Images make your blog more interesting and inviting to readers. They give your content management system (CMS) something to display as a thumbnail in the “related posts” and similar widgets. They can even get you more hits if users are searching images on Google and decide to click through to your page. If you’re like me, though, you don’t usually have the time or the budget to take your own pictures. What’s the best way to find high quality images to use on your blog?
First, lets talk about what you shouldn’t do. You should never just download an image off someone’s website and use it, unless you know the license terms. The same goes for scanning anything out of a book or magazine. Despite the currently prevailing “wild west” mentality in the blogosphere, it is illegal to use images unless you have a license. Besides the fact that we all want to be good citizens, someone who catches you using their copyrighted media without permission can usually, depending on the country where your host is based, get your website shut down for a few weeks while your lawyers sort things out. It’s rare for this to actually happen, but rare is not the same thing as never. Personally, I try to stick to public domain and CC licensed images. When I have to use a copyrighted image–usually because I am blogging about a television show–I write a justification of why my usage falls under “fair use” and put it in the alt text of the image. Better safe than sorry.
Luckily in the past few years a number of excellent sources have emerged for high quality, free images with known licenses. The six on this list are some of my personal favorites.
1) Wikimedia Commons – Usually the first place I try. This site not only contains all the images used in Wikipedia, but they keep uploading other public domain image collections as they become available. Every image in their database has a page which gives you the license type and other meta-information and has links to download the image in various sizes. The only drawback I’ve found is that sometimes when I find a really good picture for a topic, it turns out that Wikipedia has already used it, which makes me look like I use Wikipedia for all my research. Also, be aware that some of their images have noncommercial licenses, which are fine for use by a nonprofit like Wikimedia, but do not allow the image to be used on a monetized blog.
2) Flickr – The mother-lode of free images. Not only do individuals share their images on Flickr, but museums and archives, from the Smithsonian to the British Library, are increasingly using the site to serve their image collections. Many image are covered by a free license, and the license type is clearly notated. As long as you know what you’re looking for, you can usually find it on Flickr.
3) The US Government – Under US copyright law, most images created by government employees “in the regular course of their jobs” are automatically in the public domain. Many agencies maintain large image collections, most of which are listed on the link above. If you are looking for pictures of animals or landscapes, the National Park Service is a particularly good bet. And, of course, the military loves to post pictures of ships, planes, and tanks.
5) Many Art Museums are in the process of digitizing their holdings and making them available online. Any 2-dimensional representation of a work of art produced prior to 1923 is definitely in the public domain, but its still good manners to credit the museum from whose site you downloaded it. Rijksmuseum (in Amsterdam) and The Norton Simon (in Pasadena) are two examples of museums with large searchable collections online.
6) Pond5 sells stock media, especially things like backgrounds, music, and sound effects for film makers. Recently, though, they have added a free section which contains public domain images and other media, mainly gleaned from US government agencies. Because they mirror the NASA image collection, they are particularly useful if you need pictures of airplanes, astronauts, or celestial objects. While you’re there, create a Pond5 account so you can get on their mailing list. A few times a year they e-mail out links to download free samples.