Thing 12: Open Access Images

Images may form an integral part of your research, or they may be useful as a means of communicating your research. This 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.

Getting started

When considering whether to use an online image, or images, it is vital to check whether these are free to use and if so, under what conditions. Obtaining an image for individual research is one thing, but to use it in a public presentation, include it in a blog post or publish it in an academic article is another altogether. The ways in which it is possible to use an image depends on where the image is from. Increasingly, museums and galleries – including Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam have made digital images from their collections available free of charge for non-commercial use. These museums see this access as a way of encouraging people to engage with their collections. Other galleries are more reluctant to make their images available digitally, even for scholarly publishing. This is particularly so for the re-use of images online.

Creative Commons Licences

There are a number of websites that provide quality open access images. As already mentioned it is important to check that the images are free to use. Creative Commons licences provide a standardised way for individual creators, companies and institutions to share their work with others on flexible terms without infringing copyright. The licences allow users to reuse, remix and share the content legally. A Creative Commons licence means that users are allowed to make use of images in a number of ways on certain conditions. Note that it is good practice to always attribute the creator of an image.

  • CC0: Public domain. The copyright holder places the work as completely as possible in the public domain so others may freely exploit and use the work without restriction under copyright law.
  • CC BY: You can share, copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format. You can adapt, remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.
  • CC BY-NC: You can share, copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format. You can adapt, remix, transform, and build upon the material for non-commercial use.
  • CC BY-ND: No Derivatives. This means you can only use the image “as is”.
  • CC BY-SA: Share Alike. This means you will need to share your work in the same way that you were able to access the image. This is good for creating models and workflows where you would like to encourage others to build on your work.

Image Websites

The following websites provide access to open access images:

  • Flickr: An online photo hosting site with a social media aspect, enabling you to follow image feeds from people or organisations. But Flickr’s real strength is as an image-bank, as an enormous number of images (organised into albums) can be uploaded. You can use Creative Commons licenses to protect your work. Subject tags can also be applied to index your images and make them searchable, 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. Many archives, museums and libraries are sharing their digitised collections online via Flickr Commons: the British Library, for example, has uploaded over one million images to to Flickr and released them into the public domain.
  • Unsplash: This is one of the largest free photography sites, giving access to over 200,000 free high-resolution photos from a large community of photographers. Images are user tagged so metadata can be inconsistent. Images are licensed under Creative Commons CC0.
  • Pixabay: This site offers well-tagged and easy-to-search photos, illustrations, scalable vector graphics and video clips. All the content is released under Creative Commons CC0.
  • Snappy Goat: Image search engine that sources free, public domain, CC0 images. This site includes images from Pixabay and Unsplash.
  • Gratisography: Photographs by professional photographer, Ryan McGuire, free of copyright restrictions and under a CC0 licence. 
  • Pexels: Provides high quality, free stock photos licensed under the CC0 license. All photos are tagged, searchable and can be browsed through discover pages. There over 30,000 free stock photos chosen from photos uploaded by users or sourced from free image websites. Only Creative Commons images from their community of photographers and from sources like Pixabay, Gratisography, Little Visuals are added. Photographers can also contribute directly to site. Creative Commons CC0.


The main consideration when using online images is copyright. Creative Commons licences have already been mentioned. The University of Melbourne Copyright Office also has some information regarding copyright for artistic works and copyright-friendly images.

It is also important to think about file formats of your images for access and preservation.  You can find out more about “Data File Formats” in module 4.5 of the Managing Data @ Melbourne online data management training program. Information about file formats is also available on this useful Research Guide from the University of Michigan Library.

Try this

Explore images from the University of Melbourne’s Special Collections on Flickr.

Learn More

This post was written by Monica Raszewski (Liaison Librarian (Research), Arts).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *