The ultimate guide to finding free, legal images online

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You may not realize it, but if you use Google to find an image and then use it in a project, you’re likely breaking the law. Unless you’ve been given permission to use the image by its creator, then you cannot legally or ethically use it.

Happily, there’s an easy way to find images on Google that you can use, plus a slew of other sources for high-quality images that won’t cost you a dime—either up front or later on in a lawsuit.

U.S. government sources

Did you know that you can get free images from public agencies such as NASA, the CIA, the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, and some libraries? They’re free for you to use because you’ve paid for them with your tax dollars.

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NASA’s collection of images is growing almost daily.

In addition, several historical image repositories have been funded privately for your use, such as Google’s archive of photos from Life magazine from the 1860s to the 1970s.

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Google hosts millions of photos from the Life magazine archive, organized by decade.

The images in these collections are unique because their topics were professionally captured at an historically important time or location. And these resources are just the tip of the government-funded iceberg: For a much longer list of resources, see the U.S. Government Image Portal.

One of my favorite image collections is from the Hubble space telescope, which reveals the striking beauty of our universe. Heck, this one is worth exploring whether you need images or not!

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The Hubble site hosts shockingly beautiful images of planets and other cosmic stuff.

If you’re looking for images of Earth from space, try NASA’s Visible Earth. And for NASA’s cream of the crop in imagery, visit Great Images in NASA.

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NASA’s Visible Earth has images and animations of our planet from space.

For health-related images, try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Image Library (

Images from these sites can be used in any kind of project, legally and free of charge because they’re “in the public domain.” The images have no copyright holder so nobody will sue you for using it—an essential consideration when using an image in a project because copyright lawsuits actually happen.

Royalty-free stock photos

Another iron-clad way to guarantee that you can use an image without fear of ownership issues is to license it from a royalty-free image source. For example, iStock, iStockphoto, Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Bigstockphoto, Fotolia (now owned by Adobe and available inside some Creative Cloud apps), and Dollar Photo Club(owned by Fotolia) offer millions of high-quality photos you can license for incredibly affordable fees.

The only caveat is that royalty-free imagery can only be used for promotional purposes, so this isn’t your chance to start a greeting card company or T-shirt company, though extended licenses for such things are available for additional fees.

Creative Commons images

But what if you don’t want to spend even a few bucks on an image? Can’t you just search for an image on Google and use it? Negative, good buddy—that is, unless you take one extra step in your search. When you ask Google to find an image, it happily displays everything it can find, no matter who owns it. To limit results to only those images that are legally available for you to use, you need to click through to the Usage Rights options. There are currently two ways to do this:

Method #1. After entering a search term, click the gear icon at upper right and choose Advanced Search. At the bottom of the resulting Advanced Image Search window, pick an option from the Usage Rights popup menu. If you want to use but not change the image, choose “free to use or share, even commercially.”

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Using Google’s Advanced search menu (top) and the resulting Advanced Image Search window (bottom), you can locate images that are legal for you to use.

Method #2. Enter a search term, click the Search Tools button, and then from the Usage Rights menu that appears, choose “Labeled for reuse.”

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To reveal Google’s Usage rights menu, click the Search tools button circled here.

That said, if your project is of a personal nature—say, your Mac user group’s meeting or newsletter—you may see more images by choosing one of the “noncommercial” options. Either way, Google only displays images whose copyright holders have indicated that you can use their images however you want.

Of course, Google isn’t the only source for images you can freely use. For additional options, visit these websites:

Wikimedia Commons has a collection of millions of media files to which anyone can contribute.

The Commons on Flickr collects photos in the public domain from private institutions and government agencies around the globe. This site is an absolute goldmine for images outside the U.S.

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The Commons on Flickr collects professional images from institutions around the world.

The John F. Kennedy Library has thousands of photographs and hundreds of reels of film available and searchable online. Many of the images and collected documents are in the public domain and would be a valuable addition to any Kennedy-era project.

As you can see, there are gobs of perfectly legal sources for images you can freely, so there’s really no excuse for stealing photos (because that’s what it really is). Besides being The Right Thing To Do, verifying your right to use an image protects you from some seriously nasty legal action and may even help you sleep better at night. Until next time, may the creative force be with you all!

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