Where Can I Find Free, High Quality Photos?

Recently, I saw this bit of advice on a forum in response to a question about using photos found on the Internet: “…if your purpose is educational, you are free to use the image…“. Well, that advice is incorrect. If you use an image found on a website without permission, you can be sued for copyright infringement. The fact that you are using that image for an educational purpose has no bearing on whether you can take it without permission. You wouldn’t walk into a store and take a framed photograph off the wall and walk out with it, using the excuse that you plan to display it in a classroom, would you? Neither should you grab an image from the Internet without permission of the photographer.

So where do you find images that are free to use? I’ve previously described where to find images in the public domain (for example, U.S. government websites). Images in the public domain can be freely used without permission. In addition to images in the public domain, there are a number of websites that offer free images, often with few restrictions (such as commercial use). Below, I’ve listed a few sites that contain large libraries of images that you can download and use as you please.

  1. Morguefile is a site where photographers can upload their images for others to reuse. There are images of people, places, and things. For example, here is an image of a research laboratory. You can modify the image, use it for commercial purposes, and display it along with other content such as text. You may not distribute the unaltered image or claim ownership of it. If you don’t alter the image in some way (e.g. by cropping, reducing resolution), then you must attribute the photographer. The quality of images on this site varies, but you can search for one that suits your purpose using a keyword.
  2. Unsplash offers high-resolution images from over 40,000 photographers. All photos published here are licensed under Creative Commons Zero, which means a user can copy, modify, distribute, and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer or Unsplash. This is a great site to find high quality photos of landscapes, cityscapes, people, animals, and plants. Searches are easy using keywords; there are also collections of photos emphasizing a particular topic (ocean, forest). For example, here is a photo from a collection called “beautiful forests”. You can use these photos for commercial purposes such as for book covers, on T-shirts, or in a video. Although reselling a photo from Unsplash is possible, you are encouraged to first modify it creatively.
  3. Pexels offers a library of images for personal or commercial use. This site has several thousand photos, all under a Creative Commons Zero license. You can browse topics such as sky, sport, night, people, sunset, or animals….or you can enter a keyword search. The images are offered in different sizes/resolutions, such as this one of a peacock. A companion site offers free videos, also under the Creative Commons Zero license (videos.pexels.com). The videos I examined were all full HD (1920 x 1080) and included some time lapse clips. There were also some 4k drone videos (see this example of drone footage of a beach area). You can copy, modify, and distribute the photos or videos without asking permission or giving attribution (in fact, the photographers are not identified on this site).
  4. Death to the Stock Photo is a collection that is not entirely free. To access and use photos, a user must sign up and pay a monthly or yearly fee–reasonable for someone who frequently needs good quality photos. You can re-use the images but cannot re-distribute them or imply that they are yours. If you need only the occasional image, you are better off going to one of the other sites with free offerings.
  5. Albumarium offers images, typically under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license, which means you can use the photos if you acknowledge the photographer. Some photos, however, cannot be used for commercial purposes or modified. This is a good site if you are looking for photos of nature, landscapes, or people. Images are grouped by topics into albums, which can be browsed, but you can also search by keyword.
  6. Magdeleine photos are inspiring or otherwise invoke emotion in the viewer. If you need an evocative photo to enhance your science story, this site may have it. Some photos are offered under a Creative Commons Zero license (or public domain), allowing you to use the image any way you wish and without attribution. Other photos require you to attribute the photographer.
  7. Lifeofpix offers free, high resolution photos of cities, beaches, architecture, nature, food, people, and sunsets, to name a few subjects. You can search by keyword or use filters (category, colors, and orientation). A companion site offers video clips that can be viewed and downloaded from a Vimeo account (lifeofvids.com). I could not find licensing information and so assume that photos and videos can be used with attribution.
  8. Stocksnap provides thousands of free photos under a Creative Commons Zero license. Images are arranged by categories (nature, people, cities, computers, music, fashion, car, fitness, landscape..) and are also searchable by keyword. The images I examined were of high quality and resolution. If you need images of plants or animals in nature, there are some to be found here–see example at right.
  9. Pixabay has a large collection of high quality photos and videos that can be browsed or searched using various filters. Most seem to be under a CC0 license, which is clearly stated in the photo description. There are many images and video clips of plants and animals in nature, which makes it a useful resource for the scientist videographer. The video clips may be particularly useful if you need footage of animals. I found HD clips of frogs, caterpillars, snails, lions, crustaceans, bison, deer, fish, and many more. There was also drone footage of various types of landscapes.
  10. Librestock scans and indexes photos from more than forty sites and makes it easy to locate the photo you need. Once you find your photo, the site then directs you to the source to download. You can save a lot of time by searching here first.

These ten sites offer many fantastic images to use in a video project or scientific presentation. It’s not an exhaustive list—there are other sites offering free media. However, the ones I’ve listed here have high quality media that are easy to download. So instead of illegally grabbing a poor resolution image from someone’s website, why not search these sites first?

Let me end by suggesting that it is good practice to attribute the photographer or videographer, even if the license doesn’t require it. You can easily add a bit of text that identifies the creator and the distributor (as I’ve done with all the images included in this post).