14 Best Free Reference Photos Resources for Artists (2024)

As an artist, probably the last thing you want to think about when searching for free reference photos is intellectual property law. Sure, it sounds sexy, but truth be told, the subject can be a little dry.

So, when you want to find free reference photos to use as inspiration for your next art piece, what do you do? In the United States, copyright law states that,

“To be copyrightable, a derivative work must be different enough from the original to be regarded as a new work or must contain a substantial amount of new material. Making minor changes or additions of little substance to a preexisting work will not qualify the work as a new version for copyright purposes. The new material must be original and copyrightable in itself.”

Source

In other words, if you just pick a photo off the web at random, you’ll have to do quite a bit of work to make sure you’re not stepping on the artist’s toes and infringing on his or her rights.

Fortunately, there are many resources out there that have loads (seriously, millions) of free images with flexible licenses, allowing you to use them without the hair-pulling limitations and unknowns involved with other types of images found online.

With this list of amazing resources, you can rest easy knowing the licensing of the work is artist-friendly. Whether you’re a painter, an illustrator, a graphic designer, or another creative altogether, we’ve got you covered. Also included are more niche and less mainstream sites. Who wants to use what everyone else is using?

With that said, let’s dive in and find heaps of amazing, unique images you can use freely in your next art or design project.

NOTE: While we’ve done our best to ensure the image licensing is as described in this post, you should double-check the individual site and media use licenses to make sure they coincide with your project’s needs.

And hey – if you’d like to pass along these freebies, here’s a Pinnable image for sharing!

14 Best Free Reference Photos Resources for Artists (1)

1. Unsplash

  • 4 million+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
14 Best Free Reference Photos Resources for Artists (2)

There are so many terrific photos on this site it’s hard to believe that they’re free. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about infringing on anyone’s copyrights when you use them in your next creative project.

That’s because, like many of the sites on this list, Unsplash’s free reference photos are licensed generously, even allowing commercial use. No attribution is necessary, though it’s good form to credit the artist and website if you can!

  • Large selection of high-quality, hand-selected royalty-free images
  • Modern, fast, and functional website user experience
  • Nearly 300,000 contributing photographers

2. Pixabay

  • 4 million+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
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Pixabay is a tremendous resource for free stock images. The site offers vectors, music, sound effects, and video, in addition to the usual images.

The site’s interface is functional and very user-friendly. Pages load fast, and the site has a clean, clutter-free appearance. While sponsored images from paid stock websites are in the mix, it’s still a fair trade off, and the ads aren’t intrusive.

Without an account you can download images and videos, and rasterized vectors up to 1,920 pixels on the longest side. Sign up for a free account account to remove these limitations. In other words, with a free account you’ll be able to download images and video in their original size, and the vector graphics as well.

  • Large selection of images, audio, and video
  • Media is curated, first by Pixabay members, then editors
  • Could use a bit more curation for quality, but it’s still easy to find amazing free reference photos for artists

3. Library of Congress

  • 81,000+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
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The Library of Congress is the world’s most expansive library, housing millions of books, films, audio, photos, newspapers, maps, and manuscripts. Serving as the primary research resource for the U.S. Congress and hosting the U.S. Copyright Office, it’s a treasure trove of knowledge.

It’s a terrific resource for free imagery, especially if you’re looking for vintage source material.

Thankfully for artists, their collection includes hundreds of royalty-free image collections comprised of thousands of individual images. They’re organized in groups, for example, notable historic figures, important moments and eras, subject of the images, and more.

  • Historically significant, visually stunning images
  • Media is organized into helpful collections
  • Each item’s license is clearly stated

4. Pexels

  • 200,000+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
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Founded in 2015 and run by a small team, Pexels serves up quality content with a simple and artist-friendly license.

Pexels offers photos and videos from contributing artists. However, unlike some of the other sites on this list, they also import media from other free stock photography websites. For example, there’s a Pixabay profile with 11,000+ images and video that were imported from their website. You’ll know if any given photograph or video came from a user (versus another website), if you see that the profile belongs to an individual.

All in all, Pexels features a clean and intuitive interface, doesn’t require registration, and features some terrific images and video. Even if a good portion of that comes from other, more prominent free image resource websites.

  • A mixture of unique and imported content
  • Offers images and video
  • Modern and functional design

5. Flickr – Creative Commons

  • 600 million+ images
  • Licenses vary
14 Best Free Reference Photos Resources for Artists (10)

You might have heard of this site, as it’s freaking (flicking?) massive. If you looked at ten of Flickr’s creative commons images every second for an entire year, you’d still have at least half a year to go. And that’s if nobody uploaded during that time, and you didn’t die of exposure. Basically by the time you finished our alien overlords would stop changing the water in your brain-in-a-jar and let you expire. The only real downside is sifting through all the images to find the highest quality pictures, which is what most of the other sites on this list have already taken care of.

You can browse images by license here. There are almost ten million Creative Commons CC0, “no-rights-reserved” images alone!

  • Massive selection
  • There’s a fair amount of mediocre photos…
  • … But lots of unique gems, too, that aren’t on typical free image resource sites

6. Free Images

  • 300,000+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
14 Best Free Reference Photos Resources for Artists (12)

Formerly known as stock.xchng, this site was bought out by Getty images. Because of this, you’ll notice advertisem*nts to their other, paid sites – mainly iStock. This means that when you perform a search, the first images at the top of the site will link to iStock.

So, feel free to breeze by those for the truly free reference photos! Unlike most of the other sites on this list, there’s only one downloading option, and it’s for the full-size version. If you want a smaller size, you’ll need to shrink it down yourself.

The downloading experience isn’t the most user-friendly. The website is fairly slow to respond, and there’s a countdown timer (and tons of ads) that you’ll need to put up with. But, even though the site’s showing its age, there are still lots of good free reference images to find. Plus, the license allows for commercial use, which is why Free Images makes this list.

  • Decent selection
  • Very flexible license
  • The site’s showing its age, and the iStock advertisem*nts are excessive

7. Kaboompics

  • 25,000+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
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What makes Kaboompics special, aside from the free image licensing, of course, is that all the images were created by one person—Karolina—who’s mighty handy with a camera. The site design is clean, well organized, and easy to search.

Thanks to these facts her free stock images have been downloaded almost 35 million times!

Kaboompics might be a good choice if you’re looking for consistency in style, and a higher level of curation.

  • Good selection of high-quality free images
  • Consistency across the images, both in style and quality
  • Website offers an enjoyable and friction-free user experience

8. picjumbo

  • 5,000+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
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Keeping with the single-creator-run free stock photography sites, we have picjumbo, established in 2013 by photographer Viktor Hanacek.

All the photos are taken by Viktor, which he gives away for personal and commercial use. Of course, a link back to his site is appreciated, but not mandated.

He smartly includes the option to download all the images on his site for a nominal $15 fee. It’s a good way to support the site and the man, plus a convenience if you like his work.

The site itself is well organized, runs quickly, and is easy to navigate. Definitely give it a look.

  • There are some really good-looking photos here
  • Consistency across the images, both in style and quality
  • Upgrades, while not free, can offer a high value if you enjoy the content

9. StockSnap

  • 35,000+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
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I imagine at this point you’ve found the image you’re looking for. No? Alright, here are thirty-five thousand and a bit more.

StockSnap is another straightforward, use-for-just-about-anything free image resource. The site design isn’t particularly inspired, but it’s functional and responsive, and there are lots of high-quality images to be found.

  • Straightforward and functional interface
  • Another potential source of unique imagery
  • No free account needed

10. New Old Stock

  • 1,000+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
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Want some classic inspiration? These historical images are all in the public domain, and thus free of copyright restrictions, according to the website.

You can browse these vintage photos linearly, or you can go to this page to quickly view them as thumbnails. It’s a fun and potentially useful collection to be sure, especially if you’re going for an old-time aesthetic.

  • Wonderful selection of classic images
  • Unique images to help your work stand out from the crowd
  • No account needed to download

11. Burst

  • 23,000+ images
  • Commercial use, no attribution
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Basically a Shopify advertisem*nt, Burst nonetheless offers up some great quality, free stock photography. Their license is also extremely generous, allowing even prints of the images downloaded from their site.

No account is needed, not even to download the highest resolution pictures. And, like other sites on this list, they have a number of curated collections, plus a quick search tool.

Overall, Burst is worth a look for your next project!

  • Practically a do-anything-you-want-with-them licensed images
  • A high-quality selection overall
  • No account needed to download

12. Magdeleine

  • 1,500+ images
  • Commercial use, some attribution
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Magdeleine has a relaxed feel to it, both in the site design and in the photography. The gallery is searchable by category and keyword, and offers many free stock photos.

Many of the images give off nature vibes, so if that’s what you’re looking for, definitely check it out! There are two license types – public domain and attribution required – and you can filter pictures based on those criteria. Overall it’s another very useful resource.

  • Quality collection of unique images
  • Great if you’re looking for a natural, warm look and feel
  • No account needed to download

13. MorgueFile

  • 400,000+ images
  • Commercial use, attribution needed if using the images unmodified
14 Best Free Reference Photos Resources for Artists (26)

While not as high-quality (in my opinion) as the top sites on this list, MorgueFile is nonetheless a decent resource with a generous license.

You’ll need a free account to download images, including low-resolution ones. While the site advertises video, vectors, and templates, as of this writing, they just bring up sponsored media from Shutterstock.

  • Large amount of images
  • Need a free account to download
  • Well-made site that’s easy to navigate

14. Openverse

  • 700 million+ images
  • Creative Commons licenses or public domain, some attribution
14 Best Free Reference Photos Resources for Artists (28)

Finally, we have Openverse – a search engine that taps multiple free image resource websites. In fact, it searches over half a billion free images!

Originally a Creative Commons project, the site stopped offering new updates to the underlying software in late 2020. Shortly thereafter, CC joined forces with the WordPress project. The result is a good-looking and handy meta engine for free stock photo searches.

Considering how much data the search has to organize, results are returned fairly quickly, though there is more of a lag than on many sites on this list. You can filter your search by license and creator, and you can search audio as well as images.

When you land on an image you like, click it to open the details page. There you’ll see a summary of the license, links to the creator, and a link to download the free image from the source website. Easy!

  • A free image search engine that looks through dozens of sites simultaneously
  • If the content is curated, it’s by the source website, not Openverse
  • Convenient place to start your image search if you want to cover lots of bases quickly

Did you find the free reference photos you wanted?

If not, quantity certainly isn’t an issue! The challenge is finding the hidden gems and sourcing the highest-quality free stock photos. This curated list of top online reference image websites should bring you a step closer to your creative vision!

Foundmyself

Foundmyself is a community of professional artists and art lovers from across the globe. In our blog we strive to give you the best artistic tips and insightful marketing strategies, bridging the gap between art and commerce. Our expert-driven content is crafted to propel your creative journey forward, whether you're an artist, an art lover, or both!

14 Best Free Reference Photos Resources for Artists (2024)

FAQs

Where can I find legally free reference photos for my art? ›

17 Websites to Get Royalty-Free Reference Images For Artists
  • Unsplash. ...
  • Pixabay. ...
  • Paint My Photo. ...
  • Picjumbo. ...
  • Startup Stock Photos. ...
  • Libreshot. ...
  • Pexels. ...
  • Splitshire.

How do artists get reference photos? ›

Pexels is another great site offering free stock photos. With a vast gallery of high-quality images, free reference photos for artists are only a search away. The website is easy to navigate, with categories to help artists find their needs. Their free image license also allows for commercial use.

Do professional artists use reference photos? ›

Many professional artists use some form of reference imagery, and if they do create images from their head, the reason why they have that skill set is from years of drawing from life.

Where do artists get their references from? ›

Make your own references

Use your friends and family as models. You might be able to direct your models to get the perfect reference rather than hoping to find it online. Many professional artists stage images they want and take photos of them. They might get a person or group to pose in a specific way.

Is tracing photos for art legal? ›

If you trace over your own existing design, it would not be considered copyright infringement, as you are the owner of the original work. However, if the original design was inspired or influenced by someone else's work, there could still be potential issues with plagiarism or derivative work.

What is the app for collecting reference images? ›

All your reference images in one place.
  • PureRef is a stand-alone program for Windows, Mac and Linux that keeps track of your images. ...
  • Drag and drop images from anywhere. ...
  • Always where you need it. ...
  • Available cross-platform. ...
  • Optimize your workflow. ...
  • Visualize, organize, optimize.

Is drawing from reference illegal? ›

Even if you are using the photograph as a reference or inspiration, creating a drawing or sketch that closely resembles the original photographic image may be considered a derivative work, which is also protected by the said law.

Where do AI art generators get their images? ›

Where does AI art get its images? AI art generators feature language models that have been trained on millions of samples of text, images, audio clips and other digital media. Generators can then reference these massive data sets when responding to a prompt.

Where can I find high-quality images of paintings? ›

The Best Museum Collections
  • Smithsonian Open Access – over 4,500,000 images. ...
  • Europeana Collections – over 2,200,000 images. ...
  • Museo – over 1,900,000 images. ...
  • The Calisphere Collections – over 1,400,000 images. ...
  • V&A Collections – over 1,200,000 images. ...
  • The British Library – over 1,000,000 images.

Where can I find high-quality art pictures? ›

Artvee – Thousands of freely downloadable public domain artworks. RawPixel – Free and premium stock images, as well as an extensive collection of free, high-quality public domain artwork.

Where can I find credible photos? ›

Recommended Websites
  • Art Photo Index. ...
  • BBC - News in Pictures. ...
  • Best of Photojournalism (NPPA) ...
  • The Big Picture. ...
  • Human Rights Watch - Multimedia. ...
  • Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. ...
  • Magnum Photos. ...
  • National Geographic Photography.
Aug 23, 2023

What do artists use for references? ›

Reference photos are images you may find or take yourself to help you with accuracy in your drawing or painting. I usually use a mix of images found and images I've taken myself, depending on what I'm able to find and what my specific subject is.

Can you use any photo as a reference? ›

Always assume a photograph is copyrighted

Unless explicitly stated otherwise, assume that every photograph you come across is protected by copyright. This will help you avoid inadvertently infringing on someone else's work.

Is it okay to paint from reference? ›

To truly use a photo as a reference, you would use it to learn about the characteristics of your subject. For instance, the shape of a particular tree, the texture of a rock, or the colors on a butterfly's wings. As an artist, you can certainly use that knowledge in your original compositions and paintings.

Do you have to reference copyright free images? ›

Referencing a copy-safe image for a written assignment

When using images in written assignments, you need to provide a figure number and title above the image, as well as an in-text citation for the image caption and a full reference in your reference list.

Where can I find images to cite? ›

Here are some sites that we recommend:
  • Openverse, formerly Creative Commons Search. A meta-search tool that searches across more than 300 million images (and soon also audio and video). ...
  • Flickr Creative Commons Search. ...
  • Pixabay, Pexels and Unsplash. ...
  • Wikimedia Commons.
Oct 26, 2022

Can you use any image for reference? ›

It's often difficult to know when it's ok to reuse an image and when it's not. The internet may be a global network but each country has different copyright laws and there are no simple best practice rules applicable to everyone. The best thing to do is to use images that are clearly licensed for reuse.

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