Thing 10: Finding and using online photos and images

Painting showing the Public Viewing David’s "Coronation" at the Louvre
Louis Léopold Boilly,
‘The Public Viewing David’s “Coronation” at the Louvre’, 1810.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This week’s post looks at a range of tools for finding photographs and other images online. It also has some useful pointers on making sure you’re using those images in a copyright-compliant manner, especially important if you’re using images in a professional capacity as a researcher. Thing 10 has been written by Andrea Hurt (Client Services & Liaison Librarian, Arts) and Mary Stone (Liaison Librarian, Culture & Communication) with assistance from the University of Melbourne Copyright Office.

Every picture tells a story.  Images can enhance your profile via social media, help you communicate your research and create outreach opportunities. There are many free apps and software programs available to create, edit and store your photographs. You can connect with the broader community to showcase your research and find out what others are doing in your field. The large number of digitised collections made available online can also extend your research options. With Creative Commons licences, images can be re-used within your own work to offer a richer and more interesting website or presentation. The important thing to consider is how and why you might use this software. Also remember to familiarise yourself with the copyright terms and conditions of this software: see below for further information about images and copyright.


Getting started


Instagram is an app for smart phones (both IOS & Android) and has over 1.6 million active users in Australia alone. Famous (“infamous” – Ed.) for giving us the word ‘selfie’, it’s sometimes charactured as a place where people share their photos of food and sunsets. However, more and more individuals and organisations are using this visual social media platform effectively to promote themselves and their work and to connect with similar organisations or the community.

Instagram is mobile app based but has recently enabled your profile to be loaded on a desktop browser for viewing. However, this does not have the full functionality of the app. With the app, you can take photos on your phone, as well as make 15-second videos, and load them onto your Instagram profile. There are a number of different effects and filters that can be applied to your images and video, while other apps enable you to add writing over your images or create a collage.  Hashtags are used, as with Twitter, to enable searching within Instagram, but also for humour and to help create a tone or voice for your feed. Images can also be geotagged, but the strength of Instagram is the conversations with followers. Like all social media, it’s about interaction. Images created on Instagram can also be shared to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr accounts.

With personal and professional lines blurring on social media, researchers can use Instagram for raising their profile. However a growing number of organisations are now using IG in creative ways showing ‘behind the scenes’ views, or a more personal (rather than corporate) personality. This useful article on the Research to Action website explains ways to use Instagram for research communication, while the University of Bergen here highlights the activities of its researchers via Instagram.

Consider these examples for more inspiration:

Thesis Whisperer

Karolinska institutet (KI) researchers

New York Stem Cell Research Institute

Desert Research Institute (Nevada)

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (USA)



Flickr is an online photo hosting site, although a mobile app version is also available (IOS & Android).  It has a social media aspect, enabling you to follow image feeds from people or organisations but Flickr’s real strength is as a resource, an image-bank. An enormous number of images (organised into albums) can be uploaded and you can use licencing, such as Creative Commons licenses, to protect your work. Subject tags can also be applied, so your images can be indexed and searched, and you can also use geotagging, which takes advantage of Flickr’s map search function and allows you to explore images via region or specific location. Additional information and hyperlinks can also be applied to images and it is this aspect that makes Flickr a very content-rich resource.

Many Archives, Museums and Libraries are sharing their digitised collections online via Flickr Commons. This brings a wealth of searchable online material to your desktop. The British Library has uploaded over one million images to the Commons and released them to the public domain.  However, many other institutions (outside the Commons) are also adding material. See these for inspiration: Kladcat – Penn Provenance Project, Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts, Special Collections – University of Melbourne.

Private or public groups can also be set up within Flickr offering collaboration within a community. A fantastic example is the Great War Archive, which incorporates thousands of family photos, documents and correspondence.

Images from Flickr can be shared via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest. Flickr also hosts 90-second videos giving researchers even more options for content sharing.

The University of Bath uses Flickr to promote images relating to research on campus, and students have blogged about the usefulness of Flickr as a research tool and for visual data research within a group. For more inspiration:

Koehl Lab Research

Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

IBM Research

Other tools to consider


Picasa is a free online image editor, allowing you to organise images (by folders, albums and people).  The software is downloaded to your desktop, but a web version can be synced through a Google account, if you have one. Images can be shared to Google+, Blogger and Twitter accounts as well as exported as HTML for websites. The editing functions offer an impressive range of options including batch editing, adding watermarks as well as basic fixes and effects.


Another free online image editor, Photobucket allows you to store, edit, organise and share your images. The editing is similar to mobile apps (applying filters and adding frames and stickers etc.). Images are shared with Facebook and Twitter accounts, but other social media can be selected, such as Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Stumbleupon. An app version is also available.


While Flickr and Instagram can be great sources of photos, you should always be careful about using material you did not create yourself.  You can certainly use Creative Commons licensed material, but you have to be mindful about meeting the conditions of the license. Furthermore, you also have to make certain that the Creative Commons material you have chosen for your project has been shared online legally. For more information about how to find and use Creative Commons licensed material, you can consult the following blogposts from the Copyright Office’s quick and dirty guide to finding Creative Commons images on Flickrthe practically painless guide to citing images from Flickr, and the Catch with Creative Commons.

Likewise, you may also choose to license your work under Creative Commons. Doing so would enable others to reuse your work in specific ways without having to seek explicit permission from you. However, whether or not you are able to release your work under a Creative Commons license may depend on research or funding agreements you may have, so be sure to review these if you plan on sharing research images via Flickr, Instagram or other similar tools.

 Andrea Hurt (Client Services & Liaison Librarian, Arts) and Mary Stone (Liaison Librarian, Culture & Communication) with assistance from the University of Melbourne Copyright Office.


Speaking as an art historian, images have always been an integral part of our research processes and the increasing availability of digital images has had an enormous impact. Databases such as ARTstor or the open-access Web Gallery of Art make it much easier to obtain high-quality digital images for research and teaching. Broad initiatives such as the Google Art Project or the UK’s Your Paintings are also important resources, as are the projects of individual galleries and museums to make images of their collections available online. However, making use of these online collections is not always straightforward. A recent report from research consultants Ithaka S+R (Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Art Historians) has highlighted that although such databases and websites provide more convenient search tools, ‘their coverage of museum collections is not yet expansive enough to have had a transformative impact on the discipline.’ It is a relatively small number of (usually) large museums that have been able to digitise their collections. The Your Paintings website is a remarkable achievement—digital images of all oil paintings in public collections in the UK—but there is nothing comparable for, say, France or Italy. Another issue is the lack of common processes to access and search these databases: an over-arching discovery architecture is sorely needed.

Accessing online images is one thing, though, but using and sharing them can be another problem altogether. I might be able to obtain an image for my own research purposes but what if I want to use it in a public presentation, include it in a blog post or publish it in an academic article? This all depends on where the image is from. Many museums and galleries are increasingly making their digital images available free of charge for non-commercial use. Only last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that 400,000 of its high-resolution digital images are now ‘available for non-commercial use—including in scholarly publications in any media—without permission from the Museum and without a fee.’ The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been equally open with its digital images and uses this access as a way of encouraging people to engage with its collection. Other galleries, meanwhile, maintain a closed shop and particularly for the re-use of images online. Just last week I was reading a 2013 article from the Oxford Art Journal on Caravaggio. In the online edition two images, one from the National Gallery in London and one from the Vatican Museums, were replaced with the caption ‘Please note that this image could not be reproduced due to restrictions from the rights holder’. The images appear in the print version but not online, reflecting a continuing reluctance at some museums to make their images available digitally, even for scholarly publishing. This is particularly odd in this case, as images of the two paintings in question are readily viewable on the respective galleries’ websites. Too often the processes in place for obtaining digital images have been established for the purposes of commercial use, which can make academic publishing in art history an expensive endeavour, particularly if you want your readers to be able to see the painting you’re writing about.

Do you regularly use images for your research and, if so, how do you about obtaining them? Most art historians maintain large collections of their own image files for research and teaching but have very diverse ways of managing them. Tools such as Picasa can be useful but have their limitations; EndNote and Zotero are viable alternatives but neither is optimised for cataloguing images. What tools do you use to organise them?

Mark Shepheard.

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