The finer points of finding free images

Free—it’s my favorite word. It’s probably the most popular word found in advertising to get you to buy something. But has free ever really meant free? The catch is usually that you have to buy something in order to get something else free. Or maybe you have to agree to give up your personal information, forever dooming you to junk mail, to get that free hotel stay in Vegas.

The Web provides small design firms and freelance designers without a $15,000 photo-shoot budget the opportunity to download photos and vector illustrations as easily as the click of the mouse.

While nobody really knows who was first, stock.xchng is arguably the most popular site on the Web to offer thousands of quality images, free of charge.

Notice I said “free of charge.” True, a great portion of the collection of images at stock.xchng are available for you to use with no catch, but the best images (those images with the highest resolution, size and composition quality), generally come with a stipulation. In some cases, you can use the image for virtually anything other than redistributing or as part of a trademark or logo—just download and you’re done. Many others require you to notify the photographer before using. Still others require a photo credit for any public use of the image. Though the site does have a contact form to make it easy, there’s no guarantee of a timely response, or even approval. So there’s the catch—the “free, if you do XYZ” phrase.

Vector art sites are popping-up all over the Web. Vecteezy, QVectors, and 123 Free Vectors are just a few popular destinations offering great vector illustrations. As with stock.xchng, most artwork is completely free to use. But with increasing frequency, the artwork comes with stipulations that the vector files may not be used commercially. Some artists allow commercial use of their work, but require a small fee via Paypal.

With free image sites being so popular, who better to jump on the bandwagon than the king of Internet photography sites. Flickr offers millions (according to its site) of great images under the Creative Commons License, allowing you to use them absolutely free. But just like that free trip to Vegas, there is a catch. At the very least, you are required to credit the photographer when you use the image.

Here’s an example of a photo I downloaded from Flickr. To use it, I just add the credit line—Photo credit: Spoon Monkey

By far, the most flexible Creative Commons License you can choose is the Attribution License. Images that fall under the Attribution License allow you to freely crop and alter the image, and use it any way you see fit for free, just as long as you credit the photographer. Generally speaking, you’ll know you’re looking at Attribution License images when you see one of these two icons (above left) on the page.

Finding those images on Flickr is easy. Just start at the Flickr Attribution License page.

The Attribution License is just one license available. There are still more images available under other Creative Commons. The Attribution-NoDerivs License, allows you to use the work with a photo credit, but does not allow you to alter the work in any way, including cropping. The Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License adds the stipulation that you cannot use the images for commercial purposes, along with no alterations. The Attribution-NonCommercial License allows you to alter the work in any way you see fit, as long as you don’t use it for commercial purposes. There are other Creative Commons Licenses available, which you can read more about at the Creative Commons site, or on the Flickr Creative Commons start page.

So when you find that perfect image or piece of vector art on a Web site, and they say it’s free to download, be sure to check for license and restriction notices before using the artwork.

[James Dempsey runs The Graphic Mac, which offers tips, tricks and more for designers and graphic artists using Mac OSX.]

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