The Best Free Photos on the Web (Where to Find Them and What to Do With Them)


Ya know what we like best about Teh Intertubes? The pictures.

No, wait, scratch that — the FREE pictures.

Now that the Library of Congress and NASA and the New York Public Library all have their collections online, there are more copyright-free pictures around than you can shake a stick at.

What to do with all those free pictures?

  • Cover your ceiling with photos from the Hubble telescope.
  • Frame some vintage portraits and tell people they’re your relatives.
  • Make DIY greeting cards and you’ll never have to give Hallmark another dime!
  • Beautify your abode’s blankest, bleakest, boring-est white walls.
  • Heck, sleep in a big pile of prints if it makes ya happy!

Keep reading for where to find the greatest photos on the web, and what to do with ’em when you find them.

The Best Free Photos (Where to Find ‘Em and How to Use ‘Em)

Photos courtesy of: The Library of Congress and NASA

Whatcha Gonna Do With All Them Pictures?

family-smAccess to practically infinite photo resources means you can do a whole heck of a lot with all those pictures. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Make a fake family portrait wall! Print some photos of bygone personalities, put them in old-style frames and tell everybody they’re your Uncle Max the physicist, Auntie Helen the aviatrix, or Grandpa Bill the Wild West star.
  • Need a birthday card in a hurry? Pick a favorite image, print it on heavy paper and slip it in an envelope. Ta-dah! Cheaper than getting one at the store, plus no goofy slogans (or maybe your own goofy slogans)!
  • Make a ceiling collage of photos from NASA: distant nebulae, swirling galaxies, or hordes of invading aliens (oh wait, those haven’t been made public yet).
  • Teach yourself the history of photography: start w/ cyanotypes (Anna Atkins was the first female photographer) and collodion plates (Carleton Watkins was one of the first people to photograph Yosemite) and move up through the beginnings of photojournalism (Berenice Abbot documented New York City during the Great Depression).
  • Rasterize or vectorize your favorite images and make them into giant posters.

The Smithsonian Institution

The collection: The Smithsonian Institution

The scoop: The Smithsonian has large digital files available, so you can make fairly large prints (sometimes up to 11″x14″). The majority of photos have no known copyright restrictions, so you can do as you please with them.

The best photos:
People and the Post from the National Postal Museum, a gigantic collection of portraits of scientists, and Edward Curtis’ portraits of Native Americans.

What to do with ’em: Make large prints of antique chandeliers or tropical fish, frame them and cover that blank wall you don’t know what to do with. Also search for large feature photos for your “family” wall!


George Eastman House

The collection: George Eastman House

The scoop: George Eastman House is a museum dedicated to the origins of photography (Eastman founded Kodak). Though most photos are copyright-free, giving credit where the photographer can be identified is always a class act.

The best photos:The collection of antique cartes de visite, autochromes (an early form of color photography), and a superlatively saturated set of ad photos from the 40s.

What to do with ’em: Raid the cartes de visite and “Women!” sets for “relatives” to put on the wall. The Nickolas Muray set just begs to made into ultra-kitschy Xmas cards (or tile multiple photos together and print on letter-sized paper to make instant wrapping paper)!


The Library of Congress

The collection: The Library of Congress

The scoop: The Library of Congress has one of the largest photography collections in the US, a fraction of which are available online. Although the file sizes available online are relatively small, you can order actual photographic prints from the Library’s website (starting at $25 for an 8×10).

The best photos: Famous Depression-era photos, portraits of Abraham Lincoln, and an enormous set of 1930s and 1940s color photos (including Rosie the Riveter).

What to do with ’em: Though the available files aren’t huge, most are big enough to make 5″x7″ prints. Or you can go big! Rasterize or vectorize your favorites and make them into posters.


The New York Public Library

The collection: The New York Public Library

The scoop: The images that the NYPL has uploaded to Flickr’s Commons have no known copyright restrictions, although other rights issues may apply. Additional images can be found in the library’s Digital Gallery.

The best photos: Early photos from Ellis Island, stills from the fledgling silent film industry, Berenice Abbot’s Depression-era document of New York City, and albums of early tinted photos of Japan and Egypt.

What to do with ’em: The small size of NYPL files makes them best-suited for the web. Illustrate your blog or browse through the collections to catch up on your photo history. You could also put small (3″x5″ or smaller) images on DIY postcards and greeting cards.



The collection: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The scoop: NASA makes its images available for educational and scientific purposes, so don’t go trying to make money off of them, and be sure to credit NASA if you use the photos in print or online.

The best photos: Astronaut’s photos of the moon landing, images from the Hubble telescope, and the photo-of-the-day gallery.

What to do with ’em: Everything about space photos says big, BIG, BIG!!! Make giganto enlargements and cover an entire wall. Or print letter-sized photos of many different galaxies and collage your ceiling to make a whole new universe!


Photos courtesy of: The Smithsonian, George Eastman House, The Library of Congress, The New York Public Library, and NASA