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6 Sources of Free Images for Science Blogging

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you blog, you probably know that most online images are copyrighted and off-limits for your site. Where is an enterprising science writer to turn for artwork that is free, beautiful, and legally bloggable?

1. Ask the artist

Want to use this image on your site? Just ask and I'll let you know. (credit: Alex Wild)

Artists own their copyrights, but that doesn’t mean many aren’t happy to share! Often, permission for non-commercial or personal blog use costs a mere link back to the artist’s website. While taking 30 seconds to compose a brief email may seem like extra work, consider that symbioses between writers and artists often benefit both (exhibit A: Primate Diaries blog and Nathaniel Gold). Don’t be shy!


STS-1 Pre-Launch (image: NASA)

Government agencies place most of their images in the public domain. As they should- the public paid for them! NASA maintains a wondrous database of space-related imagery usable for most purposes so long as you do not imply government endorsement of a commercial product.

NASA image portal


Aftermath of the 1976 Guatemala Earthquake (credit: A.F. Espinosa/USGS)

The U.S. Geological Survey curates a sizeable collection of public domain photographs covering not just rocks, volcanos, national parks, and earthquakes, but fascinating early images of native cultures, political figures, historical events, and more. Like NASA’s archive, USGS photographs are free to use without prior permission.

USGS Photographic Library

4. NIH Images from the History of Medicine

Fight the Peril! (credit: United States Government Printing Office)

The National Institute of Health’s historical archives contain 70,000 images, including photographs, cartoons, paintings, public health posters, and other miscellanea.

Images from the History of Medicine

5. Public Health Image Library

A Giardia muris protozoan adhering to the microvillous border of an intestinal epithelial cell. (credit: CDC/ Dr. Stan Erlandsen)

The Centers for Disease Control hosts PHIL, the Public Health Image Library. Most of the content is an unusual combination of being both modern and in the public domain, but check the details before use, as a few of PHIL’s treasures are copyrighted.

Public Health Image Library

6. Wikimedia Commons

Crystal structure of parallel quadruplexes from human telomeric DNA (credit: Tim Vickers via Wikimedia)

The Wikimedia Commons is a giant repository covering quite literally millions of items of varying copyright status, including public domain and an assortment of Creative Commons-licensed copyrighted work. Creative Commons material may or may not be safe to copy depending on the particulars of your intended use and the rights-holders’ interpretation of “non-commercial”, so I recommend sticking to the public domain.

Wikimedia Commons

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. notscientific 5:02 pm 04/29/2012

    Pictures posted on are also under some CC license which allows bloggers to use them in blog posts, am I right?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alex Wild 5:06 pm 04/29/2012

    CC is a complex topic. On one hand, CC licenses that allow for commercial use should certainly be clear for reproduction in outlets like WIRED or Scientific American.

    CC-noncommercial licenses are probably not safe, though, mostly because there is little consensus over what constitutes “commercial”.

    Link to this
  3. 3. BehavEcology 2:51 am 04/30/2012

    If CC works for your situation, strategic searches on Flickr using the “Search only within CC content” can be a good source of images….

    Link to this
  4. 4. dorloff 12:42 pm 05/3/2012

    I just wanted to make everyone aware of another source of free images for Science Blogging.

    While not all images in The Cell: An Image Library, are free to use, we have a very large number of public domain images and if authors are willing to abide by the creative commons licensing we implement, an even greater number of pictures are available. We have both creative commons attribution only images and creative commons images that are non-commercial, so it does depend on how you use the image.

    Interestingly, we have 3 and 4 dimensional imaging in the library.

    Link to this
  5. 5. citizenkirk 11:08 am 05/4/2012

    The question is, are there really people out there who would sue a small, independent blogger who’s not making any money in the first place?

    Link to this
  6. 6. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 10:04 am 05/5/2012

    Perhaps not sue, citizenkirk, but I and many other small rights-holders routinely send DMCA takedown notices to non-commercial blogs that fail to attribute and/or link our images. Thus, small non-commercial blogs run the risk of having their web hosts pull unauthorized media. Some hosts pull the entire blog in cases of repeat violations.

    It’s not that I mind small blogs using my images. It’s that my commercial infringers (mostly, pest control companies) usually copy images not directly from my site but from unattributed third party blogs. If I don’t stem the small infringements I start having more infringement problems with for-profit companies.

    Link to this
  7. 7. dorloff 1:25 pm 05/7/2012


    Additionally, not getting caught or not getting penalized is not really an excuse to break the law.

    Link to this
  8. 8. wiretrace 7:28 pm 06/25/2013

    We @wiretrace have a small collection of free computer-graphic images for science. They are high quality, (.png) with transparent background -perfect for Powerpoint, blogs or web. They are free of charge, copyright-free and available for personal, academic or commercial use. We are constantly updating so let us know of what you would like in the future.

    Link to this

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