How to Find Cool, Quirky, Copyright Free Photos on Flickr

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J.L.M. Lauweriks. Alphabet, [1900]. NAI Collection

I think we’re all always looking for that touch that makes a design feel fresh and different – a pattern, a photo, or a texture that doesn’t feel like stock. One of my favorites sources is Flickr – but probably not the way you use it.

Sure, most of us know about Flickr’s vast library of creative commons licensed images but there’s another rich vein of fascinating imagery worth exploring.

J.L.M. Lauweriks. Alphabet, [1900]. NAI Collection
J.L.M. Lauweriks. Alphabet, [1900]. NAI Collection

Many of the world’s great libraries, government agencies, private companies, national & state archives, museums, and historical societies use Flickr as a catalog for their books, documents, illustrations, and photographs. The majority of it is in the Public Domain and copyright free.

This includes organizations such as:

Incredibly, The Internet Archive of Book Images alone has been digitizing lapsed copyright books for well over a decade now, and now has more than 5 million images on the site.

The works fall into two broad categories.

  1. Works with lapsed copyright: These are old works – books, magazines, posters and advertising materials – where copyright and often the creator/s themselves expired long ago.
  2. Works of unknown creator/s: Often archive photos, these are works where the creator’s identity (and by extension, copyright) can no longer be established.

Accessing these images isn’t hard. Perform a standard search, click the ‘Any license‘ dropdown on the top left and hit ‘No known copyright restrictions‘.

Flickr search - no known copyright restrictions
Flickr search – ‘No known copyright restrictions’

How might you use these images?

Clearly we’re not talking about the kind of neatly-targeted, predictable graphics you’d expect to find on a big stock site. This is a huge library so you’ll need to go in with a plan or you could be clicking ‘next page’ for days.

Idea 1: Create a Pattern

Internet has cataloged a vast library of early 20th-century interior design and fashion books containing an almost endless selection of fabric and wallpaper samples..

This might be a good opportunity to test-drive a Seamless Tiling tool like the free offering from The Orange Box.

Seamless Texture Tool
The Orange Box Seamless Texture Tool

Idea 2: Seek Out Typography Inspiration

Illustration was relatively rare in books before 1900, but typography and text decoration have a long and… well, decorated history. If you’re looking for a design touch with a slightly mysterious, ‘Da Vinci Code’ feel, you’ll find some breathtaking examples of illuminated texts dating back to the 9th century.

However, if you’re looking for something more modern, a simple search on ‘typography text‘ is enough to turn up pages of extraordinary and often forgotten typography.

Typography on Flickr
Typography on Flickr

Idea 3: Set a Mood with a Period Piece

If you’re looking to evoke a mood, sources like the Library of Congress provide tens of 1,000’s of incredible shots of everyday life that can bring warmth and earthy charm to a design.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress: Eagle Fruit Store and Capital Hotel, Lincoln, Nebraska

Now, I have to admit, finding useful public domain imagery on Flickr takes a combination of clever ‘search-fu’ and some dogged determination. You have to get creative with your searches. The automated systems that bulk upload these images to Flickr do a decent job at tagging them meaningfully, but the sheer volume is something you’ll need to just deal with.

There’s some seriously weird stuff in there too – old medical diagrams, phrenology, and strange alchemists texts. It’s an interesting tour.

But I have to say – there’s something nice about resurfacing work that may not have been properly looked at in many decades.

Have a browse.

Originally published in the SitePoint Design Newsletter.

How can I ensure that the photos I find on Flickr are copyright-free?

To ensure that the photos you find on Flickr are copyright-free, you need to filter your search results by license type. You can do this by clicking on the “Any license” drop-down menu at the top of the search results page and selecting the “All creative commons” option. This will show you only photos that have been released under a Creative Commons license, which means you can use them for free, provided you adhere to the terms of the license.

What are the different types of Creative Commons licenses on Flickr?

There are several types of Creative Commons licenses on Flickr, each with its own set of rules. The most permissive is the CC0 license, which allows you to use the photo for any purpose without attribution. Other licenses may require you to credit the original author, share your work under the same license, or refrain from using the photo for commercial purposes. Always check the specific terms of the license before using a photo.

How can I credit the author of a Creative Commons photo from Flickr?

To credit the author of a Creative Commons photo from Flickr, you can include their name and a link to the photo’s Flickr page in your work. The format for this is typically “Photo by [Author’s Name] / Flickr / CC BY [License Type]”. Remember, not all Creative Commons licenses require attribution, but it’s always a good practice to give credit where it’s due.

Can I use Flickr photos for commercial purposes?

Whether you can use a Flickr photo for commercial purposes depends on the type of Creative Commons license it has. Some licenses allow commercial use, while others do not. Always check the specific terms of the license before using a photo for commercial purposes.

How can I find high-resolution photos on Flickr?

To find high-resolution photos on Flickr, you can use the “Any size” drop-down menu at the top of the search results page. Select the “Large” or “Original” option to filter your results by photo size. Keep in mind that larger photos will take longer to download and may require more storage space.

Can I modify Flickr photos and use them in my work?

Whether you can modify a Flickr photo and use it in your work depends on the type of Creative Commons license it has. Some licenses allow modifications, while others do not. Always check the specific terms of the license before modifying a photo.

How can I report a copyright violation on Flickr?

If you believe that a photo on Flickr is infringing on your copyright, you can report it to Flickr’s copyright team. You will need to provide evidence of your copyright and explain how the photo is infringing on it. Flickr takes copyright violations very seriously and will take appropriate action if a violation is found.

Can I use Flickr photos in my blog or website?

Yes, you can use Flickr photos in your blog or website, provided they are released under a Creative Commons license that allows for such use. Always check the specific terms of the license before using a photo, and remember to give proper attribution if required.

How can I find photos on Flickr that match a specific theme or subject?

To find photos on Flickr that match a specific theme or subject, you can use the search bar at the top of the page. Enter your desired keywords and then filter your results by license type, size, and other criteria to find the perfect photo for your needs.

Can I upload my own photos to Flickr and release them under a Creative Commons license?

Yes, you can upload your own photos to Flickr and release them under a Creative Commons license. This allows others to use your photos, potentially increasing your exposure and helping to build your reputation as a photographer. You can choose the type of license when you upload your photos.

Alex WalkerAlex Walker
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Alex has been doing cruel and unusual things to CSS since 2001. He is the lead front-end design and dev for SitePoint and one-time SitePoint's Design and UX editor with over 150+ newsletter written. Co-author of The Principles of Beautiful Web Design. Now Alex is involved in the planning, development, production, and marketing of a huge range of printed and online products and references. He has designed over 60+ of SitePoint's book covers.

AlexWarchive imagesstock photography
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