This image is from the Rijks Museum. It is high-resolution, copyright-free, and free to download and use commercially.

Not Another Free Image Click-Bait Article

By Terri Stone

If you don’t care about quality or karma, free images are everywhere. But you do care, don’t you? At the very least, you don’t want to grab an image from the Internet, use it for a job, and risk your client being slapped with a lawsuit for copyright infringement. High-quality, free images that you can legally modify for commercial projects do exist. Here’s where to find digital files you can use in any Creative Cloud application.

LEADING THE WAY: RIJKS MUSEUM

Start by visiting the website of the Rijks Museum. In late 2012, the museum began a bold experiment by not only making it possible to download high-quality files of its collection, but by actively encouraging people to do so.

The Rijks’ Linda Volkers explains: “By allowing people to use and remix our collection, our art gets new relevance in today’s world. People we call ‘culture snackers’ don’t necessarily go to museums, but they like beautiful things. When they see and enjoy our art online, they are connected to it even though they don’t visit in person. It pulls down barriers. You don’t have to know everything about this piece of art. If you look at it and have a nicer day and are inspired to do something with the art, it’s good for the people and for us.”

Although the Rijks Museum is dedicated to Dutch art and culture, you’ll find art from all over the world, as this sampling shows. The sleepy cats in the marquee image are also from the Rijks Museum. They are click bait.

The Rijks Museum’s brand-awareness plan has paid off; for example, participation in the Rijksstudio Award, for which contestants make a new creation inspired by a museum piece, has exploded in numbers and global reach since it began in 2014. (“In 2017, our top 10 entries were from 9 countries,” says Volkers.)

But let’s get back to what you really care about—the freebies. To get an image, browse the website, and when you see something you like, simply click the scissor icon to download it. The only requirement is that you first register for a free account called a Rijksstudio. You can browse by artist, style, subject matter, and more. Most of the collection is no longer under copyright, but if you stumble across the odd outlier, you’ll see a “not available to download” message.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART

How about more than 50,000 downloadable images that are OK to use for commercial purposes? That’s what the United States’ National Gallery of Art offers. Although some newer works are still under copyright, the distinction is clear—you can’t download copyrighted images, only those in the public domain. 

The National Gallery’s selection of high-resolution imagery encompasses land and sea.

While the website is not nearly as polished as the Rijks Museum’s site, you can save images that interest you to lightboxes and search for images with related attributes. There’s also a handy printing guide.

GETTY MUSEUM

There are millions of assets on the Getty Museum website, but only 114,000 are in the public domain. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to zero in on the copyright-free files: On the Search page, make sure that you filter by Open Content Images . From there, you’ll find many ways to further narrow your search results; for example, by topic, location, and type. Fans of Italian art and architecture will be especially pleased by the sizeable Foto Arte Minore archive. All Open Content assets are at least 300 ppi. 

It took me just a few clicks to reach this 800ppi map.

WALTERS ART MUSEUM

You’ll find thousands of high-resolution, downloadable images on the Walters Art Museum website. There are several ways to browse the collection (by category, place, medium, and more). You can save what you like in collections or download as you go. The museum has assigned the Creative Commons Zero: No Rights Reserved license to all of these images, which allows you to copy, modify, and distribute them, even for commercial purposes. 

I downloaded an entire book as a PDF. These are just a few of the file's 100 high-res pages.

NASA and NOAA

You may already know about NASA’s extensive (140,000 files and growing!) image and video library. It’s a great resource for imagery related to aeronautics, astrophysics, Earth science, and, of course, spaceflight. Many of the images and most of the videos are in the public domain and therefore OK for commercial use. Do be careful to avoid assets with the NASA logo and astronauts or NASA employees; see the advertising guidelines for more information.

For more of the natural (and, occasionally, unnatural) world, from recent weather events to old drawings of animals, try the image library of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Most of its 32,000+ images are in the public domain. Artistic merit can be spotty (the scientists understandably prioritize their work, not the photos), and the website’s organization is clunky. However, you’ll be rewarded for digging deeper into this collection; for example, visit the “Treasures of the Library" section for images from rare assets, such as a 1695 book that shows us what a Baltic Sea merman looked like. 

NASA image sizes and resolutions vary; this one of a 2013 supermoon is 300 ppi and more than 3,000 pixels high (left). As you can see in this illustration from NOAA, merman fashion has changed since the 17th century (right).

Do you like other sources of free images that are copyright-free, can be used in commercial work, and are available in resolutions high enough for print? Please let us know in the Comments section below.