Photos For Free...Or Nearly Free

by Maureen A. Taylor | Mar 18, 2011

Maureen A. Taylor

In this visual society, pictures surround us, but knowing where to find pictures you can actually use in your genealogy or blog, can be confusing. I've done picture research for a wide variety of uses from public television to my own books, and know that there are ways to find photos for no or little cost. It's all about where you look and about knowing the rules.

Here are some sites that feature photos you might be able to reproduce. There's a caveat though--always check the rights and permissions section of each picture before using those images.

A few tips about image use first.

  • Photos for web use are generally 72 dpi while the quality needed for publication is 300 dpi.
  • Always supply credit information such as website name, date accessed and catalog number for an image so that someone else can locate it.
  • Never re-use an unattributed image found online. You could be violating someone's copyright.
  • Pay particular attention to licensing rules if your blog or book is in anyway commercial content. That includes Adsense advertising on your blog.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the nation's largest library which means its chock full of pictures. Unfortunately, only a small percentage are online, but their digital collections are growing every day. On the main web page, find the link at the top of the page for digital collections and select it. You'll be taken to a page that lists all the digital collections. In the second column of that page is an icon for "Prints and Photographs." Double-click it to be taken to a search page. You'll be able to use search terms in the box at the top or go directly to one of the collections listed below it. For instance, if you're looking for pictures of your ancestral hometown type the name of the town into the search engine. For example, I'll use "Providence, Rhode Island." I've included the state and used quotes to increase the odds of finding images of the city instead of other items cataloged under the general term. The result were 545 possible images.

On the hits page, select the gallery view. It immediately shows you which images have online files for downloading. The images have a white border. Scroll down and select an image. You might have several down-loadable options such as jpegs or a tiff file. Pick the one that best suits your purpose.

The list also includes items cataloged but not online. These are represented by a white box with the words "not digitized." Users can look at the cataloging record but not the images. If you want to see the originals select the appropriate tab about copies or originals on that record.

Now it's time for permissions. Click on "About this item" to see caption details, cataloging numbers and the information in the "Rights Advisory." The Library of Congress also prints a disclaimer: "Rights Assessment is your responsibility." Before re-using anything on the site, read the "Obtaining Copies" tab and the link on it about rights and reproductions. The LOC also has a Flickr Photostream. It's made for browsing, but you'll still either need to order prints or go to the LOC website to download image files.

National Archives

The National Archives "Copyright, Restrictions, and Permissions Notice". While most photographs produced by federal agencies are in the public domain, not everything on the National Archives website falls in that category. Private individuals or agencies supplied images as well. When in doubt, check with the United States Copyright Office or play it safe by using images on the National Archives Flickr photostream. Those can be reproduced without permission. You can order copies by selecting the photo then following instructions to obtain print copies.


The huge online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, also includes images on their pages. For instance, search "Jesse James." You'll discover a photo of him to the right of the listing. Click on the image and you'll be taken to a page with information on that photo. When you scroll down the page you'll see that In this case, the photo is credited to the Library of Congress and that you can use it. Posted underneath the image is the file size and format.

There is another way to search for free images on Wikipedia. You can go directly to Wikipedia Commons, "a freely licensed media repository." You can even add pictures of your own to this site. On the left you'll see "Participate." Scroll down on the right to read through "by license." You'll learn about copyright statutes and public domain images. On this site, you'll see a list of alphabetically arranged public domain information links and at the bottom of the screen, groups of images that fall into that category. Public domain generally means images are free to use, not subject to copyright or that the copyright has expired. It's a complicated topic so tread carefully and read more on the subject to become a knowledgeable user. Copyright is someone's legal right to license something they've created, in this case, an image. You can read more about current copyright statutes at the United States Copyright Office website.


This rapidly growing photo storehouse is quite popular. The Library of Congress, the National Archives and other libraries and archives all over the world use it to profile images from their collections. It's a great image research tool. Find an picture on a site other than the LOC and NARA then email the repository about usage rates. You'll have to specify exactly how you want to use the photo. Usage rates vary wildly from group to group.

Other folks use Flickr to promote their photographs and license those using The Commons. All of the images contributed by participating institutions are in the public domain. You can read the rights explanation on the site. While digital files aren't provided you can save the image by right clicking your mouse then selecting "save file." If you need a higher resolution digital file or a print you'll have to contact the owners. However, while the image is in the public domain, you may still have to pay an image usage fee. Those are at the discretion of the library or archive.

Millions of photographers post their images on Flickr, so don't be afraid to search by subject. Once you've found the perfect shot, try contacting the person who took the person via their email link. They might be quite flattered that you want to use their image.

If you're looking for a more contemporary or generic image, there are also stock photo websites that offer free images. These are posted by photographers. Try FreeRange, StockVault, FreeDigital, or stock.xchng. Bear in mind, that not all of these sites allow commercial use of their images, so read their usage policies carefully. On the positive side, you'll be able to search hundreds of thousands of images and use them to enhance the look of your project.

The web makes it easy to find the right image for the right price. With vast databases full of public domain pictures and images shared by snap-happy folks, it's a cinch to search for just what you need. There's no excuse for not telling a story in both words and pictures.

Find Records Now for Free

Start your free trial today to learn more about your ancestors using our powerful and intuitive search. Cancel any time, no strings attached.

Start free trial