Before you begin a picture search online, consider the cost in terms of time and money. For example, stock photo houses are a quick way to get public domain photos, but you’ll have to pay for them.
Let’s say you were looking for a photo of the space shuttle. You could find one very quickly at Corbis — in fact, the Bettmann Archive (which Corbis owns) includes a beautiful NASA photo of the space shuttle orbiting Earth. If you wanted to use that photo, it would cost 210.00 USD for editorial use on a web site, for a duration of up to one month ... even though NASA photos are in the public domain. (By the way, you can find several NASA sites, plus more, listed here.)
There are times when paying a fee might beat spending more time searching. But when you have time to search, here’s a short list of picture search engines, and some tips for using them.
You might end up deciding to pay to use a specific image, anyway — but it can’t hurt to see what’s out there first.
The only reliable way to use Google Images to find public domain images is to restrict your picture search to government web sites. You can do this by using “site:.gov” like so:
The result will include a bunch of US government produced images that will be copyright free, so long as government employees produced them as part of their jobs. Be aware, though, that the works of state governments may be protected by copyright.
Note: Google used to offer a US government search (which was known as the Uncle Sam search engine) but they killed it off. Someone has put up a Google Custom Search page to take its place. There, you might try searching for your subject plus "photos" or "images" (or "pictures"). For example, civil war photos.
Filtering on usage rights
Unfortunately, Google’s Advanced Image Search doesn’t allow you to filter on usage rights (at least not yet) ... but the Advanced Search section of its regular web search does:
Here’s a list of the filters, and what type of results you get when you apply them:
|If you apply this filter:||You get:|
|not filtered by license||standard, unfiltered Google results|
|free to use or share||results you can copy or redistribute|
|free to use or share, even commercially||results you can copy or redistribute for profit|
|free to use, share or modify||results you can copy or adapt, as well as redistribute|
|free to use, share or modify, even commercially||results you can copy or adapt, as well as redistribute, for profit|
In brief, these filters help you find works with Creative Commons licenses.
Note: You can’t specify graphic file formats on this search page, alas, so your search will turn up other types of content as well. (You might try your search term with "picture" or "photo," as mentioned above.)
Also, it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly which content on a given site is licensed. (The entire site? Certain parts?) Just because you find a page through these searches does not mean you can simply use whatever you want. You’ll have to poke around a bit to determine what you can use, and how.
Here’s what you do:
Searching by license type
You can also search or browse by license type. Here’s how to do that:
Note: You can’t search by license type, but you can have a lot of fun (and spend way too much time) exploring Flickr this way.
Here’s what you do:
Note: If you select Flickr, you’ll be doing the exact same search described above.
Note: The Google and Yahoo! searches bring back lots of extraneous material because you can’t specify a picture search only. As long as a site has a CC license link, or CC metadata in its code, it will turn up in the search results ... so be prepared to wade through a bunch of stuff you don’t want. Also, as I mentioned here, it can be very hard to know what, exactly, is licensed on some sites — so you might have to spend some time figuring it out.
Don’t want to deal with license terms? Just want a list of sites that offer public domain photos? Okay then, go here.