Tips on Finding Great Images for Free

Navigating public domain and Creative Commons licenses is easier than you think

Eunice Park
Creators Hub
Published in
5 min readFeb 4, 2021


Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Disclaimer: The content we provide here is for general informational purposes only. It is not legal advice, which involves an attorney applying the law to a person’s individual circumstances. If you need legal advice, please consult with an attorney.

Publishing your stories online doesn’t just end with the final punctuation mark and hitting publish. Don’t we all wish? You also need to consider the complete package of how your story will be previewed as it travels across various surfaces — all before anyone clicks to read. One major component of this process is choosing the right combination of image and title to draw attention to your story, which could mean bringing in a potential reader who might have otherwise scrolled past. But finding the right photo or image is hard!

One way in which Medium’s editorial producers support our editorial team is selecting images as part of the publishing process — our team understands this struggle intimately. When you’re dealing with images, the selection process, at times, can feel daunting due to copyright laws and permissions. We are lucky to benefit from access to a few paid stock and newswire photo sites, but some of our most solid finds have actually come from the public domain or licensed for free use under Creative Commons.

While Medium has an Unsplash integration that allows you to access and add free stock photos directly while writing your post, there are several other resources you can rely on to find a diverse range of images.

Creative Commons

Modern creators may also intentionally place their work into the public domain using a resource such as Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that organizes free and easy-to-use copyright licenses for creators to attach to their works and outline permissions for use with varying conditions. For example, photographers can upload their work to a platform like Flickr or Wikipedia and choose a simple, straightforward license to accompany their work and indicate its usage permissions.

I’ve personally found Flickr to be a great additional resource to find all kinds of images, with the appropriate Creative Commons license. After executing an image search, click the “Any license” dropdown and filter out your search results with your intended use. Once you select an image, make sure to check out the image’s specific rights to confirm which Creative Commons license its use falls under. From there, review the conditions before proceeding — some common terms are ensuring attribution, no image altering, or in some cases, ensuring that it is not used for commercial purposes. Remember, it’s important to specifically consider the image you are using, how you are using it within the context of your own work, and to respect the permissions that the copyright holder has set for that specific image. If you don’t know or can’t tell what permissions were set by the copyright holder for a specific image, then it’s best to consult with your attorney or reach out to the copyright holder to confirm its permissions.

Here is an example search of my search for “flowers” photos that can be used commercially.

If you’re into reading up on rights uses like me, I’ll occasionally click through to read the summary of the Creative Commons license I’m using, like CC BY 2.0 or even CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 (this one is fun). Check out the Creative Commons FAQ as well here.

Images published in 1925 and before

Some creative works fall into this public domain category, which essentially means the work is not protected by copyright laws for various reasons. Copyrights can be forfeited, waived, or expire. For example, as of January 1, 2021 in the U.S., photos that were originally published in 1925 or earlier could now have entered the public domain.

Consider looking into some historical deep cuts for your lede image in the Library of Congress Free to Use database.

Note: A public domain image may still contain currently copyrighted materials if it’s mixed with another image or other intellectual property such as another party’s trademarks. Keep that in mind for permissions and your risk assessment for using the image in your story. If it’s not clear, consult with your attorney.

Fair use

Depending on the context or topic of your story, some copyrighted images — even if you don’t have permission or the image is not in the public domain — may be considered acceptable to use under fair use.

We’re not going to get into the topic further here because the concept is nuanced, but there are other informational guides that may help you in better understanding fair use. The Digital Media Law Project and Stanford University’s Copyright & Fair Use overview provide solid overviews. Note that fair use does not mean free use — there is always a risk to be assessed with using an image that you did not have permission to use, so make the proper consultations in assessing risk and proceeding with usage for your particular use case.

For more information on how Medium responds to allegations of unintended use of copyright, check out Medium’s Help Center.

Some general guidance

Ultimately, when selecting an image, make sure you’re getting permissions or follow the appropriate attribution best practices under Creative Commons or public domain. The following set of questions may help in figuring out if you can use the image:

  • Is the photo or image owned by an individual or company? If so, get permission from whoever created or owns the photo or image or before using it.
  • If you’re trying to track down an image owner to contact, try a reverse image search to see if the image has been published elsewhere online. This can help you identify who the original creator or intellectual property (IP) owner might be so you can reach out for permission.
  • If the photo or image is licensed under Creative Commons, are there any stipulations for its use?
  • While crediting public domain isn’t required, I generally find it my personal best practice to do so and pay it forward to other creators or past historical works. Give credit where credit is due!
  • If you don’t have permission or can’t find the copyright owner, would the way you’re planning on using the image be considered a strong case for fair use?

Happy searching!

Additional free photo resources