Just because a photograph or artwork is available to view on the internet, doesn’t mean that you can use it for your own purposes. The creator’s consent and payment for royalties are often required. The rules don’t solely apply to sharing images that don’t belong to you; even if you use your own, you have to stick to certain guidelines.
If you’re looking for free images to use on your website, you can’t just help yourself to whichever pictures turn up first on a Google Images search. Many of the images that we encounter daily through these means are copyright protected and can’t be used without permission or payment.
Which licence offers the user most flexibility?
Free licences offer public users some room to manoeuvre. An image published under the terms of a free licence is known as ‘free’, or ‘licence-free’. But the term ‘licence-free image’ is a bit misleading, because these images are still under licence – just what’s known as a free licence. But in everyday semantics, these images have simply come to be known as ‘free’.
The most commonly used free licences are from Creative Commons (CC). This charitable organisation offers seven different CC licences: the ideal one to come across on an image search is the CC0 licence, since it includes no restrictions whatsoever on usage. CC0 images may be used commercially, edited partially or fully, and redistributed, even without crediting the original author. For more information on the different forms of CC licence, please see our article on Creative Commons.
CC0 image databases
There are a number of image archives online that specifically offer pictures with CC0 licences. These aren’t just photos and illustrations: vector graphics and icons are included too, and these can be very useful in web design. The following is a list of the most popular platforms that offer CC0 images:
For some time now, the German platform Pixabay has enjoyed great popularity – and with good reason, too: With over 650,000 CC0 images (comprising photos, illustrations, and vector graphics) spanning many different topics, users are spoiled for choice and can download any image for free. There’s also a helpful search function to aid you when trying to find suitable pictures.
Pexels is a form of meta search engine for images, all of which are under CC0 licensing. You’ll find more than 5,000 photos to choose from.
Canadian website Unsplash has offered images with CC0 licences for a long time – many of the photos available are beautiful snaps of landscapes or architecture.
- Public Domain Vectors
On Public Domain Vectors, you can find numerous vector graphics that are best suited to responsive web design.
Gratisography is the privately operated website of renowned photographer Ryan McGuire. Here, all his works are published and made available for free, high quality downloads.
Another site for general, CC0-licensed images, StockSnap offers several hundreds of photos and a handy search function to save you time.
Similarly to Gratisography, picjumbo is a website created by photographer Viktor Hanacek, featuring all of his published works. The images are sorted by category and can be downloaded for free.
SKUAWK’s platform offers numerous images from a diverse range of categories, including wildlife, objects, and technology.
Italian photographer Daniel Nanescu is the brains behind SplitShire. Here, he uploads all of his photographs for free public use.
- Life of Pix
Life of Pix is another photo blog with many artistic images. Unfortunately, it doesn’t currently feature a search function.
- Pickup Image
Pickup Image features a large collection of photos and diverse graphics. Their central focus is countryside and city shots.
The image archives mentioned above distinguish themselves as websites that mainly, or indeed exclusively, offer free images with CC0 licences. But even so, you should still take the time to check the exact licence of every image before downloading the data, so as to avoid any risks whatsoever.
Image databases with different free licences
It’s especially important to pay attention to the image licence if you are using an image database or archive that offers images under different licences in addition to CC0-licensed material. In such instances, a website’s FAQs and terms of service can be useful.
In some cases, it can be worthwhile to look for photos and graphics with other licenses. The range of designs and options is much greater than those available under the CC0 license. The following sites offer photos and graphics with a wider range of free licences:
- Creative Commons
The search function of the Creative Commons organisation is a meta search engine that sources images from other sites like Google, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay, and more, based on suitable results. In general, the search function only displays free images with CC licences, but the site does make it explicitly clear that images with other licences may also appear in the results pages. So when you find an image you like, it’s recommended to check the corresponding licence agreement.
- Public Domain Pictures
Public Domain Pictures also offers images with other licenses alongside CC0-licenced pictures.
- Free Stock Photos
Some of the licence-free images on Free Stock Photos are indeed free to download, but others are subject to a small charge.
- New Old Stock
New Old Stock features numerous old photographs (many from public archives) available for download, usually because the original licenses have expired. There are also many modern photos here, all shot in a traditional style with a vintage look.
Dutch artist Folkert Groter set up Superfamous to publish his extensive back catalogue of photographs registered under a CC-BY licence online. This license type means you’re free to use his works for whatever purposes you like, so long as you credit him fully.
Legal situation isn’t always clear
Sometimes, even licensing can be unclear – particularly when it comes to the circumstances under which you may use an image commercially. When it comes to the legal framework for the use of royalty-free images, the blog LetSeeWhatWorks offers a basic overview and introduction to the topic. The Creative Commons website is also a good source of information, though neither of these online platforms offer independent advice. This digital guide doesn’t constitute legal advice either.
It’s only possible to be 100% certain who the creator of an image found online is if you’ve created it yourself. Although some picture agencies and image databases seem to be more trustworthy sources than others, be aware: if you’re using an unfamiliar image for your own purposes, you should always check all the details for the image. Regardless of whether it’s a little photo blog, or a large stock image archive: mistakes are made time and again–even when adding an image to a database.