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).


Can I Use Media Found on The Internet in My Science Video?

In talking with colleagues and students, I find that quite a few of them are confused about intellectual property, copyright, “fair use”, and public domain. The ready access to material on the Internet has added to the confusion. So I thought I would write a series of posts on the topic.

In this first post, I will define those terms and provide some useful links to additional information. Note that I am not an expert on copyright law; if you need legal advice, please contact an attorney.

Intellectual property:

Intellectual property is any creation arising from one’s mind. Such creations may be literary or artistic works, musical works, machines or devices, software, original processes, drugs or other chemical compounds, designs or images, and datasets, to name a few. Intellectual property is protected by either a trademark or service mark (for a name brand or logo) or by copyright (for a form of expression, such as a book or video). Read more at http://www.uspto.gov and http://www.copyright.gov.


A copyright is a type of protection afforded to the creator(s) of “original works of authorship” (literary, artistic, musical), both published and unpublished, for a period of time, which varies by country and other variables. As soon as a work is fixed in any medium (including the Internet), it is automatically copyright protected. Copyright only protects the form that the work takes, not the subject of the work itself. Ideas, facts, concepts, principles, and discoveries cannot be copyrighted. Read more at http://www.copyright.gov.

Fair Use:

The term “fair use” refers to the limited use of another’s work without permission. It is generally used by those who create commentary, criticism, satire, review, or scholarly critiques in which small portions of the original work need to be displayed for illustrative purposes. The concept is often misunderstood and improperly applied, however. Read more at http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html. The application of fair use to video is thoroughly discussed in this video:

Public Domain:

Works in the public domain can be freely used by anyone in any manner. However, it is not always easy to determine the status of a work. In the U.S., works published before 1923 are in the public domain, but guidelines for later works are more complicated and based on several criteria (date of creation, whether published or not, lifespan of the creator, whether copyright was renewed). Works created by a U.S. Federal Government (not state or local) employee in the course of their duties are also in the public domain; however, Federal agencies may employ contractors or hire a private company—their works may not be in the public domain. Read more and find additional links at http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/

Determining the true status of a work often involves quite a bit of sleuthing. Keep in mind that many works have been reposted on multiple websites, often without permission; tracking down the original content owner is your responsibility.

How to Use NASA Multimedia in Your Science Videos

The US space agency, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is a great resource for a variety of images and footage of the earth and its atmosphere, as well as various processes affecting them.  For example, their multimedia gallery of videos contains footage showing ocean currents, hurricanes, solar flares, temperature anomalies, time-lapse images shot from the space station, phytoplankton blooms, and much more.

Here are a few examples of videos in the NASA multimedia gallery that the scientist videographer might find useful for a video project:

Perpetual Ocean:

Solar Flare:

Hurricane Isaac transiting the Gulf of Mexico:

South America Fire Observations:

You can download these videos and because they are in the public domain can take segments from them for your video projects. For example, you might want to talk about the Gulf Stream and how this relates to something you are studying. You can easily download the video “Perpetual Ocean” (above) from the NASA video gallery and using a movie editing program, you can extract the footage that includes the Gulf Stream. Or you might want to talk about impacts of hurricanes on coastal habitats. There are several animations of hurricanes and cyclones as well as footage shot by NASA’s hurricane hunters that can be downloaded and used. Once in your movie editing program, you can then add voiceover and/or text to connect it to your topic.

Below is an example from one of my video projects in which I used two NASA animations together with my own images, footage, and voiceover to introduce a video on sea-level rise and wetlands.

Sources of Public Domain Images

The scientist videographer will often have occasion to use a still image or video footage that s/he has not shot. If you plan to publish your video (on the internet or elsewhere), you will need to get permission to use anyone else’s images.  The exception is when the images are in the public domain.  Where do you find such image collections?  Government websites are a good place to start.  Many government agencies (in the U.S., for example) are creating collections of images and video that are freely available to the public.  In some cases, the images were taken by government employees or were acquired with government funds, automatically placing them in the public domain. In other instances, the agency has compiled scanned images from historical books, maps, and other sources into collections on their websites that can be searched and then downloaded for free.

Below, I list a few of these websites; the list is not exhaustive, but is designed to give you an idea of where to look for images and footage you might need.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a nice gallery of images, including topics such as animals, plants, field research, lab research, illustrations, and education; you can download images at 72 or 300 dpi. The image at right is of Giant Salvinia (USDA, Peggy Greb).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has an extensive collection of images taken in a variety of places around the world by scientists and other employees; high resolution images are available. The photo to the right is of pancake ice taken by Michael Van Woert (NOAA, NESDIS) in Antarctica (located in the Art in Nature Gallery (Patterns and Textures)).


Related NOAA sites contain more still images, animations, and video. An example is the NGDC Digital Marine Geology and Geophysics Images collection, which contains, for example, animations of dives to the ocean floor such as the Mariana Trench (click on photo at right to go directly to the animation).

The NOAA Fisheries Service (Northeast Fisheries Science Center) maintains an archive of historical photos related to fisheries in the northeastern U.S.  Hundreds of photos are available for download and free use with proper credit.  See photo of a basking shark at right (NEFSC, Paul Galtsof).  There are also photo galleries of marine mammals, seabirds, invertebrates, sharks, ships, and scenic views.


The National Marine Sanctuaries maintains a media library containing still images and many video clips of coastal areas, waves, reefs, deep sea views, fish, sharks, and invertebrates.  The media library is searchable.




The NASA Goddard Space Visualization Studio is the premier location for finding photos and especially animations of the earth and space processes.  Whether you’re looking for animations of arctic sea ice changes or volcanic eruptions, you’ll find them here. The NASA Earth Observatory contains an extensive set of photos, maps, and animations of the world that are downloadable and free to use.  NASA’s Visible Earth contains a massive catalog of images and animations, which are searchable.  See a high resolution image of the Sri Lankan coast during the 2004 Asian Tsunami (NASA, VE) below:

If you are looking for images of hazards, land, oceans, atmosphere, life, snow and ice, or human impacts, these NASA sites will likely contain the image or animation you need.


Another site I often visit for historical photos is the Library of Congress (LOC).  Their American Environmental Photographs 1891-1936 collection is a treasure-trove of material. Many of the images in this collection were taken by or of Henry Chandler Cowles (the “father” of American plant ecology); see his photo to the right with students on a botany field trip (note they are all female students!) (LOC, unknown photographer). Interestingly, I can trace my scientific lineage through my graduate adviser and several generations of professors back to Cowles.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has a digital photo collection containing many historical and modern images of earthquakes, national parks, and mines.  See photo at right of an earthquake at Hawkes Bay, New Zealand (1931) (USGS, unknown photographer).  There is also a large collection of historical images taken by pioneer photographers of early USGS expeditions (see stereo photo below of an expedition camp, part of the W.H. Jackson collection).

These are just a few of the many government sites where you can find media in the public domain. There are some sites that purport to catalog public domain images, but beware. Many of these are commercial sites and contain a mixture of images grabbed from government sites (public domain) and images that may be copyrighted.  Try to obtain such media from their original sources, which often offer them at different resolutions and contain all relevant information about the image.  If you do use media from secondary sites, be sure the image is really in the public domain and abide by any restrictions listed with the image you wish to use. For the media offered for download on government sites, the only restriction is that you cannot copyright any public domain image, and it’s always appropriate to credit the source and the photographer, if their name is given.