Photograph of a woman model in a strained handstand, shown upside-down

In an ideal world, every website would entirely consist of its own, original content. But back in the real world, deadlines and budgets rarely make that possible. Web designers and developers find themselves under increasing pressure to illustrate pages with diminished art budgets, even as they try to avoid bland stock photography. Completely free images, whether used for comps or the final product, are usually associated with poor quality, but that’s no longer necessarily true… so long as you know how and where to look.

Several sites offer high-quality images licensed under royalty-free Creative Commons or public domain conditions:

public domain archive

Beautiful public domain images shot and curated by Matt Hobbs. Screenshot of Public Domain Archive site


Search for whatever subject you’re interested in. Flickr’s initial results will include both Creative Commons and rights-reserved work; filter the results by clicking on Advanced Search in the top right corner and choosing Only search Creative Commons-licensed content in the screen that appears. (You can also filter results by type of work and date taken). Flickr Creative Commons search options

Click on Search at the bottom of the page. The results will now be exclusively Creative Commons. You may wish to switch from Relevant to Interesting in the top left corner of the page, weighting the results towards highly-rated images, at the cost of slightly broadening the search.

You can copy and use any of the images shown, pursuant to their individual conditions (see Important Note, below).


Search for your subject at Google Images. Click on the gear in the top right corner of the page and choose Advanced Search from the drop-down menu. On the page that appears, switch Usage Rights from Not filtered by license to an appropriate setting, then click on the Advanced Search button at the bottom of the page. Google Images Creative Commons search options

Google will pick up Creative Commons work from everywhere on the web; results will sometimes include free Flickr and 500px content.


Search for your topic of interest at 500px; filter results based on an “Attribution” license. 500px Creative Commons search options

Creative Commons

Creative Commons have recently expanded and improved their metasearch for open media to cover images and many other forms of media from over a dozen sites. Creative Commons search options

Wellcome Images

Circular New Guinea tattoo designCurating over two thousand years of human culture, Wellcome Images collects together images and artifacts from biomedical and social history, most of published under a Creative Commons license.

Other resources

There are many other resources that offer royalty-free images, but you should be wary of offers: many sites advertise themselves as being “free” but require a subscription to download images, while others only offer generic clip art. Sites that don’t seek to mislead while maintaining a fairly high standard of quality include:

If all of this is too much, Pexels offers an excellent search service that covers most of these sites and more.

There is also deviantArt, although again you must exercise caution: art is sometimes derived from copyrighted work (presenting its own potential legal problems) and usage rights are not always as clear-cut as in the services provided above.

Do you have a favorite resource of high quality free art that I haven’t listed here? Feel free to contribute your finds in the comments section below!

Photograph by Luca Sartoni, licensed (naturally) under Creative Commons.

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