As an artist, probably the last thing you want to think about when searching for reference photos is intellectual property law. Sure, it sounds sexy, but truth be told, the subject can be a little dry.
So, when you want to find free photo references to use as inspiration for your next art piece, what do you do? In the United States, copyright law states that,
To be copyrightable, a derivative work must be different enough from the original to be regarded as a new work or must contain a substantial amount of new material. Making minor changes or additions of little substance to a preexisting work will not qualify the work as a new version for copyright purposes. The new material must be original and copyrightable in itself. (Source)
In other words, if you just pick a photo at random, you’ll have to do quite a bit of work with it to make sure you’re not stepping on the artist’s toes and infringing on his or her rights.
Fortunately, there are many resources out there that have loads of free images with very flexible licenses, allowing you to use them without the hair-pulling limitations and unknowns involved with other types of images found online.
Since this best-of list was first published, many more amazing sites have popped up offering free images for artists, so this post has been updated with new ones, and up-to-date information. Twelve? Schmelve.
550,000+ images | Commercial use, no attribution
There are so many terrific photos on this site it’s hard to believe they’re free. Click the little magnifying glass icon on the left-hand side for some categories and the ability to search by keyword. Terrific site all around.
1,400,000+ images | Commercial use, no attribution
This website is a tremendous resource for free stock images, vectors and even video through a wide range of categories. It also has a clean and intuitive browsing experience. There are sponsored images from Shutterstock in the mix, as well. It’s a fair trade off, since the limited ads really make for a nice look.
335,000,000+ images | Licenses vary
Fotor pulls from the Flickr Creative Commons library (see below) to populate its site with some excellent image resources. You can browse by license type, and the navigating experience might be a little better than on Flickr itself.
350,000,000+ images | Licenses vary
You might have heard of this site, as it’s freaking massive. If you looked at two of these creative commons images every second for an entire year, you’d still have at least two more years to go, and that’s if nobody uploaded during that time. Basically by the time you finished our alien overlords would stop changing the water in your brain-in-a-jar and let you expire. The downside to the site is finding only the highest quality images. You can browse images by license here.
~500 images | Commercial use, no attribution
What this photo collection lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. With an emphasis on eye-catching quirkiness, you’re likely to find something that grabs your attention.
40,000+ images | Commercial use, no attribution
Pexels curates images from other free photo sites, and gets fresh images uploaded to their site, as well. It features a clean interface, doesn’t require registration, and features some terrific images (and video).
390,000+ images | Commercial use, no attribution
Formerly known as stock.xchng, this site was bought out by Getty images, so you’ll notice up-sell links to their other, paid sites. If you stick to the main site, though, you can find lots of gems for your art.
35,000+ images | Commercial use, no attribution
Here’s another clean and easy-to-navigate free image site, with the ability to add images to a favorites collection, search and more. Sweet!
125,000+ images | Licenses vary
Not all of the images here are licensed for commercial use, but many are, and at the time of this writing, at least, none require attribution, although it’s always nice to give a shout-out to a fellow artist.
1,000+ images | Commercial use, no attribution
Want some classic inspiration? These images are all in the public domain, and thus free of copyright restrictions, according to the website. You can browse these vintage photos linearly, or you can go to this page to quickly view them as thumbnails. It’s a fun and potentially useful collection to be sure.
4,400,000+ images | Licenses vary
As the site says, “Founded by Time Inc in 1936, LIFE magazine is the visual chronicle of the ‘American century.’” There is a ton of inspiration to be found here. Just make sure to look on each image’s details page for the “Usage” tag for licensing details.
100+ images | Licenses vary
Here’s a wonderful little niche site with a wide range of classic illustrations. Find something outside the norm here.
1,000+ images | Commercial use, some attribution
This site has a relaxed feel to it, is searchable by category and keyword, and offers many free stock photos. Many of them have a wildlife/natural feel to them, so if that’s what you’re looking for, check it out. They have other categories as well, though at the moment they’re not as fleshed out. There are two license types – public domain and attribution required – and you can filter pictures based on those criteria. Overall it’s a very useful resource.
350,000+ images | Commercial use, no attribution
Around since 1996, Morguefile is another excellent resource for free reference images. The quality of the photography isn’t as stellar in general as some of the others on this list, but it’s worth a look, for sure.
18,000+ images | Commercial use, attribution required
By now you should have found some good free image resources. If not, here are some more, including content exclusive to Freeimages.co.uk.
29,000,000+ images | Licenses vary
Everystockphoto is a fantastic resource for finding free stock images. It searches millions of images across a range of websites and is a great place to start your search for artistic inspiration. You can search art by license type, as well.
Phew! That’s it for now. If you didn’t find any inspiring images in that group, unfortunately I can’t help you.