A common question I see is, “How do I find images to use on the Internet?” Whether you’re looking for something to just play around with and learn the basics or you’re seeking non-copyrighted images for use in paid projects, there are lots of places to find free images on the Internet.
My aim here isn’t to create any kind of comprehensive list. I’m giving a list of the sites I tend to use more frequently than not, and what I tend to use them for. All freebie sites are not equal; you’ll have a better time searching if you understand what each site is most useful for.
Be careful and pay attention to licensing. Not everything here can be used in commercial projects. Tread lightly if you’re using anything here in any way you intend to make money. On personal projects, you’re usually safe on these sites (provided you follow directions about searching in the correct areas for free images and photos). On commercial projects — well, you don’t want to get any kind of nastygram from anyone about improper use of their resources. You especially don’t want a client to get a nastygram!
Be aware, too — you’re putting yourself at the mercy of whoever decided to upload the images. Some sites are great about removing copyrighted material, especially if it’s obviously copyrighted (e.g., a well-known photo). Some sites are not so great at removing copyrighted material — and it is honestly tough to tell, too, when someone re-uploads something that’s not very well known. Tread carefully — services such as Google’s Search by Image and TinEye can help you determine whether an image belongs to someone else or not.
Make sure you’re offering proper credit on attribution-required resources; you want people to continue providing resources for free on the Internet. Pain in the butt to track where everything comes from? Yep, absolutely — but well worth the trouble, as it encourages someone who made content you found awesome enough to use in a project to continue outputting awesome content you can continue using for free. Everyone wins!
Sites for Stock Images
Pay attention to sites marked with asterisks. These sites require searching in special areas. I have linked to those special search areas where possible, but just be aware you can’t go to Flickr or deviantART and just take whatever. There’s also copyrighted material you definitely cannot use on both of those sites.
How to search on Flickr: Search > Advanced > Scroll to Bottom > Check three Creative Commons checkboxes (Creative Commons, for commercial use, derivatives allowed). If this isn’t a paid project you’ll make money from, you can uncheck the “for commercial use” checkbox.
Flickr is good for a lot of things that aren’t generic stock images (like, people/products isolated on white). You can sometimes find someone doing lightbox practice etc. and get good ones, but it’s very slim pickings for typical stock photos.
This can be a good thing — e.g., a creative commons image of real people smiling wearing custom t-shirts at a family reunion found on Flickr is gonna be a *hell* of a lot more natural and candid-looking than most stock photos you can find of the same thing. But — you are also gonna have a hell of a time finding that family reunion set on Flickr, too.
Possibly the best free stock photo site I’ve found, I think. I’ve been using it since it was sxc.hu, a long time! I don’t rely on them so much anymore since Flickr serves a lot of needs, but when you can’t find it on Flickr, this site usually has something workable. Slim-ish pickings for images — *but* you are guaranteed every file is high quality, because they are vetted before they are added to the site.
Also decent, but I honestly haven’t used this one in a while, either. In my recollection, it had a fair amount of natural photos, and was good for outdoorsy type things? One advantage this one has over Flickr is, again, the quality. Most of the images found here are relatively high-quality (I’m not sure if they do any vetting). The nice thing about Morguefile is that all of the images here are very freely licensed: no attribution required. This is nice if you want to keep your credit page short!
When looking on dA, be sure to search only in the “Resources” category. The rest of the things on deviantART are usually copyrighted, and can’t be used for personal or commercial projects.
Photo-wise — I find it’s best to stick to using deviantART for fantasy things. Looking to make a photo-manipulation of a forest fairy garden with a giant moon in the sky? dA is a good bet. Need a medieval-looking warrior lady? dA. Barbarian warrior on a horse? dA! dA is not extremely useful, I’ve found, in business-type projects when you’re looking for photographs… but it’s immensely, immensely helpful if you’re looking to do anything fantasy/fictional/historical.
On the other hand — deviantART is great for brushes, patterns, and similar. Another thing people forget about deviantART — tutorials! There are a lot of tutorials that can help you learn how to use Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. If you’re looking for a technique and tutorial site, dA is great.
A work of the United States government, as defined by United States copyright law, is ‘a work prepared by an officer or employee of the U.S. federal government as part of that person’s official duties.’ In general … such works are not entitled to domestic copyright protection under U.S. law.
This means that you can (most of the time) make use of things that were created by a US government worker as a part of their job. For example, the following Flickr accounts have a ton of very specific images. Where else are you gonna find images of historic photos of women setting up supersonic wind tunnels or real photos of park rangers interacting with kids?
This is what I use for work. I’d rather not play around with licenses in commercial work, and I know anything I find on Shutterstock can be used for whatever purpose (excepting a few things like celebrity pictures, which they warn can only be used for editorial purposes). Also, getting paid for work means I don’t want to waste my time or my employer’s money by searching for three hours across six sites for the perfect stock photo.
I don’t have experience with other paid photo sites — this is the one at work I use because it’s there. I can’t say for sure about selection, pricing, or any of that. Sorry!
Great for vectors. It doesn’t have a super massive selection, and if you’re looking for something specific — you’ll probably have to struggle a little bit. But it is good for random sparkly or spattery backgrounds, for sure.
Also great for vectors — although there’s a lot of childish and cheesy and, as the name suggests, clipart looking ones here. Still has some interesting stuff I haven’t been able to find elsewhere, though. I also love Open Clipart because everything here has vector-format images.
Textures and Patterns
Amazing for textures. They have other stuff but I’ve only used them for textures, to be perfectly honest.
This site is great for background patterns, of course. I’ve found them useful in both web development for backgrounds and similar, as well as Photoshop graphics. Don’t go here if you’re looking for striking, bright, or obvious patterns: as the name suggests, this site is best for subdued, slight, and barely-there (subtle!) patterns.
Other, Multiple, and Everything
Wikimedia Commons actually has a surprising amount of vectors. Some are poorly made — but there are also some very cool ones, and a lot of technical ones.
Something else really awesome on Wikimedia Commons: old artwork! Depending on your country and its copyright law, a lot of old artwork is no longer copyrighted and can be used for whatever, as they’ve passed into the public domain.
These are sites I don’t have much experience with. However — I did at some point add them to my bookmarks, so they must have appealed to me some way or another. I apologize this part of the post isn’t more informative as to what these sites are best used for.