Sourcing Copyright-Free Images Online

12th December, 2018 by

The internet is awash with quality photography. The advent of high-resolution smartphone cameras and mobile internet connectivity has turned us here in the UK into a nation of amateur photographers, and similar trends have emerged in other countries around the world. Taking a cursory look at Instagram or Flickr, you’d be forgiven for thinking that premium images are only ever a few mouse-clicks away.

Staying within the law

In reality, however, things are rather more nuanced. The images published on social media platforms tend to be deliberately low-resolution, so as to prevent plagiarism and reuse. Many of the photos that are returned in Google or Bing Images searches are subject to copyright restrictions, and republishing them without the owner’s written permission could trigger legal proceedings for copyright infringement. A court may block continued use of that image, as well as imposing damages and requiring the guilty party to pay a proportion of any court costs.

Fair usage policies generally apply under UK law, but that won’t cut much ice if you’ve republished someone’s professional endeavours for your own financial gain. Nor can you simply hope other people don’t notice – the very Google search which unearthed your preferred photo may also betray its presence on your site. Applications like Lenstag and ImageRaider enable photographers to perform reverse searches, identifying any misuse of their original content.

Keep out of trouble

The only way to resolve this issue is to ensure that any images you wish to use are copyright-free. The safest way to do this, of course, is to take your own, using the aforementioned smartphone cameras. But what if you simply don’t have the technical ability or access to relevant locations? After all, a website designer isn’t likely to have a data centre on their doorstep, waiting for its server rooms to be photographed. Even if they did, smartphone cameras lack features like wide-angle lenses and flash guns – the expensive hardware which differentiates professional photography from amateur attempts.

Fortunately, there are plenty of online resources where copyright-free photos are available. These websites are often created for philanthropic reasons by retired PR professionals or enthusiastic amateur snappers, helping charities and private individuals to create websites with striking images that won’t break the bank. A single 4K photo from Getty Images can cost as much as £375, and one graphic is rarely enough for a website.

Online image resources

Below are listed some of the websites currently offering free images. They all require account creation, while some request or require a number of uploads before you can begin downloading third-party content:


Contributions are enthusiastically encouraged by Stockvault, which is one of the strongest copyright-free photo resources. Alongside free-to-reuse photos, there are textures and illustrations available, often seasonally-themed.


With photos usually available in at least two resolutions, FreeImages is an impressive resource. Images are given dozens of tags to simplify searches, and it’s also possible to search by photographer, location and even camera type.


Some incredibly detailed images are among PxHere’s 45,000 high-res copyright-free photos. It’s possible to search by photographer name or camera body, while every image is uploaded under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licence.


This is more of a community than the sites above, removing browser ads for people who upload their own contributions. As well as photos, there are vectors and illustrations in Pixabay’s archive, alongside a surprising number of HD video clips.

What to look for

Don’t settle for the first copyright-free photo you see while searching. If you believe a particular image is striking or remarkable, other people may reach the same conclusion; certain online images have become ubiquitous through overuse. Equally, don’t attempt to stretch a 1024×768 pixel image into a larger space – you’ll only get an impressive result by scaling photos down from their maximum resolution, rather than trying to expand them to fit.

Finally, even though these websites rarely apply copyright, there might still be reproduction requirements. You may need to credit the author or identify the site where your chosen image was acquired from. Altering the picture often affects copyright, and the law may deem alterations to be as simple as applying a caption or cropping the edges.

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