Finding the perfect image (Tseen Khoo)

Troop inspection | Photo by Pascal
Do you know how long I agonised over what photo should accompany this post about how to find photos to accompany posts...?

I know that's all a bit meta, but stay with me. I'm from the Humanities.

For the RED program, I run a series of workshops about creating and building a digital profile on social media, especially Twitter.

Many of you will have attended them. Many of you run research project blogs, PhD blogs, or regularly contribute to group research blogs.

Many of you organise research events for your colleagues and put together the promotional material for them.

Most salient to this post, many of you who do these things ask: “How do I find free images to use? What are the rules for using them?”

There are plenty of resources on the internet about finding images to use on blogs, image copyright and attribution, licensing, Creative Commons, fair use, etc. Here’s a search I prepared earlier!

What I’m doing with this post is not presenting a comprehensive handbook to online image searching, use, and attribution. I’m giving you my simple (hopefully not simplistic) insight into what I find to be good practice for sourcing and using images for non-profit blogposts and other non-profit projects and events.

So, here we go:

Everyone who’s been producing things online for a while builds up their listing of favourite repositories and collections of free image banks.

Note that all the images I choose to use are released under various versions of Creative Commons (CC) licensing. If you don’t know about CC licensing, check it out. They are images licensed by their creators for public use, sometimes with conditions, sometimes with none. The good news for your bottom-line: they’re free.

These are my top 3 sources of images, and why I like them.


All images are set free and given to the public to do with them what they will (Creative Commons Zero - CC0 1.0; public domain). I love this site in so many ways. The work that’s archived there, and added to all the time, is by some pretty fantastic photographers, many of whom are industry professionals. I know their archive so well that I can pick their images in various campaigns people run, from all kinds of sectors.

Am I obsessive about this site? Yes, I am. I love what Crew have done here – they consider Unsplash to be one of their labs. Their philosophy of sharing beautiful work because they can, and building a community around it, really appeals to me.


So, people keep mourning how flickr has died since Yahoo took it over. Being someone who abandoned it after Yahoo took over, I probably shouldn’t comment too much on that front. I do, however, use Flickr regularly as a source of images for the blogs I run and events I need images for.

Make sure you filter your search finds to “All Creative Commons” licensed images, and note what type of CC license each creator has chosen to apply. There are several licenses under the Creative Commons umbrella and they can have different conditions of use.

I like using because it is a huge repository, and many of the photographers there do striking, interesting work. For the most part, I don’t tend to find bland stock imagery there – search finds can be a bit wild and woolly, and this is often a plus!

3. My own or my buddies’ images

I once asked my very good friend Jonathan O’Donnell (with whom I run the Research Whisperer) the same question I am writing this blogpost to respond to: “How do we find good images to use as the visual anchor for our posts?”

His response (paraphrased) was, “Use your own!”.

So, after snooting around for a while thinking that I had no time to do that kind of thing and what did he think I was and other mealy-mouthed excuses, I did.

It has been fantastic fun. I take more photos than I did before, and I get to exercise my artistic eye. I don’t necessarily know if they’ll be used on a blogpost but I have my own archive to choose from now. I’ll be putting them up somewhere so other people can use them, too, when I get some time (!). It’s my form of giving back to the online community that has given me so many excellent, free things to use. Many of the posts on Research Whisperer and my personal blog use my own photos. It can be really satisfying.

If you’re not photo-inclined, chances are that you have buddies who are. Ask them. Everyone I know who takes a cool pic here and there, and I’ve wanted to use them, has said yes when asked. Usually, with much enthusiasm.

With using the images:

I always attribute images, if possible, even if I don’t have to (e.g. if the image you’re using is CC0, there’s no rule that says you have to attribute).

Why do I do this? Mostly, I think it’s respectful and a good community habit to have: to acknowledge where things come from. As an academic, the idea of someone’s work contributing to what I can then do is ingrained.

This is the caption for an image that demonstrates how I caption an image
This is why I like using Unsplash and Flickr. Their browsing formats and download framework includes the name/handle of the image creator.

Many people use pixabay and rec it around the place, but I hate how it drops all attribution and everything is unmoored from a creative hand. You can’t even see the site from which they’ve aggregated all these photos. I don’t use it.

Ultimately, of course, it’s up to you.

If you want quality, free images, though, I would encourage you to think about where you’re getting them from and whether you might contribute to the pool of goodwill upon which many of these great repositories depend.


Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development with the RED team at La Trobe University. Melbourne. She has held research-only fellowships at the University of Queensland and Monash University, and was a research grant developer at RMIT University.

Tseen created and manages the Research Whisperer with Jonathan O'Donnell. 

She convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), and publishes on critical race studies, diasporic Asian cultures, and racialised academic identities. 

She's on Twitter at @tseenster.