stock image sites, then you can always head over to Wikimedia or Flickr for Creative Commons images. If you’re using Wikimedia, all you have to do is click on the name of a category to see all the featured images for that subject. Flickr, on the other hand, works slightly differently.

Flickr is essentially a huge user-generated resource for photography, and to know which ones you’re able to use, you will need to check their usage rights, i.e. they should have be labelled with a Creative Commons license. You may also need to give attribution to the photographer – this can vary from image to image.

google images

Google images: usage rights

Of course, it’s also possible to find unlicensed images just by searching with good old-fashioned Google. But you must take care. You can’t simply type in a search term and use whatever image you like. That’s the way to a hefty invoice, my friend.

To find Google images that are free to use, you must make use of the Search Tools. Select ‘usage rights’ followed by ‘labeled for reuse’. See the example below:

cat image search

After choosing an image in this way, it’s still a good idea to find the source and double-check that it’s been listed correctly. You can do this by running a reverse image search. Note that if you plan on modifying the image, you should select ‘labeled for reuse with modification’.

Creating your own images

Creating your own graphics is another great way to generate images that will make your post more appealing. Using one of the many helpful graphic visualisation tools that are available today, such as Canva or Piktochart, you can easily create your own graphics, charts, infographics and featured images to visualise points and data.

created using canva

Using screenshots

If you ever find yourself writing a how-to guide or anything where you explain a process, screenshots can be invaluable for your readers. Just screenshot your computer screen – or portions of it – as you’re going along.

If you don’t have a built-in screenshot function (on a Mac it’s command+shift+4) then you can just as easily download a screenshot tool. Lightbox is a good one for Windows users. Once installed, you just press alt+printscreen to take a screenshot.

As you can see, there’s a wide range of great resources for free stock photography today – so there’s absolutely no excuse to use cheesy stock photos anymore! Or indeed, to mistake usage rights and land yourself in hot water.

Got a question? Leave a comment below.

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