Stock Images for Students: How to Find and Use

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Stock photography has a bit of a tarnished reputation. This is due mostly to the ways it's often misused. Poor cropping, awkward effects, using images that are completely irrelevant to the subject matter, or selecting images that have been overused by other websites are just a few of the ways stock photos can be misused.

Yet stock photos are an important part of contemporary design, and whether you're creating a project, writing a paper, or designing a website, the right photo can transform a good piece of work into a great one. Taking advantage of the internet's vast collection of free stock images is a powerful way to enhance your work.

Why Free Stock Photos?

Students — as well as many other creative types with limited financial means — have three concerns when they're gathering media resources:

  • Relevance: The content has to be relevant to their project.
  • Convenience: The content has to be readily available.
  • Budget: The content has to be free.

Addressing these concerns in a balanced way can be tricky. Maybe you're living on a Ramen Noodle budget, or maybe you simply don't have the time, skill, or resources to take professional-quality photos or create original artwork for your projects. While the internet is overflowing with content, staying on the right side of the law when choosing and using it requires some careful judgment.

That's where free stock photography comes into play. Many professional and skilled amateur photographers choose to make their work available for free under various conditions. This huge library of photos and illustrations adds an essential element to your design and creation toolkit if you're serious about creating high-quality content.

Before you start searching for stock images and graphics you must first understand how intellectual property rights apply to the use of free images. Just because images are free to use doesn't mean that there are no copyright issues to think about.

Intellectual property laws protect the rights of artists, writers, and other content creators. Stealing someone else's work — knowingly or unknowingly — can put you on the receiving end of a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice or even get you sued.

Understanding copyrights, fair use, and licensing is essential if you want to use media resources properly without violating any laws.

Copyright is a legal concept that reserves the ownership and rights of use for intellectual property — images, text, films, and so forth — to their original creator. Copyright protections exist in varying formats around the world, but in general, the creator of a specific work owns the rights to the work for a specific period, during which they may license the right to use it to others if they so desire.

After the copyright period ends, ownership may be sold, renewed by the owner or their estate, or the content may become public domain. Content in the public domain is free for public use in all formats and can be adapted and modified at will.

What is the DMCA?

When it comes to digital media, the rights of copyright holders are protected in the United States by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA was enacted in 1998 to ensure United States copyright laws conformed to the terms of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty. It was also the first major effort by the US government to update copyright law to reflect the changing intellectual property concerns of the Internet Age.

The DMCA enhanced intellectual property protections for content found on the web, in large part through the use of the DMCA Takedown Notice. These notices are used by copyright owners to control the use and distribution of their property online. If someone discovers another party has used their property without consent, they can issue a takedown notice to the infringing party, the owner of the site where the content is hosted, or even the web hosting provider whose servers hold the site.

Failure to comply with a DMCA takedown notice can have severe legal repercussions, including lawsuits and (in extreme cases of theft) even arrest, so it pays to play it safe.

What is Fair Use?

Portions of copyrighted content can be lawfully used by anyone under certain circumstances. One special circumstance that provides an exception to normal copyright laws is the fair use doctrine.

In our decidedly postmodern era, people create unique and original content that often incorporates or is based on the unique and original content of others. However, since intellectual property laws must protect both creators and the people who own existing content, where can we draw the line between theft and protected adaptation?

Fair use is the answer.

Under US Copyright law, "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research" are all protected uses of copyrighted material. Parodies, academic projects, and other many non-commercial uses are protected as fair use. In any case where use is contested, the law requires four considerations:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

Gray areas abound, and without any specific criteria for what constitutes fair use, you're probably better off erring on the side of caution. Obtaining permission or a valid license for copyright-protected material — or, better yet, finding a free equivalent that's already licensed for use — can save you a lot of headaches.

The Creative Commons License

Of course, you may want to use copyrighted media resources for purposes that don't fall under the fair use doctrine. In that case, copyrighted media released under an appropriate Creative Commons (CC) license is what you're looking for.

Not everyone wants to keep their content behind lock and key. One of the most popular ways to share images, text, and other creative works with others is via Creative Commons.

Created and managed by a nonprofit organization, the Creative Commons licensing system was created " give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work." It favors a "some rights reserved" approach to copyright over the traditional "all or nothing" form.

Creative Commons licenses come in a variety of types, and can be used to restrict content to non-commercial use, approve it for any use with attribution, or even open up the content for any use (effectively releasing it to the public domain). Remember, though, that while Creative Commons licensing helps artists modify and refine their copyright, it doesn't replace it.

When you're searching for an image, tools like Flickr and Google Images can help you sort the results by license type. This is a great way to narrow down your search from the start and avoid running afoul of any potential copyright violations.

Types of Creative Commons Licenses

There are six different types of CC licenses, but they all are a combination of four different components of licensing: attribution, derivatives, sharealike, and commercial use.

  • Attribution: this component lets others know that they must give you credit for the original work. Alone, the attribution component will allow others to do anything they want, as long as they give credit to the original work as the author of the work has specified.
  • Derivatives: any modified pieces of work from an original piece of work is called a derivative of that work. In some cases, authors do not want to allow others to modify their work and so tag the CC license with a no derivatives license. In order to use the work it has to be presented exactly as the original work is presented.
  • ShareAlike: this component of a CC license will make it clear that any derivatives of that work must also carry the same CC license as the original. This does not limit you to non-commercial uses, but does specify that the new derivatives must carry the exact same CC license as the original, which corporations would probably not want to do.
  • Commercial Use: the author will often determine if they want their works being used in commercial applications or not. Students will be using most of the work in school papers or projects and can use images with the Non-Commercial attribute because they will not obtain commercial compensation for the work.

From these four components six different CC licenses are offered:

  • CC BY: this is a simple attribution license and gives you the most leeway in using an image. You can make derivatives of the work and even use it for commercial use, as long as you just give credit to the original creator the way they ask for it. However, you will need to follow the four rules for issuing the proper attribution in a CC BY license.
  • CC BY-SA: you can still make derivatives of the original work and even use it commercially, but only if you provide the same license as the original and give credit to the original author of the work as they have requested.
  • CC BY-ND: this license means you are not allowed to make derivatives of the original work. However, you can still share the original under the CC BY license.
  • CC BY-NC: if you are a business, you won't be able to use the NC license as it specifies "non-commercial" usage. However, as a student, you will be using your images in mostly academic papers and project and can still use these images as long as you do not profit from them commercially.
  • CC BY-NC-SA: this is similar to the non-commercial license discussed previously, but it does also insist that you keep the same CC license when you share the photo. That way, no matter how many times others share the original work, it always goes with exactly the same license.
  • CC BY-NC-ND: another version of the non-commercial CC license is the one that also limits derivative works. This is the most restrictive of all the licenses and basically says that the original image may not be tampered with or used for commercial profit.

Providing Proper Attribution

When you use an image that is protected by a CC license you will always need to provide proper attribution. The author may or may not tell you how they want that credit to be issued. If not, you can always make sure to include the following to give the proper CC attribution:

  • Author Credit: credit the author or whoever is licensing the image the way they want to be credited, including third parties.
  • No Title Changes: use the same title of the work as given in the original.
  • Online Location: add the URL to the original image to let others know where you got the work online.
  • Describe Derivations: if you are creating a derivative of the work, you also have to identify that is the case by giving a brief description of how it was derived from the original.

Finding Free Stock Photos

Now that you know all about copyrights, DMCAs, fair use, creative commons licensing, and how to provide proper attribution, you're ready to start looking for images and graphics to use for your projects. The internet contains an abundance of resources for finding great stock images.


One of the largest repositories of Creative Commons images is Flickr, which is sourced from members who can be amateur or professional photographers. In fact, it is so well known that other image archives tend to pull from the Flickr website when returning results for their own image searches.

When you search for images on Flickr, images released under all different types of licenses will be displayed. However, you can filter the search results by license type to eliminate images that don't fit your requirements. Just make sure that you provide attribution that matches the licensing that applies to the images you select.

A correct attribution can be lengthy and complicated to build yourself. Thankfully, there are tools you can use that make the process much easier. ImageCodr is one tool. Just drop the Flickr URL for the image you want to use into the tool and proper attribution text will be generated for you. Another tool for generating proper attribution for images found at Flickr is Compfight. It's a Flickr search tool that generates a properly-formatted credit text for you so that all you have to do is copy and paste the credit text into your work.

Wikimedia Commons

The Wikimedia Commons is a media file repository that includes not just images, but also sound and video clips — all available for use in the public domain. While virtually all of the files are free to reuse, the actual licensing terms do vary from one resource to the next. Details regarding the type of attribution needed can be found on the page highlighting the piece of media you are interested in using. This site not only offers you the chance to search by image topic and license, but also by location, drawing types, author's profession, or the source of the work.

Why go somewhere else when Creative Commons provides links to all relevant search engines around the web? Just head to the Creative Commons Search page and you can search for all types of media and in specific image archives from Europeana to Pixabay. The search tool can even limit results based on whether or not the results are suitable for commercial use and allow derivatives. Just remember that the tool just links to other search engines and doesn't do any actual searching itself. As a result, there's no guarantee that the images returned are CC images. So always double-check the licensing that applies to any images you find prior to actually using them.

Google Images

Everyone knows that the Google search engine can be used to look up images. However, how do you get only the sharable images to show up? It can be very time-consuming to go through images, clicking to open them, just to find out they don't have a CC license. Luckily, you can actually change your advanced search parameters to target CC material on the Google Image search more efficiently by using Google Advanced Image Search. Scroll down to near the bottom of the list and choose the usage rights you want. The "free to use or share" would be the equivalent of the CC BY license. Now the images that pop up will only be those you can use or share. However, you will still need to click into the image to find the original source so that you give the proper credit.

Any and all of these sources can help you find images that meet your needs while keeping you on the right side of the law. Remember that using an image or graphic in a manner consistent with its licensing is your responsibility. Always read the fine print!

Putting It All together

Once you've found your images and graphics, you'll want to make sure you use them in the best way possible. This will vary from project to project, but following a few simple tips can help you make the most of your images.

Check your images with Google Image Search: are you wondering just how unique and compelling your stock image of choice is? With a reverse image search you can upload an image to Google and do a reverse search to find all the other sites, documents, and projects where it's been used — provided they've been indexed by Google, of course. This clever service can help you avoid overused images in your work and keep things interesting and original.

Avoid excessive Photoshopping: everyone loves a nice gradient or color-correction filter, but use caution when optimizing your images. Try to avoid needless crops, clones, resizes, or filters, as all of these can turn your ideal image into an unsightly mess.

Don't ignore Photoshop altogether: free stock images often come from amateur sources, and as such, may require a bit of tweaking from time to time. If you're comfortable with Photoshop, taking the time to adjust the exposure, contrast and color can help make your freebie look like it was shot by a pro.

Keep it relevant: you may have found the perfect high-resolution photo of a rhinoceros, but if you're not talking about endangered species or large mammals of the African savanna it probably doesn't belong in your project. Images must enhance your work, not distract from it.

Using stock photos is a fantastic way to include interesting images in your work. Use the proper search tools, pay attention to licensing, and take the time to refine free images with editing tools, and you'll soon be creating professional-looking content that more than makes the grade.

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Jon Penland

About Jon Penland

Jon has worked in many capacities in the high tech world, including engineering and development. He's written many articles for, including expert reviews of web hosts, programming resource guides, and even front-end development tutorials. He lives in Georgia with his wife and five children.


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Pamela Jett

February 12, 2020

I really found this article informative and very helpful.I am a returning college student and had no idea about stock photos or where to find them.