If you’re working on a documentary film, news article, or another project, you may be looking for sources of free historical stock photos.
Luckily, many libraries, universities, and other public resources provide public domain stock photos, CC0 stock photos, or free stock photos of historical topics.
As we’ll explore below, there are always some risks when using free historical stock photos. That’s why we recommend licensing even “free” historical stock photos from a trusted source like Getty Images.
But if you want to find free historical stock photos and are willing to take the time to edit and clear them properly, these are some great sources to explore.
Library of Congress
The United States Library of Congress is one of the best-known and most comprehensive repositories of free and public domain images.
In the United States, the Library of Congress administers the copyright system. If they say something is available for free use, it most likely is.
The Library of Congress has a wide variety of materials dating back to the 1700s and earlier. Their collections are especially strong in depictions of 20th-century events and famous people.
The LC’s Prints and Photographs division is a great place to look. Always check rights statements carefully (more on that below), as not everything at the Library of Congress is free to use.
The Library of Congress also has a fairly clunky web interface. Getting high-resolution imagery can be tricky. But if you master the process, it’s a great source of free historical stock photos.
Gado Images' Public Domain Images
In partnership with the Internet Archive, we at Gado Images (HistoricalStockPhotos.com’s editorial partner) released over 1,000 vernacular images into the public domain.
The photos are primarily scanned from historical 35mm slides. They show everyday life throughout the world, largely during the 20th century. You can download and use them at the Internet Archive.
Like what you're seeing? We have thousands more historical stock photos to license on Getty Images.
New York Public Library
The New York Public Library is one of the best-known public library systems in the world. The NYPL has millions of images in its collection.
Rather than trying to digitize and annotate all those images for monetization, the New York Public Library instead chose to release much of its historical photo and document collection into the public domain.
Another great thing about the NYPL is its fairly slick web interface for searching and downloading free vintage photos. The photos often need extensive editing and reformatting, but they’re often available in high resolution.
When searching the library for free images, make sure to check the box for “Public Domain Images.” Otherwise, it’s easy to download an image that’s still under copyright mistakenly.
Dvids from the Department of Defense
Since the early 20th century, America’s Signal Corps has produced imagery documenting America’s military activities.
That mission continues today with DVIDs, a free system that provides photo researchers and other users with free access to photographs and videos produced by the American military.
These include up-to-the-minute images of current conflicts and missions, but also a great deal of archival and historical military images from World War 2, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and more.
There are several things to keep in mind when using free historical images from DVIDs. Firstly, the goal of the system is to emphasize the successes of the American military.
Photos tend to depict conflicts from a specific perspective. If you don’t understand this perspective, it can be hard to evaluate the images and their metadata objectively.
Additionally, DVIDs is designed for large press agencies. While you can create a free account, the process can be a bit challenging, as can the process of searching the site.
Still, if you’re willing to put in the work and to evaluate the photos carefully, this is a great resource for military images. An easier solution is often to license military images from a trusted stock photo site.
Smithsonian Open Access
In 2020, the Smithsonian released over 200,000 historical stock photos into the public domain. The images are available as CC0 images.
The collection includes a wide variety of historical imagery, much of it with excellent metadata.
Because the release of public domain photos took place fairly recently, the Smithsonian also has an excellent and modern interface.
You can find a wide variety of public domain photos of American history, black history, and more. Again, be sure that you know how to check the rights on individual images, as the entire collection is not public domain.
Unsplash is best known as a large repository of modern free stock photos. The site is now owned by Getty Images.
In addition to modern images, Unsplash also has a small collection of public-domain historical photos from a variety of sources.
Risks and Considerations of Free Images
Just because you can get and use a historical stock photo for free, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Copyright and trademark law is complex. Even if an image is listed as Public Domain in one jurisdiction, it might still be under copyright elsewhere.
Even public domain images may also be subject to trademark, publicity, or other rights. As the Smithsonian says, “a third party may claim rights in the content such as trademark, privacy, or publicity rights. You are fully responsible for your own lawful use of these materials and for not infringing on the rights of third parties.”
In other words, you take the risk when you use a free image!
Likewise, even if an image is genuinely in the public domain or provided for free, that doesn’t prevent third parties from claiming right to the image and dragging you into costly litigation.
Consider these examples:
- Photographer Carol Highsmith sued Getty Images for $1 billion over alleged misuse of images that were in the public domain.
- A student newspaper received a $5000 claim over the alleged misuse of a Creative Commons image.
Based on these complexities, many photo users choose to purchase a license from a trusted marketplace like Getty Images or Shutterstock, rather than using a free image directly.
The Value of Indemnification
Yes, purchasing a license costs more than using a free image. But most big marketplaces offer indemnification, which acts like insurance on your use of a historical photo.
If you use the image and someone comes forward with a legal claim, the indemnification will often protect you as long as you follow the terms of your license.
Especially if you’re using a historical image in a big commercial project, indemnification offers peace of mind that you’re protected in case of a rights issue, fraudulent claim, or copyright troll.
Many big publications now require licenses for historical images for that reason. Even if a photo researcher concludes that a historical image is indeed public domain, the risk of a frivolous lawsuit is simply too high to proceed without the indemnification provided by a license.
We always recommend purchasing a license for your historical image, if it’s in your budget. We recommend Getty Images and Shutterstock for licensing historical images. Getty provides unlimited indemnification
and Shutterstock provides indemnification between $10,000 and $250,000.
If you have any questions about the rights and risks involved in using a free image, make sure to consult with an attorney.
If you’re searching for free historical stock photos, there are a wide variety of excellent options. More cultural heritage organizations are digitizing and releasing their collections, which means free historical photos are more accessible than ever.
If you fully understand and are willing to accept the legal risks of using free images, you can use these images directly for a wide variety of purposes.
If you’re uncertain about the rights of a public domain or free historical photo, you can consult with an attorney and/or purchase a license with strong indemnification from a trusted source like Getty or Shutterstock.