Resource roundup: free and not so free images

We all have the problem: the need for images to illustrate an article, report, or paper. It's never easy. I've held off writing things simply because I didn't want to face the work involved in getting the right images licensed.

Things are changing very fast in the world of research and publication. As recently as 2004, when I co-authored a book on the first satellites (The First Space Race, Texas A&M) the publisher needed high-quality, black-and-white prints of every photograph used. This led me into the world of differing rules and permissions for different agencies. The Naval Research Laboratory loved the book ideas and gave me anything I wanted, free. The National Air and Space Museum had a process of forms and fees that was kind of a headache. Other agencies fell in between. (In this particular case, I didn't find a single private corporation that was useful. Either they didn't have archives of old images any more, or no one knew where to look or who to talk to, and I had to work around that in selecting the final set of images for the book.)

Now many publishers can use (or, often, require) high-quality digital images. Other still need the prints. Either way, the Internet age makes it easier every year to find what you need.

That can be a little tricky, because there's a pitfall here: the common belief that everything on the web can be reused. We all know it's not that simple, but the temptation is always there. I know people (not in NASW) who invoke "Fair Use" as a mantra for using anything they find on the web, but, without getting into copyright law (which I'm not qualified to discuss anyway), it's safe just to go with the general rule that anything commercial — anything you are getting paid for — isn't covered by this exemption.

So how do we accomplish our goals within the rules? Where can we find images that are genuinely free?

Images on U.S. government sites are normally free for use (unless the source says the image is copyrighted/restricted). The versions found on the web may or may not be good enough for publication, or you may be working with a publisher who still needs prints of photographs. That's when the solution still involves reading the individual agency's policies for requesting what you need, and there are often still fees involved for getting prints.

There are four major web sources for images you can reuse without getting specific permission. There are countless others, but if an image archive is posted by a private user, you don't always know whether it's appropriate for the images to be there in the first place. It's easy for source information and restrictions to become "detached" from images as they float through the web world.

The Big Four

  1. On Google, the number of images available is uncountable, but many are still restricted when it comes to commercial use. You can use images found by clicking on Advanced Image Search at and selecting the "Strict Filtering" option for images "labeled for commercial reuse."

  2. Images on Flickr Commons are likewise automatically okay for commercial use, but those from other areas of Flickr are not.

  3. iStockphoto images can be used within limits. Those limitations are specified in the Content License Agreement. It's a little complicated. The license agreement states, "You may not use the Content in products for resale, license or other distribution," and you must add the credit line "©'s Member Name." It's limiting (and confusing) enough that I never use them.

  4. Then we have Wikimedia. Images on Wikimedia Commons are available "under various free culture licenses." That means, as the site says, that you need to check the media description page concerning the license of each specific image before using.

(Another site often mentioned is SXC, but when you search it and specify only images that are not restricted, the results it gives you are from iStockphoto.)

Finally, those images you got with or through a software program are not necessarily yours to do with as you like. Microsoft Office steers you to a website written by Bill Gates' attorneys (who tell you, among other things, that use of Mr. Gates' likeness is strictly prohibited). It says that the clip art provided with Microsoft programs can't be used to create a logo, advertise a business, illustrate a book, or do anything else commercial. It adds, "Microsoft licenses artwork from third parties and cannot grant permission for you to redistribute the artwork...our Clip Art partners at Office Online provide a variety of images you can license." See .

It's easier than ever before to find images, but that doesn't mean the process is problem-free. It is, however, a lot more workable than in the ancient days of the early 21st Century, when we still squinted at rows of thumbnails. To some writers far younger than I, that wasn't much advanced beyond images scratched on cave walls. But you still need to consider the rights of the person who owns the cave.

Thanks to several people who posted insights and experiences on the NASW-Talk thread on this topic.

Matt Bille

Matt Bille is a freelance space and science writer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when he's not doing his day job researching government policy for a major consulting firm. He has written three books, including the well-reviewed history, The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites (Texas A&M, 2004), along with articles and papers on space policy, zoology, and other topics. His locale on the web is

Sep. 29, 2009


Additional Image Resources
posted on behalf of Jack Williams

I have used all of these sources for my latest book, The AMS Weather Book, and when I was editor of the weather section. In both cases we had to be extremely careful of copyright. These are all government or government-funded sources. In general, U.S. government photos are public use, i.e. they are not copyrighted.

For both the book and USAT, I believed that both good journalism and good manners call for full credit for photos and other images. In the book we followed the convention that if an organization owned the photo, we gave the organization's name first and then the photographer's name.

The FEMA Disaster Photo Library

This is a huge library that you can easily search for photos connected with events that led to a declared disaster. Most, especially in the late few years are available in high resolution. We use FEMA photos as the 14x11-inch, double-truck photo opening pages for three chapters ... All of those that I considered had all of the information needed to write good captions.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Digital Image Library

As the name says, this site has video as well as still photos on atmospheric and solar science topics. Most are high resolution. UCAR is funded, at least in part by the NSF, and the photos are free for listed use. You also need to ask permission. I forget the details for the allowed uses, but as I recall the are "educational" in a wide enough sense to allow for use in a trade book. For us, obtaining permission was easy. Most of the photos are high res and we used UCAR images for three of our chapter-opening double trucks.

The U.S. Antarctic Program Antarctic Photo Library

This is a great and ever-growing source of photos of scientists at work, wildlife, stations, historical, and scenery in Antarctica. We used two from this source for double-truck chapter openings in the AMS Weather Book. My only complaint is that the NSF doesn't have a separate photo library for its work in the Arctic.

The NSF's Multimedia does have some Arctic research as part of its collection from several fields that the NSF supports. The library has still images as well as video and audio files.

We obtained a good double-truck of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park to use as a chapter opening from the Yellowstone National Park Digital Slide File.

I suspect, but don't know, that Web sites of other National Parks might also have free, high-res photos.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photo library has scores of images from its oceanic and atmospheric works, including scores of historic images. Many images are high resolution ... but in general they are not as high quality as those in the libraries above since most were taken by scientists, ship crew members, technicians and other non-professional photographers. But, these can be just right for some uses. For instance in the AMS Weather Book we use a 3.5 x 5 inch photo of the eyewall of Hurricane Katrina as seen from inside it eye. It was taken by the pilot of a NOAA P-3 as it flew through Katrina's eye when it was a category 5 storm.

But, the NOAA library is the place to go for photos of 19th century Coast and Geodetic Survey ships, killer whales, kites used to observe the upper air, and much more.

I've also found the NOAA public affairs folks very helpful for obtaining images such as high-res versions of satellite images.

Jack Williams
Science Writer - Book author
specializing in:
Weather, climate, polar regions
Mobile: +1 571 201-5372

Drexel University online

ASU Earth and Space Journalism Fellowship