How to find great photos for your blog

Looking for great photos for your blog or social media site — without spending much cash?  Good news from Silicon Valley this week: staff-produced are now available in high-resolution format under a Creative Commons license on a newly launched public Flickr stream.

The Creative Commons license turns 10 years old next year, and the simple idea of releasing content with “some rights reserved” has revolutionized online sharing and fueled a thriving remix culture. (CC is a nonprofit and you can contribute to their annual campaign:

The CC BY-NC license that Wired is offering means that the images are free for all to republish, with minor restrictions:

  1. Photos must be attributed to the photographer and copyright holder, and, if used online, a link back to the site where the photo first appeared is usually required. (Wired takes this a step further, and requires a link back to the story where the photo was originally published.)
  2. Commercial use (advertising, collateral, flyers, posters, T-shirts, etc.) is prohibited.
  3. Remixes and mash-ups are allowed.
This image shows two weeks of post headlines & illustrations from The Distributed Marketing Blog (which I edit at work).  Sources for the images, clockwise from upper left, are: A photo I took of my 10-year-old grandson, a chart I created, a licensed cartoon ($12), a free cartoon, a scanner image of my husband’s hand, and a photo my granddaughter took of her dog Jasmine.

I use a lot of great art on this blog and even more on The Distributed Marketing Blog (the blog I edit at work).  So one of the most common questions I get from other bloggers or even from casual friends is, “Where do you get your photographs and cartoons?”  The gallery above shows two weeks’ worth of post headlines and artwork, along with the source of each image.

But before I share some of my favorite sources for great illustrations, here’s a list of places I avoid: the forbidden sources that can get you (or me) into legal trouble.  Unless you contact the copyright holder in advance, and get written permission to use their image, don’t use images from:

  • Other blogs
  • Google or Bing searches
  • Magazines or websites
  • Twitpix, Facebook, or any other social media site
  • Flickr, PhotoBucket or other sharing site UNLESS the image offers a Creative Commons license

I write a lot about copyright law in my books and on this blog, so I have to take extra care because I have a target painted on my back. (I would anyway, since I believe strongly in a creator’s rights to profit from their creativity.)  If you remember nothing else from this blog post, memorize this:  just because something is posted on the Internet and you can right-click on it to save it doesn’t give you the right to republish it on your blog — even if you credit the original source.

If you remember just two things, add this to your memory bank:  publishing photos of identifiable people requires their advance written permission unless they are public figures photographed in a public place.  And even if you have permission to use the photo, you can’t use it in a way that makes the person look bad unless the article specifically applies to that person and is provably true.  So if you’re writing a blog post about the bad customer service you got at a hotel, and you find a Creative Commons licensed photo on Flickr of a hotel clerk, you can still get into trouble for using the image if a reasonable person might infer that the bad customer service experience happened with THIS person at THIS hotel, when it did not.

Six Great Sources for Legal Images

    1. Photographs that you take yourself, or photographs that friends give you written permission to use.  A digital camera and some creativity will take you a long way – people love photos of children, dogs, and unusual landscapes, and they lend themselves to a lot of different posts.  You do need model releases unless the person shown is a public figure. My son, Geoff McAlister is a professional stunt man.  He’s often in costume, on movie sets, practicing horseback stunts or just travelling to interesting places with interesting people, so he’s a frequent and popular “guest” on my blog and in my collateral.  So are my dogs.  Several of my grandchildren have also posed for me over the years.  This is absolutely the safest route for any blogger — your dog won’t sue you, and neither will the produce from your refrigerator used to illustrate a post about the importance of comparing apples to apples in product reviews.
    2. Photographs or illustrations that are available under a Creative Commons License through Flickr, Morgue File,  or other legal photo sharing sites.  Flickr tip:  Always use the “Advanced Search” feature and check the Commercial Use, Creative Commons boxes, and always include the required photo credits.  See the caveat above about the context in which a photo is used.
    3. Free cartoons available from sites like,,, or Flickr.  Some truly amazing cartoonists like Scott Hampson of, and the comic geniuses behind Geek and Poke allow their work to be used under Creative Commons licenses — and it’s fabulous.  So use it, and remember to say thanks with a by-line and a photo credit that links back to their blog or website. 
    4. Cartoons and photos for which I have purchased a license.  Only about 10% of the items I publish were purchased. Cartoonstock, iStock, Getty – you name it, I’ve probably bought something there at some time or another.
    5. Graphics I create myself – charts, graphs, icons from our marketing collateral, clip-art.  I don’t own a copy of any graphics program – I use PowerPoint or Excel, drop the chart into Paint, and save it out as a vector file I can scale for the blog.  These can be fast, easy, eye-catching, and free.
    6. PR photos provided by  other marketers.  (This means I download them legally from the “Press Room” section of a company’s website, or I contact a PR firm or company and ask for a photo to use to illustrate a story.) If I ask for permission, I’m careful to tell them where I plan to use it, and the headline of the story  to be illustrated by the photo. Sometimes they say “no”, but I’ve been in this business for many years, and I can usually find a friend who will say “yes” so long as I am up front about how I will use the image.

All that great art helps (a lot) with SEO, traffic, and subscriptions.  Photos are also a big factor in helping online content “go viral”.  One caveat:  if the art overwhelms the text, your bounce rate may go up.  (A bounce rate measures how much time people spend on your blog or website.)   So keep the images relevant to your content.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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16 Responses to How to find great photos for your blog

  1. Joe says:

    What about avatars and profile pictures on websites or on a gaming platform like Steam or Xbox Live? Can you still be fined for using copyrighted images there, or is it just because a blog is inherently self-advertising? Can someone be fined because they have a picture of Pikachu as their facebook photo?

    Because that’s…kind of ridiculous. =/

    • debmcalister says:

      Hi, Joe —

      Yes, Pikachu is the subject of multiple copyrights, so my understanding is that you could technically be found guilty of copyright infringement for using it as your Facebook profile photo. The truth is that it’s unlikely that a big corporation would sue a Facebook user — but I’ve seen some unlikely things in my time, haven’t you?

      It’s far more probable that instead of suing, a company would use the DMCA (the Digital Millenium Copyright Act) to send an automated “takedown” notice — informing Facebook, or WordPress, or Twitter or the website owner that it believes there is a violation, and asking that the image/video/content be removed. Most sites will simply remove the image and replace it with a notice that says something like “The image that appeared here is the subject of a copyright claim by Nintendo, and has been removed.” (I actually don’t know who owns the rights to Pikachu — this is simply an example.)

      Of course, the more popular your blog is, and the more attention your social media posts get, the more likely you are to run into copyright issues. But I have seen YouTube videos with fewer than a dozen views pulled down because of DMCA takedown claims by Universal Music Group — specifically, a performance by a group of 8-year-old acrobats was removed because they used a popular song for their recital, attended by about 40 parents and viewed on YouTube by 12 people before it was removed.

      Since I am fairly risk-averse when it comes to my bank account, I choose to err on the side of caution with copyrighted images, and try not to use anything that isn’t available under a Creative Commons License.

      Regards, Deb

  2. Pingback: New Sources for Free Photos & Images for Bloggers | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

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  4. Sie sagten says:

    Hello, its a good paragraph concerning media. We all need to be aware of these issues. This is a wonderful source of facts.

  5. Pingback: Copyright Infringement, Plagiarism, and Client Demands | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  6. K. Tondre says:

    Hey I was reading this article and just wanted to say that I like your writing style! I’m a freelance writer myself!

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  9. Matthew Rigby says:

    Thank you for your post and information. I have created a few websites and it’s always good to clarify how i am allowed to use certain images. I now mainly use or other website for my images unless i’ve taken the image myself.

  10. My favorite is the good image search. My little secret is to search for stock photo site pictures on google.

    Stock photo site pictures often get tagged with a special name from the stock photo site and if you know that, you can search for it, along with the keyword for the photo you’re looking for. It’s an easy way to get great photos for your blog.

    • debmcalister says:

      I can’t speak to the laws in your home country, but in the U.S., it is illegal to pick up a stock photo found in an image search and reuse it. Stock photos are pictured on the web for the purpose of selling them — using them based on a Google search is likely to subject U.S.-based bloggers to automatic triple damages. There is no defense under U.S. law againse using images found through a search engine, and the financial penalties can be extreme.

      For example, an image from the Getty stock library can have a base price of $1,500 USD or more — and if you are caught using it without permission, automatic damages would then be $4,500 USD or more. I know one person who was hit with $150,000 in copyright infringement costs because their teenager posted celebrity photos on a blog without permission.

      My rule is simple: if I didn’t take it myself, get written permission from the copyright owner to use it, have a Creative Commons License to use it, or pay for it, I don’t use it.

      Regards, Deb

  11. akandrewcom says:

    Hi Deb
    Fantastically helpfully post. Thanks do much for sharing. Really good to see all the places not to go as well as vice versa.
    Thanks so much

  12. This is some very helpful info, but it was a little tough to work with it as your links don’t open in a new window : (

    Thanks again for sharing the knowledge and the idea that it is easier to just take my own photos

    • debmcalister says:

      Thanks for the comment & the tip — I checked, and sure enough, there were a couple that did not open properly. I think that they are fixed now. I appreciate the heads up!

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