Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writer's Life: Free Pictures

Shuttle Atlantis - Photo - NASA Archives: # ISSC21E029818
One of the tough things if you are a blogger or if you're writing a book is to find pictures to illustrate your stuff.  A lot of us finally gave up and took up photography and learned to use illustration software.

A long time ago (ten years or so is a long time in the information age), many books were published without any illustrations whatever.  This was because finding illustrations or photographs was hard to do and permission to use those illustrations were even harder to come by. Today's ebooks practically require illustrations and pictures and given how easy they are to come by, there's no excuse not to include something to relieve the eyes of your wear readers.

As time has gone by (that last decade I was talking about earlier), photographers and families of dead illustrators have come to realize that there are a lot of pictures out there and with illustrating software, it's easier than ever to make pictures of stuff you want.  All those old negatives just aren't very valuable anymore - not when a typical book may only make a thousand dollars or so for two year's work. So many have given up their dreams of being rich on Grandpa Bob's old negatives and allowed copyrights to lapse willy nilly.

There are literally thousands of downloadable photos, images and documents out there now.  These vast piles of pictures have been collected and placed online by researchers, universities, libraries and information entrepreneurs who make money off the ads you see when you visit the site.  At most sites, you can download pictures by right clicking them and clicking "save image to". Some have a download button which is also nice. You thus have millions of pictures with which to illustrate your blog, magazine articles, your ebook or even your printed book. And they are free - sort of....well most of them.

Watch out for land mines!  In all of these collections are both public domain and copyrighted pictures and photos of documents.  I've included here a list of some of the key sites you should bookmark on your browser and these will help you avoid copyright entanglements.

The government, it turns out, is not totally useless. They have commissioned and collected a lot of photographs. Many of them were designed to promote government programs, the military and to make whatever the current administration in power look, if not effective, at least re-electable. These contain pictures of everything from an Ice Cream Social at Nasa to a family photo of the Wright Brothers' Uncle George. The two images on this page are both courtesy of the American taxpayer through NASA and the US Forest Service.

Flickr conveniently lists photos offered under the Creative Commons licensing scheme that allows photographers and artists to offer their work free to the public in exchange for photographic credit. Just cut and paste the little copyright tagline as requested to identify the photo and you're good to go.

Another handy site is the Dotgovwatch list of Best Copyright Free Photo Libraries.  It includes free government and public domain photos and offers links to other compilations of public domain photos. 

The government itself offers a compilation page called US Government Photos and Images that's a good bit more Spartan, but has links to huge libraries of government bought and paid for pictures. Again, even here there are photos that are restricted in how you can use them so always check the disclaimer.

The United States Library of Congress has a nifty page of links to photos and images in their American Memory Photo & Document Collection.  This collection also includes photographis of historical documents and images related to historical events.  Well worth checking out!

US Forest Service Image by Ansel Adams 
Famous photographer, Ansel Adams, did a bunch of photos of national parks for the US Forest Service just before WWII.  Many of them are considered works for hire and thus public domain since they were done with taxpayer money. The National Archives has a few of these, but notes that some in their Yosemite collection may still be under copyright.

Public Domain Sherpa is a huge collection of links to other collections. Each link includes a description of the site's contents and a word about copyright related to each unique collection.

When you search for free images, beware.  "Royalty Free" doesn't necessarily mean the website won't charge you to download the image.  Many so-called royalty free image collections make their money charging you for the download.

If you need a lot of graphics type stuff, it's better to buy a collection of images that you can then use royalty free.  Be careful there too. Just because you buy an image disk, don't be so sure it's royalty free if you use it for commercial purposes like on your weblog.  Older CD-based graphics collection often retain certain "commercial" rights. Many newer ones have given up doing that and simply sell you the images for a one time price and thereafter they are royalty free.  Watch the disclaimers on the packaging.

A good writer now has to do so much of the work on his own including finding images to illustrate his work.  These websites make it easier to find good pictures for free. Bookmark these links and get used to searching them and watching for copyright notices.  Your weblog will always draw better if you have a picture with it when you post the link on Facebook. 

If you regularly need images and you're making a living at your writing, it may be worth your time to get a subscription to a royalty free image library.  Anything that makes your writing life easier.


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