Finding Images for Your Web Content


If you’ve ever created a website or written a blog post, you’ve probably thought about adding images to your site.  But where do you find images that are safe to use without having to worry about copyright violations?

Why Use Images? And How Should I Use Them?

Just like when creating any content for the Web, text, visual media, or otherwise, you should ask yourself what the purpose of the image is — why do you want an image, and who is your intended audience? Are you using the image to promote an event or news item? Highlight something you, your students, or organization has done? Illustrate a point? Just because you know that since you’re making Web content it should probably have images? All of these are good reasons to include images in your website or blog post.

A few tips:

  • If you’re using the image for promotional purposes or highlighting a project, collecting images from those projects or events is a good idea.  If you tent to have regular events, it’s always a good idea to have a camera (or a photographer) to take photos.  Even if you aren’t planning to use images for Web content right away, it’s always a pleasant surprise when you do need images and already have some!
  • For blog posts and other Web content, it usually best to not use stock photos unless absolutely a last resort. Stock photos can work, but often look generic.
  • If you’re using images that are screen captures, to show how to do something, make sure that any text is legible, and be sure to create it or crop it so the edges of windows aren’t cut off in strange ways (on OS X, you can hold down command-shift-4, then press space bar, then click on a window to take a screenshot of a single window). For more info on screen captures using OS X, check out my post on the subject.
  • Taking good photographs is hard and takes talent and really good lighting — don’t let this intimidate you, but reading up on photography and practicing can help you be able to take better pictures for your site or blog.  Hiring a photographer (or a photography student) can be a great way to get higher-quality images.

What You Can and Can’t Do

All of the above said, it’s important when using images for Web content to pay attention to copyright and licensing permissions.  Using images protected by copyright without permission is, of course, a big no-no.  Even if you remix images (i.e. use Photoshop to change them) you still can’t do that.

The FSA (Farm Security Administration) Office of War Information Photograph Collection alone on the Library of Congress website has over 1700 digital photographs. Taken by professional photographers to document American life, there are many amazing images that are copyright-restriction free.

The FSA (Farm Security Administration) Office of War Information Photograph Collection alone on the Library of Congress website has over 1700 digital photographs. Taken by professional photographers to document American life from 1935-1944, there are many amazing images that are free of copyright restrictions.

However, the open-source movement has provided for us! Creative Commons licensing has all kinds of works (text, images, videos, etc.) that you can use with permission from the owner. Creative Commons images is where I find most of the images that I use.

If you use them, just be sure that you are familiar with the different types of licenses, and attribute/use the image properly.  To help you figure out the licenses, see tldrLegal, a site that uses “plain English” to explain open-source licenses, a link shared with us by our blog contributor John Drummond for our links post last week.

I have a few suggestions on where to find images, and some other things you can do to make your Web content come alive with images:

  • Screen captures are a good way to illustrate or give instructions on how to do something.
  • Take the photo yourself or hire a photographer.  If you take the photo of something yourself, you own it, and can use it how you see fit.  Keep in mind, though, that if you take photographs of copyrighted material (like a painting), additional copyright rules apply.
  • If you’re willing to put in the time and have some design abilities, you can make an image with Adobe Illustrator.  Although Illustrator has a bit of a learning curve, there are lots of nifty tutorials available online if you’re willing to learn.
  • A still of a film or a famous photograph or work of art: Fair use is still a fuzzy area when it comes to copyright and education.  If you’re using an image for educational purposes, you may be able to use it under fair use. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) has information about film and tv clips and images used for education.  Here’s a recent news item from their website, which may be of use when it comes to fair use. If you choose this option, be sure to educate yourself on fair use policies for how you’re using the image.
  • Images unrestricted by copyright or under a Creative Commons license. As I mentioned above, CC works are a great option when you need an image but none of the other above options works.

Resources for Finding Copyright-Free or CC Licensed Images

Creative Commons has a search function for finding CC-licensed works via other Web search engines. You can search several collections of online media (not just images, but all types of “works”) including Wikimedia Commons, Flickr, and YouTube.

The United States Library of Congress has a large part of their collection of photographs, prints, and drawings available digitally. Many of them don’t have copyright restrictions, but you should make sure to double-check specific images for the details. (For example, if it’s an image from a particular archive, they may ask that you link back to the image and provide attribution for it.)  Browsing the collections can help you find something if you don’t have a particular idea in mind.

W&M Resources for Copyright Info

Keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.  If you have doubts about whether an image follows copyright at W&M, you can always contact the College’s legal services with questions.  Arts Librarian Kathleen DeLaurenti at W&M also periodically offers copyright workshops at Swem Library, so she’s also a good person to contact with questions. If you’re not at W&M, your institution probably has an office for legal services or attorney you can contact.

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.