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How to source copyright-free photographs

Media degrees receive a lot of criticism in the press these days, and much of it is deserved. Yet it was a HND in Communications that first encouraged me to step outside the classroom and start taking photographs on a digital camera as a teenager, subsequently leading me to major in video production at university. I quickly became the unofficial custodianship of the company-owned digital camera in the two jobs I held between graduating and dedicating my career to G75 Media, which included a seven-year stint as a full-time property journalist.

Today, I have thirty years of photography experience, with an expert eye for framing and composition. This instinctive expertise was honed to perfection during the 11 years I ran G75 Images as a property photography sideline to G75 Media’s copywriting and content production business. I reluctantly closed G75 Images down following run-ins with clients who seemed to think paying for photography services was optional. And in one respect, they’re right – free images are widely available across the internet. You just need to know where to look.

Aren’t free images just a Google search away?

It’s a common misapprehension that pictures found through search engines are free to reuse. In fact, the penalties for infringing a copyrighted image (whether or not it shows up in normal results) may be punitive. If you want to source copyright-free photographs, there are specific avenues you’ll need to go down, some of which require delicate navigation. This is why I routinely offer to source and supply images to G75 Media’s copywriting and journalism clients, leveraging my expertise to simplify matters for them while ensuring the copy I write is accompanied by suitably dynamic visuals.

In many cases, the photographs I supply were taken by myself, sourced from my vast trove of digital photography. The photo accompanying this article was taken a few years ago during a travel journalism trip to the Netherlands. I could have subsequently provided a client with this quintessentially Dutch scene alongside an original piece of writing, though as yet I haven’t had the opportunity to write about Zaandam, clogs or bicycles. Alternatively, I could have simply searched for images in one of the curated collections of copyright-free photographs online.

Why would photography be free?

It’s a good question. Photography is an artform just like any other, and photographers have bills to pay just like the rest of us. These are some of the reasons why artists might share Creative Commons Zero (CC0) images online, effectively opting out of any right to royalties or accreditation:

  1. To build their reputation, in preparation for selling pictures later.
  2. They view taking photographs as a hobby rather than an income stream.
  3. They have a passion for a particular subject, which they’re keen to share with others.
  4. They don’t feel the images are sufficiently high-quality or high-resolution to be saleable.
  5. Their photographs complement another income stream (such as painting or graphic design).

How do I source copyright-free photographs?

Firstly, it’s advisable to look beyond search engines. There is a way to find CC0 licensed images on Bing or DuckDuckGo, but it’s not intuitive. Taking Google as an example, it involves going into the Images > Tools > Usage Rights submenu before choosing Creative Commons licenses. This tends to reveal visuals from a handful of sources such as Wikimedia, but it will also display photos with copyright details clearly displayed in the photo title and summary. In these instances, you can reproduce the photo without paying, but you’ll have to credit the photographer in whatever form they request every time you use the photo.

More unambiguous collections of CC0 images are hosted on websites which are specifically focused on helping people source copyright-free photographs. There are numerous examples of websites where the default setting involves images suitable for reproduction and republication with no attribution or acknowledgement, including FreeImages and Stockvault. Be aware that some sites (such as Unsplash) intersperse CC0 image results and their own paid shots, which require either a subscription or one-off fees. This replicates the model of paid photography websites including Getty Images and Shutterstock, which charge a fee for each reproduction or (in some cases) allow you to purchase exclusive copyright to individual shots.

If all this sounds too complicated (and it does take a while to master), you could always ask a freelance copywriter to source copyright-free photographs as part of their contract. It’s something G75 Media routinely does, and we’d be delighted to discuss this as part of any quote. Get in touch to discuss how we can meet your editorial and photography needs.