These tools will help you find the right images for your stories

Editor's note: After this article published, we heard from many esteemed journalists who were critical of our approach and the message that we delivered. In the spirit of fostering more dialogue about the use of digital images — particularly free ones — we sought out people whose opinion we respect to write about the issue.

One such person who did was Mark E. Johnson, an educator and visual journalist who has had a longtime relationship with Poynter and who has taught here several times. He wrote a thorough and thoughtful piece that is published on our site: Article about free images 'contradicts everything I hold true about journalism.

Photo editor Sue Morrow also wrote a piece for us, proposing collaboration and solution-based thinking.

NPPA put out a statement on its website: Visuals have value, and so do visual journalists.

And finally, Poynter president Neil Brown wrote about the issue: We wrote about free photo sites. Many journalists were outraged. Now what? 

We invite you to read them all and help us continue the dialogue. — Anne Glover, poynter.org editor

It's a hard sell to get anyone to read an article online if that article doesn't have an image. Most audiences find posts through social or search, both of which have a visual element. Articles without images show up as boring texts blocks that few will see and even fewer will click through.

But what do you do if you don't have an image? Luckily, there are a variety of image hosting sites with generous licenses that journalists can sort through. No image, no problem.

Hare: Hi, Ren! I’m glad we’re taking a break from our other stories to talk tools. I'm currently working on a longer piece, and this could count as procrastination, but let’s not.

LaForme: I hear that. Let’s talk about a step that follows procrastination and that writing that’ll eventually come. At some point, you’re going to get your story ready to post and do that thing where you suddenly realize you have no image, or any ideas for an image, to accompany the story. What do you do?

Hare: So interestingly, I usually try to find my image or images before I start writing (assuming I don’t have them already), and that slows me down even more.

LaForme: Ohh, that is interesting! Looking for an image is a near-final step for me. Not to make you feel like a total weirdo, but I suspect that most people think about it somewhat later in the publishing process, if they do at all.

I think we can both agree, though, that it can be an awful, time-consuming process. Depending on your subject (and ours is media news, which can make things complicated) you’re going to have a really hard time getting an image for any story.

And art matters. Images matter. If you post a story on social and it’s just a block of text, well, there’s definitely some room for improvement there.

Hare: Exactly. Sometimes I luck out and there’s an AP photo, but mostly, I head over to Flickr, and scroll and scroll and scroll.

LaForme: I’ve done that. And then after 10 minutes of scrolling I finally find the perfect picture and … I realize that the copyright doesn’t allow me to use it for editorial. Oof.

So I have a couple of sites to share today that will help you find awesome images that you don’t have to pay for, that are free of copyright issues and that have a wide variety of topics and subjects available.

My old standby has always been Creative Commons’ image search site. This one has links out to various sites that host images, including Flickr and Wikipedia. When you enter your search term and click the site, it only searches for images that you have the Creative Commons rights to use. You should still glance over the rights before you use an image (and should always provide credit when you can), but with this you can trust that you’re not going to be in trouble for snagging someone’s image without credit.

A few months ago, I learned about Pixabay, another great image hosting site. They host over a million photos, graphics, videos and more that you can generally use for free. They have a no-attribution Creative Commons license that you can see to the right of the image on every page. I’ve found some awesome stuff on Pixabay, but you also have to watch what you click. They load up some sponsored images from the paid photo sites that are almost always among the best on the page.

My latest image love affair is Unsplash. Its photos seem to be of extremely high quality. The site also gives you a one-click copy-and-paste credit after you download any photo. That may seem small, but it’s handy when you’re trying to get a post up as soon as possible.

If nothing seems to fit on those sites, or if you want to add some text to a photo or make a collage of some sort, it’s hard to find anything better than Canva (outside of Photoshop). Canva has some free images, but also hosts a bunch more for $1 each. You can also set up your images dimensions in Canva to perfectly fit your site’s image needs.

Lastly, if you’re in a tremendous hurry, Pablo is a great tool. It’s like Canva Lite. You can probably slap together a no-frills image in a minute or two, though the built-in images are pretty lacking.

Oh, I should also mention a tip that I learned from Katie Hawkins-Gaar, a colleague of ours. She created a personal gallery of stock photos that she created herself. Sometimes you need a well-framed picture of a computer keyboard or a close-up of a microphone or even some hands. She had them all at the ready. 

Hare: Okay I’ve only been using Flickr, this is so helpful. Do you have any suggestions about how to get search terms right? I feel like I miss more than I hit.

LaForme: Good question. I always try the obvious search first. If it’s about a bot, for instance, I’ll search for “robot.” But that only gets you so far with some stories and topics.

Thinking about things in the big picture or in the abstract can be really helpful. So if I’m writing a story about something like finding ways to build in breaks to your workday or to reduce stress, I’ll brainstorm a few synonyms or metaphors that work for that. It might be a pause button on a TV remote or a snooze button on an alarm.

It might help to ask yourself what you’re really writing about and then pull out a pen and paper and make a short list of topics and themes. It sounds silly, but it only takes a minute or two and can help you get over that … uhh, not quite writer’s block. Image-finder’s block?

Hare: Yeah, I try to think through concepts. Let’s talk about copyright. Am I the only one who fears these beautiful photos were stolen from hardworking photogs and I shouldn’t be using them just because they’re on these platforms? How can we make sure they’re okay to use?

LaForme: That’s a great question. Each of these sites has its own copyright notices and information that you should make sure to read before you use them. So I’d start there. After that, if you really want to make sure that someone didn’t steal the image from somewhere, there are a few steps you could take.

I’d first take a peek at the image data. Most of the sites will show you the camera the photos were taken with, the resolution, the date and time they were shot and a few other things. People can fake this, but taking a glance at that in relation to other images the person posted could reveal some truths about the owner of the photo, whether it’s this person or otherwise.

You could also right click the image in Chrome to do an image search for the picture on the web. If it comes up on another site under a different name, you might want to think twice about using it in a story. You could also search directly from Google Images or TinEye.

You should also contact the sites that you found the images on. They have pretty strict rules for photographers, who can only upload images that they have the rights to. You could potentially help the original photographer and others who might be bamboozled into thinking they’re using a legit photo when it’s actually been stolen.

One last thought: Think about the ethics of using an image before you do. Don't use a stock image of a crashed car to lead a story about another car crash. In that case, you're misleading the audience into thinking that you have a picture of the crash you're reporting on. I would never use a stock image if there is a chance that someone might be misled into thinking it's a photo of something else. 

Hare: Great advice. Hey guess what. I searched Unsplash for an image for this story and found so many good ones so fast. So thank you!

LaForme: I just hope nobody uses up all the good robot photos before I can get a chance. Don’t steal my bots!

Stock Images Need-To-Know

Creative Commons Image Search
Price: Free
How-to: Search various photo-sharing sites for Creative Commons-licensed images

Pixabay
Price: Free
How-to: A large variety of high-quality photos, graphics, videos and more that are licensed for free use

Unsplash
Price: Free
How-to: Another large repository of images that can be used free for commercial purposes

Canva
Price: Free, $1 for some images and designs
How-to: Design your own images using built-in stock photos, designs, text and more

Pablo
Price: Free
How-to: Design your own images with a no-frills layout in just a few moments

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of articles that highlight digital tools for journalists. You can read the others here. Got a tool we should talk about? Let Ren know!

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