ONLINE KNOWHOW How to Use Pictures Online

Why do you need to know how to use pictures online? Julie Sullivan explains the reasons and shows you how.

The most obvious reason for having pictures in an online post is that it makes people look. Everyone loves pictures. 

As an author or illustrator, you’ve probably been told you should have an online presence. This is where pictures come in.

Is your blog one long block of text? Is your Twitter feed a lot of hello-ing to your friends? Nothing wrong with that, but if you add a picture to that tweet, your chances of being retweeted go up 35%. There are cynical publishers out there who are far more inclined to publish someone with thousands of followers than someone whose profile picture is the default (don't do that). On Facebook you’ll get more attention if you accompany your posts with a picture. And articles with pictures get 94% more views than without.

Make Sure They're Legal!

This is the most important thing to know about images online.

You might not think this is a concern. You got that picture from Google, it doesn’t say 'copyright' on it, and no one’s ever bothered you about it. Maybe other people have used it too. However, a picture doesn’t have to say 'copyright' on it to be copyrighted. Almost every picture you see online–even on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat– that is not specifically marked as Creative Commons or free for reuse is legally copyrighted. 

Is this photo free for you to use? Actually, it is; I took it while stuck in traffic near Big Ben, and I don't care. But always check!

This also means that if you created an image–a drawing, painting or photograph–you automatically own the copyright. 

Fair Dealing (Fair Use in the USA) 

In the UK you are allowed to use other people's photos for research and private study; this is considered 'fair dealing'. You can also generally use them for criticism and review, for example posting a book cover in a book review(Caveat: None of the advice in this article is from a lawyer, so inform yourself if you have concerns.)

While it might be unlikely for you to be sued, there is new technology that crawls the web for pictures and it is easier than ever before for the original creator of your image to find you. It is unpleasant, and it could be very expensive, to be accused of stealing someone else’s images.  It’s also no excuse in the eyes of the law to say you didn’t choose the pictures yourself, your web designer did. In a worst-case scenario, your site could be taken down. Stay safe: use permissible pictures. 

Where do you find images to use online? 

Obviously, if you created the image yourself, and you weren’t working for hire at the time, you have the right to it. However, if other people are in your photograph, the law in the U.K. is not completely clear on that. Best if possible to ask them first, even if these are your friends at your book launch. 

Luckily, there are many, many places to find public-domain images. There is a list of some good ones at the end of this article.  Google itself allows you to search for images by usage rights. You can find them on Google this way: go to Image search, then Tools. A bar underneath will appear, and you will see Usage rights. Click on that and a dropdown menu appears with five choices. The top one is to see all images, including the copyright ones. The other choices help you find images whose owners have allowed them to be used. You may be surprised to see that most of the images disappear when you do. That means the creators of those images do not want you to use them.

unfiltered search results
A search for 'red riding hood' on Google Image Search.

The dropdown menu under Usage rights on Google Image Search

search results filtered by usage rights
The same search, but searching only Usage rights 'Labeled for reuse'. The selection of images is almost completely different.
Many more people allow the pictures they create to be used for noncommercial purposes than for commercial. This means that if you used someone's picture on your writer's blog years ago, before you were published, but now you are selling your books or services on the blog, you need to ask permission, unless you already have commercial rights too. 

Best practices for photos on your blog or website

Remember that most people read on their mobiles. Make sure your photo or illustration is visible on the first screen, like 'above the fold' in a newspaper, so that readers don’t have to scroll down. This will make your site more attractive. Add a caption to photos. The statistics on how many people don’t even read the text are astonishing. 

For good SEO (Search Engine Optimisation–this means making your website/page as findable as possible) start by naming your pictures correctly. Try to use a keyword in its file name. Think about the words someone would look for if they desperately wanted to find something like your page. Then use those words in the name of the file. For example, suppose your new book is called Bike Robot. Don’t let your photo just be named 00045.jpg Name it bike-robot.jpg or book-launch-Bike-Robot.jpg (Use the hyphen because otherwise the search engines, like Google, will read it as a single word.)

bike-riding robot
This photo's name is bike-robot-from-goodfreephotos.png (because I found it here).

Also it's a good idea to fill out the alt tags. (This is a bit more technical and not urgent, so don't worry if you don't figure it out right away.) These tags allow people who can't see the pictures (perhaps they have a slow internet connection) to at least understand what the picture was of. Alt tags also help your website or page to be found more easily by search engines.  

Pictures should in general be about twice as wide as they are high–about as wide as the text, if possible. You can crop and change their sizes either on your computer or online on easy-to-use free sites like Pixlr

Align images to the center or the right most of the time. That way, readers’ eyes don’t have to jump when they go down one line. 

If you’re an illustrator or made your own photo or graphic, you might want to put your name or website name into the picture so that anyone who copies it will see whom they should credit.

Size your pictures correctly for the web. A good resolution is 72 pixels/px. A normal width for a picture might be between 300px and 800px. You can compress your pictures to make them quicker to load at sites like TinyPNG.

To make an icon:

Make a funny meme or a pie chart: try imgflip

To make a favicon:
A favicon is the tiny icon to the left of your URL–for example, on Words and Pictures it's the white WP in an orange square in the tab at the top of the page. There's nothing wrong with not having a custom favicon but it can make your website look a little more professional.

Sources for free images

Digital Bodleian. Oxford University has been digitalising its legendary library and already has almost 700,000 images online. Most of the images may be used only for non-commercial purposes and with attribution.

The British Library has an extensive image archive online. Its free image archive is on Flickr.

David Rumsey A long list of public- and private-domain images by collection.

Flickr  You must specifically filter for Creative Commons on Flickr image search. To find only Creative Commons results, try using Compfight.

Flickr includes 2.7 million + searchable images from books 1500-1922 (therefore copyright-free) posted by US academic Kalev Leetaru

To be completely correct when you use a photo from Flickr or anything under Creative Commons, you should attribute it as follows: title of the photo (if provided); source link to where the image lives online; author of the photo (link to page); license.

Free Digital Photos

Free Images

Free Range


New York City Public Library More than 700,000 images, of which almost 200,000 are public-domain.



Public Domain Archive

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam offers 250,000+ free images.


US Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, and has an online image archive of 1,200,000+ photos, many free to use.

Vince Vaughn, the actor, has donated some stock photos to the interwebs! You're free to use these as you wish.

Wikimedia Commons 39+ million images to use freely

WikiSpaces  A list of free digital image collections

Yale University 160,000+ free images from Yale's museums and libraries


Julie Sullivan

  Julie Sullivan is a SCBWI volunteer who still has a lot to learn.



  1. Thanks Julie! I've been spending a lot of time trawling for suitable images recently, and here are some further resources:
    Unsplash - Completely free high quality stock-photo-like images
    CC Search - Creative Commons search engine that allows you to search across multiple sites for copyright-free resources
    Metropolitan Museum - They recently released 400,000 of their artwork images under a Creative Commons licence

  2. That's fantastic! Thank you Nick! There are lots more coming online all the time these days. I especially like the CC Search–that should be very useful.


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