4 Incredible Free Sources for Photos to Use in Your Book or Blog

by Joel Friedlander on February 26, 2010 · 45 comments

There’s been an ongoing discussion in the comments to the post on Fair Use and Copyright, and it seemed like a good time to explore some of the resources readily available that can supply images for use in blog posts or books without fear of infringing someone else’s copyright.

The most common explanation I hear from people “borrowing” images (and inside my own head: hey, in the past I didn’t understand this as well as I do now!) are:

  1. As long as I give credit, it’s okay
  2. They should be happy I’m advertising for them
  3. You really think they care about somebody small like me?

These all fall under the heading of “self-soothing rationalizations” and as such, they help you feel better, even if you’re not entirely sure that what you are doing is okay.

Of course, the good old golden rule isn’t a bad guideline either: would you want someone “borrowing” your content without your knowledge, for some use you know nothing of? I wouldn’t, so I try not to do it to other people. Simple.

The fact is that we can get oodles of images that are available with simple guidelines that are easy to follow. But before we get to the sources, I think it would be good if we looked at one of the innovations that makes this image-sharing possible.

Creative Commons

sealCreative Commons is a nonprofit company that makes it easier for people to share their work, to build on the work of others, and to still maintain their copyright. It assigns a range of licensing conditions that range from very loose to very strict. There’s a lot of flexibility in the licensing.

Instead of each artist or creator having to think up which rights they want to keep and which they are willing to license, and under what conditions, Creative Commons establishes a uniform licensing that can be used and understood by anyone. This allows the creator of the work the freedom to assign the license she wants it to carry, so others can share it, remix it, or use it commercially.

Although there are 6 main classifications of licenses, today we’re only concerned with the loosest, and easiest to conform to: Attribution. Here’s what it says about this license on the Creative Commons website:

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered, in terms of what others can do with your works licensed under Attribution.

This means that any photos or other images you find that are assigned this Creative Commons license, are free for you to use as long as you give the artist credit.

You can see the complete License Deed that describes this license at Creative Commons Attribution page.

Armed with an understanding of licensing, we’re ready to head to those resources.



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This photo gallery of over 392,500 images is owned by Getty Images, the leading provider of digital media worldwide. Stock.xchang is a place where photographers and artists can share their creations under the Creative Commons Attribution license we talked about above. That means that you are free to use any photos here as long as you credit them.

Here’s how they advertise the site:

Share your photos with fellow designers! SXC is a friendly community of photography addicts who generously offer their works to those who need them free of charge. If you have some nice photos that you’d like to share with others, join us! Not only it feels great to share, you will also get a huge exposure for your work!


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Stock.xchng has a handy search box, so I entered “terrier” to see what would come up. There was lots to choose from. You’ll notice in the screen shot there’s a separate row of images at the top of the screen. These are actually from another of Getty Images companies, iStockphoto.com, one of the best web stock sites. Besides photos iStockphoto has animations, vector illustrations, drawings, and other media you can search.

If you click one of the iStockphoto images you will leave Stock.xchng and go to iStockphoto, which is a pay site. Instead, check out the selection below. Over 200 photos of terriers, with a handy enlarger that shows the photo your mouse is hovering over. Neat.


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I picked this Schnauzer, who reminded me of Presto, a great schnauzer we lived with for many years. Clicking gets you a detail page with a download link, a license link and, over on the right under Photo Details, a link to the photographer’s page.

Here we find out the photographer is TJ Nuckolls from Irvine, California. I usually copy this name right off the page and use it after I download the photo by appending it to the filename. This helps me remember who to credit when I use it later.

Here’s how I would credit this photo if I used it in a blog post:

Stock.xchng / TJNuckolls.

In fact, most the photos I use here are from Stock.xchang. And this same form of attribution can be used whenever you use a Creative Commons licensed image.



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Pretty much everyone knows Flickr. Owned by Yahoo, Flickr says they have over 4 billion images online, and who am I to doubt them? Am I going to count to see if they’re lying and only have 3.75 billion?

To harness the power of Flickr for our uses, you’ll need to navigate to the Advanced Search screen, which gives you tons of search options, all of which you can ignore except one: Creative Commons. I’ll show you how I use this powerful search.


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Click on the learn more… link under Creative Commons, and the whole Creative Commons (CC) page will open, with our good friend the Attribution License, right at the top. But what you want is the See more link at the bottom right. This will take you to another search screen, this one confined solely to CC Attribution images only. You now have every CC Attribution image on Flickr available for keyword search, and Flickr has reported that it has 16,167,811 photos with a CC Attribute license. That should keep you busy, yes?


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A search on “terrier” brought up 6,730 matches. (Notice that cute Boston Terrier in front?) Many of these will be amateur shots you may not want to use, but I think you can see how powerful this CC Attribution search can be.

Google Image Search

Using our familiarity with CC Attribution licensing, we can head over to the king of search, Google. Every Google search screen has an Image link. This will bring you to the Google Image search, but we can’t use this screen, the link you want is the one labeled Advanced Search.


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This opens a screen that offers lots of search options and, at the bottom, a chance to set the kind of license you are looking for on the images search will return. I picked the “labeled for reuse” option from a drop down and received 223 images to choose from.


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I wasn’t that impressed with Google’s results but, looking at the detail screen for a photo of a cute toy fox terrier, I noticed Google had pulled the image from Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons

A little more investigation revealed that Wikimedia Commons is the media repository for the Wikimedia Foundation—the umbrella group for Wikipedia—and is run as a volunteer effort. Here’s the statement on their Welcome page:

Unlike traditional media repositories, Wikimedia Commons is free. Everyone is allowed to copy, use and modify any files here freely as long as the source and the authors are credited and as long as users release their copies/improvements under the same freedom to others. The Wikimedia Commons database itself and the texts in it are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

Bingo. Wikimedia Commons currently has 6,182,493 files stored on their servers, all available for reuse with Attribution. My search for “terrier” turned up 1,199 hits, although I noticed a number of them were of a Terrier Missile, not dogs.

At the bottom of each photo’s detail page you’ll find a complete technical profile of the photo as well as the Creative Commons Attribution licensing.

In a few minutes I had managed to find over 8,300 photos of terriers, all free to use as I liked as long as I gave the proper credit, which seems like the least I could do. And all perfectly legal and respectful of the owner’s copyright.

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    { 36 comments… read them below or add one }

    Thatguy August 6, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    Great blog! I’ve waded through a ton of comments on a few articles relating to my issue and not quite found the answer I’m seeking. If you’ve already answered this one, sorry to have missed it!

    I’m working on a book that is a review/critique/history of a particular genre of movie and television show and I’m totally at sea as to the legality of including pictures with the text. The genre covers decades of moviemaking and I hope to include posters and screen shots of films and shows from the 40s and right on to current projects.

    Given the public nature of such things, does “fair use” apply or am I looking at a huge side project to track down permission for each image?


    Laura Gargano June 3, 2015 at 7:34 am

    As a program director and VP of a foundation just beginning to explore multi-media for Facebook page , this was incredibly useful as I wait for our communications intern to begin next month. I don’t usually take time to respond to blogs although I read them all the time and get incredible and useful information, I felt that I MUST tell you how helpful this was! Thanks!


    Joel Friedlander June 4, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Laura, I’m happy to help out, and it shows that content like this has a real lifespan, since it was written 5 years ago.


    Jordy May 22, 2015 at 8:04 am

    This article is very informative. I have been publishing online for several years and have struggled to find “quality” Royalty free images. The information provided in this article will make it easier for me moving forward, as I wasn’t aware of the Creative Commons guideline for the sites mentioned.

    Last year I decided to start a website offering “my” images 100% royalty free. I contacted the manager of this site and they suggested I post a link here:


    Richa May 18, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    Would i be able to use a photo for book cover which comes under commercial use for book cover ? If not then which photos can i use?


    Joel Friedlander May 19, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Richa, when you acquire stock photos from a stock photo agency or site, there is always an explanation of the license under which the photos are supplied, and you should have a good look at that to make sure your use is covered, otherwise ask the company to clarify the usage allowed.


    Dona March 24, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Can I use photos off Facebook, and google images (excluding anything marked Reugers) to make a photo book through Shutterfly which would be sent to people who make a donation to support a war-torn country (Ukraine)? Totally non-profit. Photo credits would be included where known. But not all are known.There are approx 65 photos. No profit goes to me.


    Joel Friedlander March 24, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    Dona, you can’t use images for which you have no permission. They are someone’s intellectual property, doesn’t matter whether it’s for profit or nonprofit. There are many ways to get images for your project, like the sites listed here and the many suggested in the comments.


    Michael Craig March 20, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    so if im self publishing my own book what website is the best for getting my cover photo from and what do i have to do when i use it just type something like photo provided by so and so is that a way of giving them credit is just by mentioning there name?


    Joel Friedlander March 24, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Michael, all legitimate photo sites will show you the licensing requirements and the kind of link you need to include. There are many paid stock photo sites and each of them have their own licensing terms, so make sure to check those before you buy.


    Richard December 11, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    In regards to getting a “model release” that was mentioned above, what if the person is deceased? This comes into play since I am writing a book from stories from a hundred years ago.


    Joel Friedlander December 11, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Works that are 100 years old are, at least in the U.S., most likely in the public domain. Model releases are usually used for images of people.


    Rosi December 9, 2014 at 3:17 am

    Hi, one more site for your free photo sources list. I search images for my blog on the following sites. All photos are licensed under the cc0 license. http://creativecommons.photos


    JC July 12, 2014 at 9:56 am

    2 Brief questions:
    Just to be clear, when using photos from “free” sites, and attribution is given through the methods discussed, it is perfectly legal to use that photo in the copyrighted ePublication which it appears, correct?
    There is no concern for copyright infringement, or royality issues to the photographer/copyright holder, correct?


    Deb Atwood May 26, 2014 at 7:58 am

    Thanks for a great article with some new resources! I particularly found helpful the way you search for creative commons only. That saves some time.

    The way I usually attribute is something like “image courtesy of Joe Blank via Flickr” under the photo. Another thing I do is to hyperlink the attribution so readers can click and find the original image. I didn’t see a mention of hyperlinking in your article. Do you do that as well? Photopin specifies pasting the link at the end of the post, but I think hyperlinking underneath the photo is better.

    Also, sometimes the artist’s name doesn’t show up on the image page. Is there some other trick to finding out who the artist is?


    Michael W. Perry May 26, 2014 at 7:16 am

    I’ll suggest other sources.

    Particularly for historical themes, the Library of Congress has a wealth of free, public domain photographs. Some were taken by government photographers. Other collections were donated.


    View the iBookstore or Kindle samples of my Lily’s Ride to see how they can be used to lend veracity to a novel.

    Some high-end stock photo websites are expensive and (oddly) often haven’t had the sorts of photos I’ve found useful. I have, however, found two sites that cater to businesses that offer good collections at reasonable prices. They’re actually cheap enough ($5-10), I can afford to have a photo at the start of each chapter. And keep in mind that convenience and aptness can make it better to pay a little for the right picture than to make do with a free one that’s of poor quality. A bad picture can be worse than no picture.


    Your success is likely to depend on your book’s theme. My two hospital books (My Nights with Leukemia and Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments) have absolutely marvelous pictures because photographers know that hospitals, clinics and doctors are constantly looking for such photos. The selection is great.

    Also, don’t get discouraged if your first source for a photo is expensive. The cover image for Hospital Gowns is perfect for the theme. But the first place I found it wanted about $120 for a cover-quality image. I later found the same image at Big Stock for about $12. In another case, I found an image that was ideal for a particular chapter but the photographer knew he had a winner and wanted over $100. I kept looking and found another photo that served as well for about $6.

    Looking, looking, looking is the key. You may have to look at a hundred images to find one that’s right for an interior chapter and at thousands to find the perfect cover image. Take the time to do it right.

    Also, commercial sites usually have some sort of credit rather than cash mechanism. Photos sell for pre-paid credits rather than cash. Figure it out, use it carefully, and and you can save money. Don’t buy too many credits though, they often expire after a year.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books


    Joel M September 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    I’m about to start writing for a company blog, and this article is a great resource for me and for anyone committed to staying legal. Also, as a fellow Joel, I’m proud of how you’re representing our great name :)

    Joel M


    Joe Regal September 20, 2013 at 10:51 am

    Does the Wikimedia Commons care about the content of the work? I’m looking for artwork to use for the cover of a book of smutty poetry. I know that Stock.xchang gets very touchy about what they consider to be ‘pornography’ and ‘immoral use’, a couple of terms they use with no specific definition, but does the Creative Commons covered by Wikipedia have any such restrictions?


    Joel Friedlander September 21, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Joe, I don’t believe Creative Commons has anything to do with the nature of the content, although sometimes content owners will place restrictions on the use of their material within Creative Commons, but you can check the licensing area at the bottom of the page on any Wikimedia Commons file.


    Harrie Farrow August 30, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    Thank you, this was very helpful – exactly the info I needed for getting a photo for my e-book cover.


    Nabs June 24, 2013 at 10:25 am

    What @vrctfilms said above: where do we give credit in an ebook? First page?


    Joel Friedlander June 24, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Nabs, many authors have moved their copyright page (where you would ordinarily list credits) to the back of their ebooks, or completely out of the books and onto a website. The first solution makes sense, the second one I wouldn’t recommend.


    Marian Lanouette July 24, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    This post was awesome and informative. Than you.


    Robert Nagle January 9, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Here are 2 extremely important points:

    1. Make sure to do a screenshot of the web page with the creative commons license if you decide to use it. Users frequently change their settings, and you need proof of what the license was.

    2. You probably will need a model release if a person in a photo is identifiable — even for creative commons photos.


    Joel Friedlander January 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks, Robert, both very useful.


    @vrctfilms September 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Thank you for all the good advice.

    Where would be the best place and way to give credit on a book for creative commons imagery? Should it be in more than one place or just the back cover? I still working on my first book which will be for the kindle so this is a naive question. Come to think of it I don’t remember there being back covers on a kindle.. I guess that is more often found on traditional books. I was considering using a white background, until I read your tips. Thanks for saving me from that mistake and for all the amazing resources. ( :


    amethyst.tb January 29, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Hi. thanks for such an informative post. I’ve recently started a blog and had naively thought that google images were in the public domain for public use. I will now go through the blog and either change and/or attribute where I need to


    Annette Peppis September 1, 2010 at 10:29 am

    This is very useful, Joel. I understand what needs to be done with design for print, but have just started a blog (not yet published) and wasn’t sure of the protocol regarding pic use. Now I know – so thanks! Have bookmarked this and will retweet it.


    Joel Friedlander September 1, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Annette, so glad I could be of help. I’ll be interested in your blog, your book designs are outstanding. Thanks for stopping by.


    Joel April 14, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Wow, Cathi, that’s quite a list! I’ve only heard of a couple of these. Thanks for bringing a terrific resource to readers.


    Joel April 14, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    (Ed: Cathi Stevenson, of Book Cover Express tried to leave this comment today, but got treated rudely by my blog software for some reason. I repost it here at her request:)

    There are some places my kids get images from for websites and projects (I don’t use them for commercial work, but they’re there if you’re planning on DIY layout and design). But of course, always read the licenses and if possible, contact the photographer directly. Also remember you still need a model release if you can identify the people (one model won a case when just her behind was used) and avoid anything trademarked or photos of other people’s copyright protected works. Photographers don’t always understand these things, either and don’t realize they don’t have the right to grant third party usage in some cases for some things. Nag, nag, nag. I know. I can’t help it:













    Joel February 28, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Hi, Julia. Yes, this was a direct outgrowth of the conversations on the post about Fair Use. With these resources, you should be able to solve almost any photo need. Hope it helps!


    Julia February 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Thanks for the information. After reading your post on fair use and copywrite I have been searching for new sites to find pictures.


    Joel February 26, 2010 at 7:22 am

    Dan, thanks for the tip. Morguefile is another great resource, and the license they offer doesn’t require attribution. I did a quick search there on my test term, “terrier” and came up with 153 hits, a pretty good result.

    Betty, your students will not only get great images free to use, but they’ll also learn about Creative Commons and how to use advanced search features. That sounds like a winner for any journalism student. Thanks!


    betty ming liu February 26, 2010 at 5:16 am

    Oh my goodness, this is so useful! Thanks for sharing, Joel. I’m definitely going to share this post with all my students. These days, we’re teaching undergraduate journalism students to do blogs and one of their biggest problems is figuring out the visual component. Not all of them are good with the camera and photojournalism is a whole ‘nother field of study. They’ll like the options that you offer here. :-)

    You know what? I think I’m gonna tweet a link to this post right now…


    dan February 26, 2010 at 3:50 am

    Helpful. Thanks. Don’t forget morguefile.com.


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