picture frame

Finding images for your digital or print project can seem like a daunting task. You need an image that fills the allotted space, reinforces your message, looks good, and toughest of all, fits the budget. Since most do-gooder’s photo budgets are non-existent, you might think your odds of finding the right image are zero to none.

Don’t sweat it—the internet provides. There are dozens of sites with free-to-use or cheap images, most with smart keyword searching to help winnow your choices. Plus, if you’re a nonprofit or philanthropic organization, your work is likely non-commercial, opening up a larger library of images to choose from.

Before you go on the hunt, it’s important to first understand licensing, model releases, and attribution.


Always check the licensing terms of any image you’d like to use. Make sure you read up on the different types of Creative Commons licensing, one of the most common ways for labeling free images for reuse. Public domain (a.k.a. “really old”) and royalty free images (i.e., pay once and use it forever) are also worth considering.

Unless you are given explicit, written permission, never use a copyrighted image. If discovered, best case you’ll be asked to remove the image. Worst case, you’ll hear from a lawyer. It’s better to just not go there.

Model Releases

Associating someone or something (like a product) with your organization, through use of their photo, in a way that implies endorsement could come back to bite you. Particularly if your organization works on controversial issues or gets deep in the political trenches, you’ll want to secure model releases.

If you can’t identify the person shown in the photo, if it was taken in a public place, or if you’re using it in an editorial or satirical way, you’re probably okay without a release. This can be a very sticky area. It’s up to your organization (and its lawyers) to determine exactly what policies it will follow. Many stock photography sites guarantee their model releases.


Always give credit—and a link if possible—where credit is due. Even when not required, it’s guaranteed good karma to give attribution to an artist or photographer. It’s also an easy way to thank someone who has given their creativity to you for free, and lets them see where their work has been appreciated and used.

Now to the fun part: The hunt!

Sites for free images:

  • Flickr Advanced Search – With more 4 billion images as of 2009, you’re bound to find an image or fifty on Flickr. Great for photos from real life. Be extra diligent about usage rights, as many of Flickr’s users copyright their photos. When in doubt, contact the photographer. In your search, be sure to click the box to “Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content.”
  • Google Advanced Search – Good ol’ Google. Qualify your search by picking “labeled for reuse” under “Usage Rights.”
  • Wikimedia Commons – Over 7 million free images, most in the public domain. However, since it’s a wiki-based site, you’re relying on the person who uploaded the photo to have gotten the usage rights right.
  • denisok – Thousands of images on transparent background, which are especially useful for Powerpoints or when you need to add an object to a scene. The site search is mediocre, so bring patience along on your hunt.
  • stock.xchng – Though the keyword quality could be better, their nearly 400,000 stock photos are worth browsing if you’ve come up empty elsewhere. Caution: the site may try to tempt you with pay-images from partner sites.
  • Public Domain Sherpa – Has an extensive list of mostly government sites with public domain photos. Useful for historical, cultural, and military images.

Sites if you have a little budget:

  • New York Public Library Digital Gallery – Fascinating selection of historic images. Nonprofits and anyone using the images for anything beyond personal or research uses should pay a small usage fee.
  • iStockphoto – Get your cheap, royalty-free stock photos and vector art here. Depending on image size and the photographer’s clout, images run between 1 and 70 credits, with credits costing about $1 each.
  • Shutterstock – Their subscription service is perfect for big projects that need lots of high-resolution images, like a website redesign or annual report. Some images don’t come with model releases, so check the licensing carefully.

(image courtesy Flickr user dj badly, Creative Commons)
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Lauren Girardin is LightBox Collaborative’s tactical curator, helping clients strategically apply their branding and messaging in interactive venues like websites, presentations, and social media. She’s currently selecting hundreds of photos for a family foundation website.