How to Find Free Photos and Graphics – The Journalist’s Resource


Are you posting a story on your website or blog? You may want an illustration – what newspaper editors sometimes call “art” – to accompany it. If you’ve taken a photo or work at a news agency and can use something from a staff photographer, then great. If not, what are you doing?

First of all, let’s be clear: it is not acceptable to take photos from the Internet and post them on your site. Unfortunately, such bad habits have become common in many media. If you use a photo that doesn’t belong to you and you don’t have permission, it’s copyright infringement. Not only is this wrong, but the creator could take legal action.

Luckily for a minimalist newsroom, freelance writer, or blogger, there are plenty of websites that offer free or “public domain” stock photos and clip art. But before we know what to look for, we need to understand the basics of how images are licensed online.

Copyright vs Public Domain:

In the United States and the European Union, once a photographer presses the shutter and takes an image, the photographer owns the copyright (unless they sell those rights to another person or organization Sometimes, as in the case of a New York Times photographer who takes pictures for the newspaper, this is called “work for hire”). Contact the person or organization for permission. Only they can grant permission or place the work in the public domain.

A public domain image is no longer under copyright protection and can be used freely without permission.

Photos posted on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Snapchat, VKontakte and other social media platforms are not in the public domain – they are still covered by the copyright of the creator. There is, however, a right of “fair use” – a photo or video clip may sometimes be used if that photo or video is the actual news. See University of Minnesota Thinking Through Fair Use tool to determine if an image can be used under these provisions.

Harvard Law School and the Columbia Journalism Review provide tip sheets for journalists on the public domain and licensing. There is also legal scholarship on fair use in the rapidly changing world of social media.

Creative Commons license:

Many content creators who want to share their work use licenses defined by the nonprofit group Creative Commons (CC). CC licenses offer photographers and other creators a clear, standardized way to retain copyright while allowing the use of their work, free of charge, under certain conditions. CC Licenses can not be revoked.

When the work is protected by one of the six CC licenses, it is often accompanied by a short code. Journalists should familiarize themselves with these codes:

  • BY – This license allows you to do anything on the work as long as you acknowledge the source. You can even sell works containing images with a “BY” license.
  • BY-SA – This allows you to modify or expand on the work (such as using it in a collage), as long as you credit the author and license the new work under the same terms.
  • BY-ND – This license allows you to use the work, as long as it is credited and unaltered.
  • BY-NC – Here you can remix or modify the work, but you must credit the creator of the original content and you cannot use the work commercially.
  • BY-NC-SA – This means that you can modify the work provided that you credit the creator, that you do not use it for commercial purposes and that you license any new creation under the same conditions (share alike).
  • PAR-NC-ND – This is the most restrictive of the CC licenses, allowing you to download and share the work with full attribution, but not modify it in any way or use it for commercial purposes.

The photographer can also place a work in the public domain, which means it is free to use and/or modify without attribution. It is sometimes called Creative Commons Zero. Once in the public domain, no one can control how content is used.

It’s important to note that there is a patent issue with CC: anyone can take a digital file from the Internet, download it, and mark it with such a designation. This person may not be the creator and copyright holder. Use at your own risk.

The restrictions described above sometimes apply to other works on the Internet – for example, clip art and some forms of written content. But the decision on how these works can be used must be made by the copyright holder, usually the creator. The post you are reading is CC licensed. Click the button at the end of this page to see our terms (our work is covered by a sharing-friendly “BY” license).


The image search tool with the widest reach is probably Google Images. In Google Images, you must limit your searches to work with extended usage rights. After researching your keyword, look under the search bar and click on:

  • “Research Tools”
  • “Rights of Use”
  • Select “Tagged for reuse” or one of the other options, if applicable
  • After selecting an image, click on “Visit page”

From now on, the images that appear will generally be free to use; some will require attribution.

Many images will appear on Wikimedia, which hosts most of the images available on Wikipedia and contains tens of millions of files. License details should be explained under each image. If in doubt, do not use the image.

Public domain image sources:

New photo collections frequently appear online. Here are a few that Journalist’s Resource used:

  • Pixabay offers tens of thousands of images in the public domain – free to use without attribution.
  • Wikimediamentioned above, is an extensive searchable repository in its own right.

Other sources of free images:

  • iStockPhoto by Getty offers subscriptions to licensed works and free stock images.
  • Many companies provide photos to distribute as promotional material. Large companies with strong public relations departments often make photos available on the company’s website under a navigation menu heading labeled “media”, “photos”, “multimedia”, “downloads”, etc. Non-profit groups also often distribute free images.
  • Government websites: Much of the work of government agencies is in the public domain, but attribution is always best. Often the images are available in an agency’s newsroom or media center. Need a photo of an avocado or a cow? The United States Department of Agriculture offers a link to its Flickr feed, where images usually come with simple CC-BY licenses. Work funded by the US government is nominally in the public domain because the government is an extension of the public – unless the imagery has been classified.
  • Foreign governments often operate differently. The European Union offers pictures European leaders and public buildings for reporting. You must register to download full size files and they must be credited to the European Union. The Kremlin lists his photos, such as that of President Vladimir Putin, with a CC-BY license.

Some cautionary advice:

Vladimir Putin (, used with permission)

It bears repeating that if you are unclear about an image’s licensing restrictions, consult an attorney or your publisher. The safest choice might be to give up using this image and find another one.

You should also be aware that some websites contain images with a mixture of usage restrictions. On popular photo-sharing platform Flickr, each creator can choose different licensing terms — or they can list nothing at all. If the creator does not specify the terms of use, you should assume that the image is copyrighted and should not be used.

How to save the image:

If you’re on a Mac, hold down the control key and click on the image with your mouse. You will be offered the “save as” option.

On a PC, right-click and choose “save”.

On both platforms, you can also often drag a photo to a folder or your desktop.

Other useful resources:

  • offers a Tutorial on free access to data from national space agencies and satellite images from around the world.
  • Library of Congress — the largest library in the world houses hundreds of thousands of photographs and drawings in digital form. Many images are free to reproduce (and different download sizes are available), but be sure to check.
  • Harvard Law School tip sheet includes public domain audio and video sources.
  • First Draft News has a organizational chart on how to check if a news photo is what it claims to be.

Keywords: photography, digital newsroom, digital media, new media, fair dealing, blogging, open access

Journalist’s Resource would like to thank the photographer and multimedia instructor Dean CK Cox for his help in writing this post.


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