How to Find Free Images for Educational Use

1000px-Periodic_Table_of_Elements_showing_Electron_Shells_(2011_version).svgby Greg Robson, via Wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike.

Copyright Law and Images for Educational Use


Click any image in this post to see its source and open license information.

It’s not difficult to find images for your classroom and teaching materials while honoring copyright law. There are a number of ways to find free or open-license images on the Internet. While there is such a thing as the fair use of copyrighted images for educational use, this use is fairly restrictive and requires your time and effort to ensure you’ve complied. Unless a specific image you need is a copyrighted resource, your time may serve you better to search for free or properly licensed images. Here are three safe and easy ways to find an image you can be certain you have license to use.

1. Wikipedia / Wikimedia

As all content on Wikipedia is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, you can expect images on Wikipedia (and its media hub, Wikimedia) typically to be licensed in one of three ways:

  1. Public Domain or equivalent CC license–you can use these freely–
  2. Creative Commons license that may require attribution–you can use this as long as you give credit to the author–or
  3. Copyrighted images used at low resolution for the purpose of review or critique. You should not necessarily use these images unless they are also low-res and also for the protected purpose of review or critique. (See Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office’s guidelines on educational fair use of copyrighted material, same link as above.)

Image detail pages on Wikipedia will always tell you the copyright status of the graphic.

These microscopic snow crystals from Wikimedia are a public domain image because they were created by a government agency (US Department of Agriculture).

Snow crystals macro micro

On the other hand, the following blank periodic table graphic is an example of a CC-Attribution-ShareAlike license, so I have to convey, in a reasonably prominent manner such as this, that it was created by Wikipedia user DePiep. Generally, credit in a footnote or a caption is sufficient, and if the author has only given a username, as in this case, citing the username is enough. If you’re using the image on the web, a link to the source is good form. Though not required, it is a show of good faith and a favor to the source or author.

Blank periodic table

You can search for images by browsing relevant Wikipedia articles or by directly searching Wikimedia Commons with keywords for your topic. Wikimedia is a particularly good resource for technical content for science, chemistry, and physics classrooms due to hosting diagrams and exemplary images for Wikipedia articles on those subjects.

Trionychidae sp.

Trionychidae sp., Eocene softshell turtle from Wyoming. Public domain (National Parks Service) image from Wikipedia.

Wikimedia offers several download resolutions on each image detail page (click any image above for an example), so you can choose a size appropriate for your usage. These pages also spell out the license details and authorship in order for you to be sure your use respects copyright law.

2. MorgueFile

MorgueFile is an images database operated by iStock. While images on MorgueFile can be used freely for design and reference, the service exists for the up-sell to paid iStock images.

Terracotta Army

MorgueFile could be a particular resource for social studies and the natural sciences. You might not find so many technical diagrams for the “hard1” sciences. However, there are plenty of animals, fossils, minerals, buildings, cityscapes, urban scenery, people, plants, and laboratory images.


Carnivore Skul

Footnote 1: “Hard” sciences–you may think I’m being classist about “tiers” of science by using this loaded cliche…Really, I just mean I think they’re hard.

3. School Subscriptions

Some schools, particularly post-secondary institutions, may maintain image service subscriptions. Check with your school librarian. An image stock subscription may allow you access to a large database of professional images. Image services often provide access to resources from major image repositories, such as Getty Images.

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About Bret Norwood

Bret Norwood is a staff blogger for Learning Laboratory in addition to other roles, including UI design and content development for Study Putty, our free memorization tool for chemistry and many other course topics. He is also a published writer of literary fiction--see

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