How to find photos for your website without infringing copyright

By Caleb Woodbridge - SEO Consultant.  

Camera Lens Nothing adds a splash of interest and appeal to your website like well-chosen images. The right picture grabs the attention of the visitor. A good photo has an emotional impact all of its own.

While it's easy to fire up Google Image Search and find photos, finding the right images, whether as part of your template, or specifically for a page or blog post, is not always easy. Finding images that you can obtain the rights to us quickly and cheaply, or even free, is harder still. So what do you need to know about copyright and images?

Online copyright and you

Many people assume that because the web is freely available, then they can freely copy and republish images without thinking about copyright.

In fact the opposite is true: you should assume that anything you find online – text, images, audio – is copyrighted unless stated otherwise. Copyright is automatic – someone doesn’t need to put a copyright notice on their site for reproducing it to be infringement.

While the chances of being sued for copyright infringement might seem slim, do you really want to take the risk of big payouts for a few photos on your blog? It might be more of a hassle to source images legitimately rather than just copying and pasting the first thing that pops up in Google Image Search, but it’s better than the stress and expense of a legal battle.

Getting permission

One method of obtaining suitable images is to get permission from the copyright holder – normally the person who took the photograph or created the image.

In some cases, they might be quite happy for you to use the photos, especially if allowing you to do so helps promote themselves or their business. For example, if you are blogging about an upcoming local event, and you contact the organisers for images, then they may well be happy to supply something suitable.

But in other cases, the photographer might want to be paid for their use of the photo, especially if they are a professional. You will need to negotiate that with them - which is only fair considering the skill, training and equipment needed to make great images.

Take your own photos

If you take your own photos, you own the copyright to them and so can use them as you please on your website! If you take a photo in the course of your employment, the owner is the employer unless agreed otherwise.

Make sure that photos are good quality, well-lit and composed. Depending on the style and ethos of your company and website, for a quick snap to accompany a blog post, something taken on a smartphone camera may well be fine. The iPhone 5 and many of the latest Android phones have very good cameras with quality that is fine for the web, though no match for a high-end digital camera or DLSR, of course.

If the images are of particular people, it’s a good idea to get their permission in writing granting you the right to use the photos. If you are using models, it is worth considering a professional photographer who knows the legal ins and outs of model releases and so on.

Professional photography

In some cases you should consider using the services of a professional photographer. A professional photographer will have the skills and equipment to take much higher quality images. This is particularly important when establishing the design of the site, for things like site-wide images and design elements like large banners and backgrounds, where you need to ensure a professional look.

Public domain / free stock photos

You may be able to find photos that have entered the public domain and are free to use. Examples include stock.xchng  and Wikimedia, or just try Googling for “public domain images” to find various websites with out-of-copyright photos. There are also sites offering free stock photos. But unless

Please don’t use “clip art” unless you want your website to look like it was designed in 1997! Photos are usually best for illustrative purposes. If you’re looking for icons, find ones that are well-designed and fit with the rest of your site.

Stock photography

Another option is to purchase stock photography. It’s most likely cheaper than getting a photographer to take photos especially for your website, but is also likely to offer better quality and choice than relying on free stock photos.

Creative Commons

A Creative Commons license is a special “some rights reserved” copyright license, which gives freedom to use copyright material according to certain conditions. Many photos are available under these licenses and are a good option for finding images for blogs and the like.

A work licensed under Creative Commons may or may not allow commercial use, and may or may not allow it to be modified (creating “derivative works” in copyright-speak), so check the license on any particular picture or other work.

You are required to give attribution to the source of the item, so that the copyright holder is credited, but as long as you follow the conditions, you can use the image without needing to get further permission.

CC Search allows you to search a number of websites that have material available under these licenses. Yahoo-owned photo sharing site Flickr is a particularly good source of photographs – it also contains fully copyrighted results, so if you can’t find something under a free license, you can contact a photographer to ask to license something if you choose.

Photos and accessibility

Once you’ve found an image and have uploaded it to your website, it’s important to make sure that every image is tagged with an alternative description, in what’s called an “alt tag”. If you’re using a content management system, you will often be prompted for such a description when you upload or insert an image. Or if you can add it directly into the HTML if you know how.

An alt tag should describe the image, for example “A bowl of fruit” or “Company logo”. Alt tags are primarily for making your website accessible to all – for example, to help blind people who use screen-readers to browse the internet – but also help search engines by identifying images. Also useful are title tags, which specify text that appears when someone hovers the mouse over the image, and can provide additional information.

So there you have it, a quick and easy guide to finding quality photos for your website!


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