Free antique images

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How to access a million stunning, copyright-free antique illustrations released by the British Library

What would you do with a million free images?

In keeping with its ambition to become the world’s most open institution of its kind, the British Library has released over a million public domain illustrations and other images to the public through Flickr for anyone to reuse, remix or repurpose. So far, these images, which range from Restoration-era cartoons to colonial explorers’ early photographs, have been used on rugs, album covers, gift tags, a mapping project, and an art installation at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, among other things.

The project, started in 2013, uses the library’s “Mechanical Curator” to randomly choose images or curiosities from public domain books in its digitized collection, which includes over 65,000 books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The Mechanical Curator was created in the Library’s own lab, and you can see it in action on a Twitter bot, which publishes an image every hour.

Browsing the collection is thrilling, like venturing into a wild and treasure-filled thicket without a map.

The British Library

The British Library

The British Library

Crowd-sourced classification

This incredible visual bounty includes maps, drawings, illustrations, handwritten letters, geological diagrams, cartoons, comics, posters, and decorative scrolls.

While each image on Flickr links back to a PDF of the source book, the sheer volume means that librarians cannot have a good handle on the nature of each image that the Mechanical Curator has flagged. The random collection functions like the richest, most expansive Pinterest board on the internet—and it’s constantly growing. So the library has sought the public’s help to sort through and classify the cascade of images on Flickr.

“The response has been extraordinary, and we certainly didn’t anticipate that these hidden, undescribed images would appeal to so many,” said Ben O’Steen who is the technical lead of the British Library Labs and creator of the Mechanical Curator.

O’Steen tells Quartz that to date, the collection has garnered over 267 million views, and over 400,000 tags have been added to images on Flickr by users. Through a ”tagathon” with the Wikimedia UK community, the Library discovered over 50,000 maps in the collection, which they are now in the process of fitting into a modern map.

The British Library

The British Library

Christmas labels, rugs, a Burning Man mural

So how have people been using the images? Because they are in the public domain and authors technically have no obligation to credit the Library, the sky is the limit. The images have been used on stickers, coloring books, games, music album covers and, inevitably a few Photoshop-enabled gags.

O’Steen said that personally he had made Christmas labels with some strange and unusual images in the collection. He also took an illustration of ships coming to shore and had it printed it on a rug.

Artists have also had some fun with the images.

Mario Klingemann

“We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these unseen illustrations.”

Last year David Normal created four illuminated murals by remixing hundreds of Victorian-era images from the British Library’s collection. Normal’s work, “Crossroads of Curiosity” was exhibited at the Burning Man Festival last year, and is currently installed in the British Library’s outdoor piazza.

The British Library

Duilio Marconi

Here’s the artist explaining how the “lightbox murals” were made:

“We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these unseen illustrations,” said O’Sheen. The Library is hoping that the rich trove of visual material will create alluring starting points for both scholarly and artistic projects.

Although the books were no longer protected by copyright, their obscurity was cloaking them from public attention. By making the images freely available, the idea is to give them back to the public, and thereby make them important again.


31 free public domain image websites (use with care)

A public domain image is defined as a photo, clip art or vector whose copyright has expired or never existed in the first place. These images can be used by almost anyone for personal and commercial purposes. There are three ways that public domain images occur:

  1. The image is assigned to the public domain through a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license or similar release
  2. The image is not copyrightable
  3. The copyright for the image has expired

Museums, libraries and photographers sick of “traditional” stock photos have released thousands of public domain images online, making them more easily available to the public and (yep!) that means designers, too. In this article, we’ve compiled a list of websites curating free public domain images and high quality stock photography that can be freely used by anyone worldwide.

1. Wikimedia Commons

free public domain images websites Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons is one of the largest public domain images resources. Most of images can be used freely, but some of the images have certain restrictions. You can read more information about that here.

Please note that Wikimedia Commons does notguarantee the correctness of the licensing for each image, so make sure to triple-check the license tag for each individual image

2. Unsplash

free stock photos unsplash

Unsplash is made up of a collective of photographers who were sick of “traditional” stock imagery, so they decided to offer their own high-resolution images for free. They are now a creative community with millions of engaged users and 250,000+ exclusive photos. All photos on the site can be copied, modified and distributed (including for commercial purposes) under a custom license (that is essentially the same as a CC0 license), without you having to ask permission or provide attribution.

Read more about their terms here.

3. Flickr Commons

free public domain photo resource: FlickrCommons

Worldwide, archives and libraries partner with FlickrCommons and contribute their own public domain images. It’s a great resource for finding free public domain images from all over the world, not just from the United States. FlickrCommons’ images contain no known copyright restrictions, but (as always) it’s not a guarantee—so do your research.

Read about their terms here.

4. Public Domain Pictures

free stock photo resource:

Public Domain Pictures includes lots of high-quality free public domain images, although some photos are only available with a premium membership to the site.

Be sure to check the license listed on each individual photo, since some require that your credit the author (not great for commercial designs). You’ll also want to be sure that a release was obtained by the author or yourself for images of people or property.

5. Magdeleine

free stock photos

Magdeline is another high-quality resource for free stock photography that doesn’t look like stock. Use the right-hand column to browse categories (nature, people, food, etc) or search by dominant color, which is ideal when you’re looking for cohesiveness in your design!

Be sure to filter down to CC0 licensed images, since some photos do require attribution.

6. Old Book Illustrations

free vintage illustrations

Old Book Illustrations offers a really nice collection of public domain illustrations scanned from old books and vector illustrations that can be modified and distributed for both personal and commercial projects. Perfect to add some vintage appeal, or if you’re interested in joining in the resurgence of Victorian design.

Read about their terms here.

7. ISO Republic

free stock photo resource

ISO Republic is another free stock photo website that totes the tagline, “free and premium stock photos.” The site offers more than 500 free photos, with an ever-growing image library. All images are available for both personal and commercial use, without the need for attribution.

You can read their full terms here.

8. Public Domain Vectors

public domain vectors

Public Domain Vectors has a massive collection of public domain vectors that are available to download in SVG, AI and EPS formats. All images are licensed under CC0.

9. 1 Million Free Pictures


The author of 1 Million Free Pictures is the original creator of all of the photos on this site and has released them all into the public domain. You can search through galleries curated by subject, style, purpose and more. Please note that no releases have been obtained for the images that contain people, works of art, property or trademarks—so you will need to be wary of using those types of images.

Read more about their terms here.

10. Free Stock Photos

free stock photos

Free Stock Photos’ collection of stock photos and clip art contains both public domain images and images with other licenses, so make sure to check the license of each image.

You can read more about their licenses and policies here.

11. Jay Mantri

free public domain photo

Inspired by Unsplash, professional photographer Jay Mantri created his own site filled with stunning and scenic public domain images from around the world. All are uploaded under the CC0 license and don’t require attribution.

12. Realistic Shots

free stock photos

Realistic Shots is just that… a collection of free stock photography that looks like anything but stock. All images are free to use anyway you please and every week, seven new photos are added. All images are under the CC0 license.

13. Startup Stock Photos

free stock photos

Startup Stock Photos finds its niche with a collection of hi-res public domain images focused on hip office spaces, relaxed work environments, creative brainstorms and (of course) plenty of technology. All images are under the CC0 license.

14. The British Library

british library public domain

The British Library drummed up buzz a few years ago when they released 1 million images into the public domain. Scanned from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books, the collection (hosted on Flickr) is spectacular for any designer looking for a vintage flourish. Click over to the albums for curated images of everything from typography and decorative paper to instruments and animals.

All images are within the public domain.

15. The Public Domain Review

public domain review

The Public Domain Review is a well-curated selection of public domain photos, illustrations, art, audio, films and texts. Founded back in 2011, it’s become an ever-growing community of history enthusiasts. Browse their collections or check out their monthly Curator’s Choice for a special guest post that celebrates lesser known parts of history.

All images are within the public domain. See their current image resources here.

16. Viintage

vintage public domain images

Viintage hosts thousands of inspiring public domain images from the past, including art posters and advertisements that have plenty of potential to be upcycled into something new.

17. Public Domain Archive

free public domain images

Headed up by a couple in Athens, GA, the Public Domain Archive is a labor of love that compiles high-quality public domain images from across the web into one giant repository. The collection includes both vintage and contemporary public domain images.


free stock photography

JÉSHOOTS is filled with free stock photography taken by Jan Vašek under the CC0 license. The images are divided up into different topic categories, including tech devices, cities and nature to make it easy to find exactly what you’re looking for.


designer-pics was created by Indian designer, Jeshu John, who found himself struggling to find quality free photographs. All images were taken by him, are permitted for commercial use and require no attribution.

You can read about his terms here.

20. Pixabay

free stock photos

Pixabay is made up of a community of photographers that have uploaded a huge collection of high quality public domain photos, illustrations, vectors and videos released under CC0. You can browse by photographer, type of camera and “Editor’s Choice”. Even better, you can filter by orientation, category, size and color.

21. EveryStockPhoto

free stock photo is a free stock photo search engine that lets you filter for public domain image licenses. It runs its searches through a number of reputable public domain image websites including Flickr, NASA, Wikimedia and more. Be sure to double check each photo’s license by clicking on the license icon below and to the left of the photos.

22. Negative Space

free stock photos

Negative Space is another contemporary hi-res photo site that releases all of their images into the public domain. You can filter by category, color and (most interestingly) by copy space—ideal for when you need an image for web design!

23. Death to Stock Photo

death to stock photo

Every week, Death to Stock Photo emails out themed photo packs for you to download for free. The images are all available to use as you please. If you’re interested in supporting the photographers, you can sign up for their Premium membership for $15/month.

You can read more about their terms here.

24. SpaceX

spacex public domain photos

Looking for free photos that are out of this world? SpaceX has released thousands of photos on Flickr from their missions. Best of all, they’re all in the public domain.

25. Foodies Feed

free stock photography

Working on a restaurant design? Look no further than Foodies Feed—a collection of free food images that (thankfully) look nothing like the stiff, fake food stock photography you’re used to seeing. Their photos feature everything from baristas and back of the house coking to carefully arranged meals and produce. All images are available for commercial use.

Read about their terms here.

26. Fancy Crave

public domain image website

Two new images are added every day to Fancy Crave’s ever-growing collection of free stock photos. Their mission is simple: help photographers be discovers and help the creative community at large with quality photography. All of the photos are high resolution and curated by professional photographer, Igor Ovsyannykov. The images are free of copyright restrictions under CC0.

27. The Pic Pac

public domain image website

While Pic Pac photo packs aren’t necessarily free, they’re “Pay What You Want” so you can place whatever value you’d like on them. A new themes photo pack is release every Monday for purchase. All of the images are part of the public domain (CC0).

28. Creative Vix

creative vix public domain images

Creative Vix offers a large collection of photos for personal and commercial use. All images uploaded are licensed under CC0 (you can read more here) and are only restricted based on identifiable people, who can not be featured in a bad light or in a way they may find offensive.

29. Barn Images

free public domain images

Barn Images was launched by two Latvian photographers as a way to help redefine traditional stock photography, proudly naming their images “non-stock”. New public domain images are added every weekday and everything on the site is available for commercial use (read about their license here).

For a fee, you can join their Premium Membership to receive curated photo packs and access to a dropbox filled with 1,000+ high res photos.

30. Snapwire Snaps

snapwire free stock photos

Snapwire is a platform that connects photographers with companies in need of custom photography, but (lucky for us!) they also offer a free stock photo collection through Snapwire Snaps.  Every week, seven new photos are added to this collection under the CC0 license and are labeled as such.

31. Pikwizard

pikwizard website

Pikwizard is an image library that offers over 100,000 images free to use without attribution, over 20,000 of which are exclusive to the site. They are adding new images to their library daily. Best of all, they’ve got a lot of pictures of people, which can be hard to find on free stock photo sites.


Free public domain images are an important cultural resource for everyone. But when using them as a designer you must be extremely vigilant about double-checking the license and terms of each of your desired images.

Some of these free public domain image websites will take time to look through and research properly, but there’s a lot of amazing images in them that are worth finding. Just remember to keep these things in mind when sourcing images:

  1. Does the license of the image allow you to use/distribute it in the way that you intend?
  2. Is the quality of this image suitable for both print and web uses?
  3. Are these images defined as public domain by images by the copyright laws of both countries that my client and I are citizens of?
  4. Have I double checked that this image is truly in the public domain? (run it through a search engine before using it.)
  5. Does this image include trademarks, products, property, works of art or people? If so make sure that a release has been obtained or that you obtain one yourself.

The laws regarding public domain images are different in every country, so it’s also important to be certain it’s a public domain image in both your country and the country that your client is a citizen of. Remember that some photos may require a model or property release. And never assume that a shiny “Free Download” button is a blank check.

Public domain images can be a gray legal area, and that’s why some designers prefer to use licensed stock imagery as a safer and more convenient alternative. If you do use a free public domain image commercially, you may want to check with a trademark/copyright attorney before doing so. However if you do your research properly, you can find some great free public domain images to use in your projects.

Additional public domain resources

Here are two resources that will help you in your search for public domain images:

Additional reading

And here’s some helpful articles to clarify more about image licensing and stock:

Having trouble deciding which free public domain images to use? Improve your eye for stock photography. 
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