Speak Eagle

A List of (Truly) Free Photo Websites

A few weeks ago, one of the students at the college where I teach turned in her final paper. Like I usually do, I checked the sources included in her bibliography and my mouth dropped open. She had taken her 5 main points directly from a website on the Internet.  In keeping with school policy, I gave the paper an F and put the plagiarism offense in the student’s official file at the college. Three plagiarism strikes and you’re expelled.

I spoke firmly with my student about the importance of honesty, integrity, citing her sources, and creating original work.  

And then I went to my mailbox to get my mail.


I flipped through the usual junk ads and utility bills, but then saw an official envelope addressed to me.  It was from a photography site on the web. I took out the letter, and as I scanned it, I seriously felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach.

They had proof that I had used one of their photographs without a license on one of my blog posts two years ago.  In order to settle out of court, they wanted me to pay them a hefty fine!  What?  There must be a million bloggers out there who use Google Images.  How did they even find me? 

I ran inside, turned on my computer, and found the photo. It was a photo of the entrance to a subway station in New York City.  I can remember searching Google Images, finding it and copying it. It didn’t perfectly illustrate my blog post, but it was good enough. However, I must not have clicked far enough to see that the photo was taken by a professional photographer and was offered on a professional photo site. 

Of course, I immediately deleted it along with every other photo in every blog post for the past 3 years that also might be in question. Whew. Crisis averted.

And then I read the letter fully. “Deleting the photo does not release you from liability.”

I contacted Shawna Hilleary, my intellectual property attorney (who I have in case anybody ever plagiarizes my stuff) and she said I was indeed liable. In fact, she told me she has gotten over 25k for a client whose image was used illegally!

25k? Suddenly my fine didn’t sound so bad. But it was still a lot. And I still had to tell my husband about it.

I called Brian at work immediately.  He didn’t shame me, but offered to send me a list of free photo websites. 

I was incredulous.  “You have a list of free photo websites?” 

I was temped to blame him because of the shame I felt, but I stopped short. (Interesting how we’re temped to shame others when we feel shame, isn’t it?)

I called the photo company and thankfully was able to negotiate only paying a portion of the fine.  When I checked my receipt on PayPal, it came from PicScout.com. Upon further investigation, I discovered that this company trolls the web on behalf of photography sites looking for unauthorized uses of photographs and enforces compliance with licensing regulations.  Eek.

Don’t be like me. Don’t copy photos from Google Images and use them on your website or blog.  Understand that “Royalty-free” does not mean the photo is free.  Pay the appropriate licensing fees if you really want to use a photo, and never assume no one will see it.

If you want great, truly free photos, check out this list below. (But still be sure to always attribute the photo to the photographer and the website where you found it under the photo or at the bottom of your blog post.)

Library of Congress – https://www.loc.gov/index.html

Pic Jumbo – https://picjumbo.com/

Flickr Creative Commons – https://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/by-2.0/ 

New Old Stock – https://nos.twnsnd.co/

Super Famous – https://superfamous.com/

Gratisography – https://www.gratisography.com/

Jay Mantri – https://jaymantri.com/

Public Domain Archive – https://publicdomainarchive.com/

Picography – https://picography.co/

Magdeleine – https://magdeleine.co/browse/ (need attribution)

Plagiarism is a serious offense. I gave my student the chance to write her paper over, but in the world of digital photography, there are no second chances. One strike and you’re left writing a blog post about how your life now serves as a warning to others.

And if you want a great photo of the entrance to a subway station, I can tell you which one NOT to use without paying for it.  In fact, it would be cheaper to fly to New York and take one yourself.

3 thoughts on “A List of (Truly) Free Photo Websites”

  1. Heidi, Ironically, I remember you visiting a church. It was in California I think. There was information there about programs and ministries at that church. If I have any of these facts right, there was a picture of you, Brian and a couple of your kids on the flier. Wish you could have counted that as intellectual property and received some moola!!!

    1. You’re right, Jenny! The funniest thing about that the use of that picture is that it was for an organization that helps the homeless. And it was our family’s Christmas photo that we just send out to our friends. Not even sure how an organization on the other side of the country got a hold of it! In any case, they must’ve thought our family looked like poster children for their homeless ministry. I’m sure they do good work and I didn’t have the heart to sue them, though I’m sure I could have!

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