As an editor, you probably need photos. Maybe, like me, you do more than edit words: you might be involved in content selection, layout, and many other aspects of publishing. Even if you only edit content, you might, like me, find documents containing proprietary photos that nobody has paid for or asked permission to use. “I found it on the Web,” is a typical author statement. You have to explain that even though you can look at it for free on the Web, it probably belongs to somebody and isn’t free to reuse. At those times, it’s helpful if you can point the author to sources of photos that are free and legal to reuse, and you may want to use the content yourself.
All U.S. Government photos are in the public domain: owned by the public and free to use. Credit should still be given to the agency and photographer if they are named. Some restrictions apply: for example, commercial use must not imply government endorsement, and some content on a few sites is not in the public domain because the website includes nongovernment photos.
A wonderful new addition to the materials at the Library of Congress is the photographs of Carol M. Highsmith. Highsmith, “a distinguished and richly-published American photographer, has donated her work to the Library of Congress.” It is free to use, with no copyright restrictions.
“The first 23 groups of photographs contain more than 2,500 images and date from 1980 to 2005, with many views in color as well as black-and-white. The archive is expected to grow to more than 100,000 photographs covering all of the United States.”
If you look at the sampler slideshow, you’ll find that the first bunch are mostly roadside advertising, but there are many more images that you might find useful: cities, scenery, and farms, for example.
Another excellent and popular source of photos is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. You’ll find images of Earth and the other planets, the Moon and other astronomical bodies, space exploration, and deep space viewed through the Hubble telescope. All NASA images are in the public domain.
The rest of the government photo websites are listed alphabetically.
On this Flickr photostream page, you can choose albums with generic names such as “Alaska” but mostly illustrating press events such as “Agriculture Secretary Vilsack at Snake River Brewing WY.” All USDA photos are in the public domain.
As you might expect, this site has lots of aircraft photos, but also many photos of people engaged in not just military activity but also with their families, playing music, engaged in humanitarian assistance, fighting fires, and more. All U.S. Air Force photos are in the public domain.
Considering the wealth of material the Coast Guard has available, it’s too bad the site isn’t easier to use. It’s organized by Coast Guard district plus the Academy and headquarters. I suggest clicking on the headquarters link, which takes you to the Coast Guard Headquarters page on the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System. There you’ll find links to featured and recent photos, videos, and news stories, and you can use the search box to find photos by subject. Try searching for “iceberg,” “lighthouse,” or “World Trade Center,” for example, and I think you’ll be satisfied with the results. All U.S. Coast Guard images are in the public domain.
The Armed Forces Press Service offers an immense quantity of photos, but if you start browsing on the News Photos page, you’re likely to get a lot of pictures of military leaders giving speeches. The “Operations” link isn’t the catchall you might expect; rather, it has photos from Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn. “People,” is mainly military leaders, and “Other Subjects” has photos from the individual military services, the Pentagon (more military leaders), and other topics. The search box searches the whole website for any related content, not just photos, but if you enter a search term (I tried “airship” because the home page showed a Navy blimp or airship), you’ll get a new search page with categories in the left-hand column; click Images and you’ll get only pictures for the results; I got two blimp pictures. All Defense Dept. photos are in the public domain.
The site seems to offer only photos of media events: “Concept Schools Opening,” “RIF National Student Poster Contest,” “Native American Student Art,” “Secretary Arne Duncan Visits Chicago,” “Secretary Arne Duncan Helps Distribute Tickets to the 131st White House Easter Egg Roll …” All U.S. Department of Education photos are in the public domain.
This eclectic archive on Flickr is organized by subject: departmental events, power sources (fusion, hydroelectric, gas …), Earth Day, transportation, and many more. All Energy Department photos are in the public domain.
This Flickr archive seems to be unorganized, and the photos have only the skimpiest—if any—captions. I clicked on the magnifying glass and tried to search for “bike” because there were a couple of photos on the home page with “bike” in the caption, but instead of showing photos of people biking, it said, “You’ve found someone to follow!” If you can figure out how to use the EPA photo archive, please post a comment to help the rest of us. All EPA photos are in the public domain.
This site has thousands of photos but no indication of the categories. The search box asks, “What are you looking for?” The results, however, are for the whole site, not just pictures. If you click on “Browse 39,807 photos, videos & audio,” though (I suppose that number will change by the time you read this), you can choose “Search Media.” I tried entering “Katrina” and got 90 photos. I thought there would be more. All FEMA images are in the public domain.
These photos seem to be organized in relation to press releases. The photo galleries have titles such as “Secretary Jewell Visits California Wildland Fire Operations Center,” and there doesn’t seem to be a way to search the images. All Interior Department photos are in the public domain.
Like the Interior Department site, this one seems to have the photos organized by press release (for example, “Attorney General at Dauphin Island”), and there doesn’t seem to be a way to search the images. All Justice Dept. photos are in the public domain.
This site has a wide variety of subjects. You can search it by keyword or tag and refine it using an alphabetical pulldown menu of categories (“Artillery,” “Aviation,” “Base or Station” …). I tried “Osprey” and got 340 pictures of the MV-22 Osprey vertical-takeoff and -landing aircraft. I refined it by the category “humanitarian” and got 12 pictures of Ospreys or their crews engaged in humanitarian relief work. All Marine Corps photos are in the public domain.
This site has over 177,000 photos, and you can browse top images or the well-organized feature galleries. You can also search the photo archive. I tried “arctic” and got lots of results, with many images from the Middle East, far from ice and snow. It turned out there’s a ship called the Arctic. After I browsed a few pages, I found images from the far north—Ice Camp Nautilus, for example. All U.S. Navy photos are in the public domain.
The categories, such as “National Weather Service,” have subcategories such as “Meteorological Monsters.” The agency acronym is pronounced “Noah,” and there’s a wildlife category called “’s Ark.” You can also search by keywords. “Hurricane,” for example, turns up lots of related images. Most NOAA images are in the public domain.
The home page leads to the commission’s Flickr photostream of apparently random photos, but from there you can choose Albums with names such as “Operating Nuclear Reactors,” “Radioactive Waste,” “Emergency Preparedness,” and “Chairman Tours North Anna Nuclear Plant.” Most Nuclear Regulatory Commission content is in the public domain.
This photo gallery has four categories: “State @ Work,” “History, Heritage, and Pride Months,” “Flickr: U.S. Department of State’s Photostream,” and “Portraits.” None of it seems to be searchable. All State Department photos are in the public domain.