A public domain image is defined as a photo, clip art or vector whose copyright has expired or never existed in the first place. These images can be used by almost anyone for personal and commercial purposes. There are three ways that public domain images occur:
- The image is assigned to the public domain through a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license or similar release
- The image is not copyrightable
- The copyright for the image has expired
Museums, libraries and photographers sick of “traditional” stock photos have released thousands of public domain images online, making them more easily available to the public and (yep!) that means designers, too. In this article, we’ve compiled a list of websites curating free public domain images and high quality stock photography that can be freely used by anyone worldwide.
1. Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons is one of the largest public domain images resources. Most of images can be used freely, but some of the images have certain restrictions. You can read more information about that here.
Please note that Wikimedia Commons does not guarantee the correctness of the licensing for each image, so make sure to triple-check the license tag for each individual image
Unsplash is made up of a collective of photographers who were sick of “traditional” stock imagery, so they decided to offer their own high-resolution images for free. All photos on the site can be copied, modified and distributed (including for commercial purposes) under CC0, without you having to ask permission or provide attribution.
Read more about their terms here.
3. Flickr Commons
Worldwide, archives and libraries partner with FlickrCommons and contribute their own public domain images. It’s a great resource for finding free public domain images from all over the world, not just from the United States. FlickrCommons’ images contain no known copyright restrictions, but (as always) it’s not a guarantee—so do your research.
Read about their terms here.
4. Public Domain Pictures
Public Domain Pictures includes lots of high-quality free public domain images, although some photos are only available with a premium membership to the site.
Be sure to check the license listed on each individual photo, since some require that your credit the author (not great for commercial designs). You’ll also want to be sure that a release was obtained by the author or yourself for images of people or property.
Magdeline is another high-quality resource for free stock photography that doesn’t look like stock. Use the right-hand column to browse categories (nature, people, food, etc) or search by dominant color, which is ideal when you’re looking for cohesiveness in your design!
Be sure to filter down to CC0 licensed images, since some photos do require attribution.
6. Old Book Illustrations
Old Book Illustrations offers a really nice collection of public domain illustrations scanned from old books and vector illustrations that can be modified and distributed for both personal and commercial projects. Perfect to add some vintage appeal, or if you’re interested in joining in the resurgence of Victorian design.
Read about their terms here.
7. ISO Republic
ISO Republic is another free stock photo website that totes the tagline, “free and premium stock photos.” The site offers more than 500 free photos, with an ever-growing image library. All images are available for both personal and commercial use, without the need for attribution.
You can read their full terms here.
8. Public Domain Vectors
Public Domain Vectors has a massive collection of public domain vectors that are available to download in SVG, AI and EPS formats. All images are licensed under CC0.
9. 1 Million Free Pictures
The author of 1 Million Free Pictures is the original creator of all of the photos on this site and has released them all into the public domain. You can search through galleries curated by subject, style, purpose and more. Please note that no releases have been obtained for the images that contain people, works of art, property or trademarks—so you will need to be wary of using those types of images.
Read more about their terms here.
10. Free Stock Photos
Free Stock Photos’ collection of stock photos and clip art contains both public domain images and images with other licenses, so make sure to check the license of each image.
You can read more about their licenses and policies here.
11. Jay Mantri
Inspired by Unsplash, professional photographer Jay Mantri created his own site filled with stunning and scenic public domain images from around the world. All are uploaded under the CC0 license and don’t require attribution.
12. Realistic Shots
Realistic Shots is just that… a collection of free stock photography that looks like anything but stock. All images are free to use anyway you please and every week, seven new photos are added. All images are under the CC0 license.
13. Startup Stock Photos
Startup Stock Photos finds its niche with a collection of hi-res public domain images focused on hip office spaces, relaxed work environments, creative brainstorms and (of course) plenty of technology. All images are under the CC0 license.
14. The British Library
The British Library drummed up buzz a few years ago when they released 1 million images into the public domain. Scanned from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books, the collection (hosted on Flickr) is spectacular for any designer looking for a vintage flourish. Click over to the albums for curated images of everything from typography and decorative paper to instruments and animals.
All images are within the public domain.
15. The Public Domain Review
The Public Domain Review is a well-curated selection of public domain photos, illustrations, art, audio, films and texts. Founded back in 2011, it’s become an ever-growing community of history enthusiasts. Browse their collections or check out their monthly Curator’s Choice for a special guest post that celebrates lesser known parts of history.
All images are within the public domain. See their current image resources here.
Viintage hosts thousands of inspiring public domain images from the past, including art posters and advertisements that have plenty of potential to be upcycled into something new.
17. Public Domain Archive
Headed up by a couple in Athens, GA, the Public Domain Archive is a labor of love that compiles high-quality public domain images from across the web into one giant repository. The collection includes both vintage and contemporary public domain images.
JÉSHOOTS is filled with free stock photography taken by Jan Vašek under the CC0 license. The images are divided up into different topic categories, including tech devices, cities and nature to make it easy to find exactly what you’re looking for.
DesignerPics.com was created by Indian designer, Jeshu John, who found himself struggling to find quality free photographs. All images were taken by him, are permitted for commercial use and require no attribution.
You can read about his terms here.
Pixabay is made up of a community of photographers that have uploaded a huge collection of high quality public domain photos, illustrations, vectors and videos released under CC0. You can browse by photographer, type of camera and “Editor’s Choice”. Even better, you can filter by orientation, category, size and color.
Everystockphoto.com is a free stock photo search engine that lets you filter for public domain image licenses. It runs its searches through a number of reputable public domain image websites including Flickr, NASA, Wikimedia and more. Be sure to double check each photo’s license by clicking on the license icon below and to the left of the photos.
22. Negative Space
Negative Space is another contemporary hi-res photo site that releases all of their images into the public domain. You can filter by category, color and (most interestingly) by copy space—ideal for when you need an image for web design!
23. Death to Stock Photo
Every week, Death to Stock Photo emails out themed photo packs for you to download for free. The images are all available to use as you please. If you’re interested in supporting the photographers, you can sign up for their Premium membership for $15/month.
You can read more about their terms here.
Looking for free photos that are out of this world? SpaceX has released thousands of photos on Flickr from their missions. Best of all, they’re all in the public domain.
25. Foodies Feed
Working on a restaurant design? Look no further than Foodies Feed—a collection of free food images that (thankfully) look nothing like the stiff, fake food stock photography you’re used to seeing. Their photos feature everything from baristas and back of the house coking to carefully arranged meals and produce. All images are available for commercial use.
Read about their terms here.
26. Fancy Crave
Two new images are added every day to Fancy Crave’s ever-growing collection of free stock photos. Their mission is simple: help photographers be discovers and help the creative community at large with quality photography. All of the photos are high resolution and curated by professional photographer, Igor Ovsyannykov. The images are free of copyright restrictions under CC0.
27. The Pic Pac
While Pic Pac photo packs aren’t necessarily free, they’re “Pay What You Want” so you can place whatever value you’d like on them. A new themes photo pack is release every Monday for purchase. All of the images are part of the public domain (CC0).
28. Creative Vix
Creative Vix offers a large collection of photos for personal and commercial use. All images uploaded are licensed under CC0 (you can read more here) and are only restricted based on identifiable people, who can not be featured in a bad light or in a way they may find offensive.
29. Barn Images
Barn Images was launched by two Latvian photographers as a way to help redefine traditional stock photography, proudly naming their images “non-stock”. New public domain images are added every weekday and everything on the site is available for commercial use (read about their license here).
For a fee, you can join their Premium Membership to receive curated photo packs and access to a dropbox filled with 1,000+ high res photos.
30. Snapwire Snaps
Snapwire is a platform that connects photographers with companies in need of custom photography, but (lucky for us!) they also offer a free stock photo collection through Snapwire Snaps. Every week, seven new photos are added to this collection under the CC0 license and are labeled as such.
Free public domain images are an important cultural resource for everyone. But when using them as a designer you must be extremely vigilant about double-checking the license and terms of each of your desired images.
Some of these free public domain image websites will take time to look through and research properly, but there’s a lot of amazing images in them that are worth finding. Just remember to keep these things in mind when sourcing images:
- Does the license of the image allow you to use/distribute it in the way that you intend?
- Is the quality of this image suitable for both print and web uses?
- Are these images defined as public domain by images by the copyright laws of both countries that my client and I are citizens of?
- Have I double checked that this image is truly in the public domain? (run it through a search engine before using it.)
- Does this image include trademarks, products, property, works of art or people? If so make sure that a release has been obtained or that you obtain one yourself.
The laws regarding public domain images are different in every country, so it’s also important to be certain it’s a public domain image in both your country and the country that your client is a citizen of. Remember that some photos may require a model or property release. And never assume that a shiny “Free Download” button is a blank check.
Public domain images can be a gray legal area, and that’s why some designers prefer to use licensed stock imagery as a safer and more convenient alternative. If you do use a free public domain image commercially, you may want to check with a trademark/copyright attorney before doing so. However if you do your research properly, you can find some great free public domain images to use in your projects.
Additional public domain resources
Here are two resources that will help you in your search for public domain images:
And here’s some helpful articles to clarify more about image licensing and stock:
- A field guide to stock image licenses (and how to protect yourself)
- Stock it to Me: How to handle stock images properly
- 3 common image licensing mistakes to avoid
- Your resource guide for third party imagery
- A how-to on finding, using and declaring stock
- 4 things you need to know about stock images