Home Science Communication How to find images for your science blog – Part 2

How to find images for your science blog – Part 2

by Eva Amsen

How to find images for your science blogAs I mentioned last week, there are four ways to get images for your science blog.

  1. Look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images
  2. Make your own
  3. Ask for permission
  4. Buy images


1. Look for public domain or creative commons images

In part 1, I showed how and where to look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images. This post will go into the other three methods.


2. Make your own images

If you can’t easily find an image you have permission to use, you can always make one yourself. You can take a photo, draw a picture, or use software to design something simple. The possibilities are endless, but I narrowed it down to a few:



Use a photo you took yourself

This is probably the simplest of these suggestions, because you don’t need anything besides a phone with a camera. Still, there are a few things you’ll need to look out for:

  • Permission of human subjects – Do the people in the photo know that their image is being used to illustrate a blog post? You could get in trouble if you don’t let people know what the photo is for, so consider the possibility of someone asking you to take down the image. If it’s a picture of people taken at a conference and your blog post is about that conference, you’re probably okay, as long as the conference itself didn’t have any restrictions in place. Oh, about that…
  • Permission of location/event – Sometimes pictures taken at specific events or locations are for “personal use only”. This will be made clear in the media policy of the event (think: conference, festival) or location (think: museum, zoo). Often that means you can take pictures, and even share them in a photo album, but you’re not always allowed to use those pictures on your blog. It depends on the kind of blog. Sometimes the restrictions will only apply to commercial sites, which is again one of those fuzzy areas I mentioned in the context of creative commons. What exactly is commercial? Sometime there’s an exception for educational outlets, which is equally fuzzy. (Is an educational blog that receives ad income a commercial or an educational outlet?)


Draw something yourself

Okay, maybe taking a photo is not the easiest after all. Maybe drawing something yourself is even easier. Can’t draw? Stick figures are illustrative, too!

Draw on paper and scan it in

See early XKCD comics

Draw with a mouse in the free program that comes with your computer

Hyperbole and a Half got popular with trackpad drawings and Paintbrush (a simple program), so you don’t need fancy graphics programs.

Draw on an iPad

Paper by 53 and a cheap stylus is all you need to get some decent-looking pictures. I’ve used this myself in the Elgar comic.

Draw on a tablet

Turtle2If you don’t have an iPad, a Wacom tablet is actually easier to use, and the cheapest ones are much, much, much cheaper than an iPad. I drew the animals in the “beach bodies” post on a simple Wacom with free graphics software.

Get some graphics software (or even just powerpoint)

For any/all of the above suggestions I recommend having some sort of graphics software to edit images or to draw in directly. Gimp is open source and free and can do everything that photoshop can, but it has a high learning curve. For really basic editing (resizing, cropping, adding basic shapes or combining two images into one) you can even use Powerpoint/Keynote or any other slide presentation program. All the MySciCareer quotes images are done in Keynote, so we just rotate the five colours and quotes and it’s super fast and easy to make an image for each entry.


Online tools to make pretty pictures

This is the section that reveals many bloggers’ secret weapons. There are online tools that you can use to drag and drop images and backgrounds to create some fancy looking things. (Or less fancy things, like the image at the top of this post…). The two I use most are Canva and Piktochart, but there are others like it.



Canva is free to use, but a lot of their preset images cost $1 to use. With a bit of searching you can easily avoid those, though, and just use free elements. More on the paid option below.

Canva has a lot of default sizes and designs for different media platforms, so you can get the right size for a Twitter header image (and it will show you where your profile picture sits) or for an instagram post, but it also has templates for CVs, postcards, and other useful things. I used Canva to make gift cards for friends, menus for Christmas, the header of my quarterly mailing list, and images on some of my posts.



Piktochart specializes in infographics, so it includes a lot of little illustrations (including very diverse ones for people) and nice-looking text banners. There are some free templates for infographic charts. A paid account gets you more templates, and the option to remove the Piktochart logo from your final infographic. I used Piktochart to make the image for this post about genetic testing on the TGMI site.


3. Ask for permission to use images

If you can’t be bothered to create your own image, and you can’t find a suitable image in the public domain or with a creative commons license, you have two options left. One is to ask the creator of an image for permission to use that image.

If you offer to link back to them and to use the image under the terms they provide, this is a very reasonable request for blog posts. People know that you probably don’t have a budget for images. Keep in mind that artist might still say no, or that it can be difficult to track down the right person to ask for permissions.

I have used this route for a few work blog posts in the past. Recently I asked Baylor College of Medicine for permission to use an image. I found out that they were the ones to ask because I’d seen the image I wanted used on a few other sites that mentioned that it came from BCM and was used with permission.

I’ve also asked PhD comics for permission to use images in a post about the film.

“But everyone always uses science comics/illustrations online”, I hear you say.

That’s right, and they either asked the artist for explicit permission, or they’re following their guidelines (which could ask for a link back, or a limit on the size, or a watermark), OR they’re stealing.

Yes, it’s stealing to take someone else’s creation and put it on your own site without any form of permission. If an illustrator’s work is getting you extra traffic and shares, and that doesn’t trickle through to them in anyway, you’re getting your site clicks on the back of their talent. That’s why at the very minimum an artist will ask for a link back or an image tag on Twitter.

To make it easy, some artists have put explicit statements on their site that tell you how you can use their images. You might have to search for it. The aforementioned PHD comics has an email address in their FAQ section. Hyperbole and a Half has information about re-posting images in the FAQ as well. Photographer Alex Wild has an elaborate section on his website about image use.

If you can’t find info on their site, just contact them to ask them whether you can use the image.

Glendon Mellow, one of the bloggers at Symbiartic, uses some standard text to approach people whose artwork he wants to feature on the blog. The text includes information about how the image will be displayed, and how the artist will be credited. Here’s part of that text:

I typically make a thumbnail image that appears on our site’s main page, and sometimes follows the work when people share on Facebook and Twitter etc. We’re pretty careful about attribution on Symbiartic: what links would you like me to add to the post? Twitter, blog, Instagram, Snapchat, portfolio, online shop,…I’ll put links to any and all that you like.


4. Buy images

Your final option is to purchase an image. I left this for the end because it’s BY FAR the most annoying. You thought you could just hand over money and use the image? Oh, no, it can be way more complicated than that. I’ll show a few different examples just to give an idea.



6This is the most user friendly. I mentioned Canva above, as a way to create your own designs. Some image elements (photos or illustrations) cost money, and Canva gives you two options to pay: Either get a subscription, or pay $1 for the right to use that image for the next 24 hours. Within 24 hours you can use that image in as many designs as you want, and once you’ve downloaded the design you’re all set. So for something simple that you can finalise in 24 hours, this is easy and only costs $1. I paid for the image of the book in this design (which doubles as a sneak preview for a thing I’m launching soon. Subscribe on YouTube!)


Stock image sites

iStockphoto prices their images using “credits”. You can prepay for a number of credits, or pay per image. Once paid, you can use the image for whatever you want, for as long as you want. It can’t get any easier. It can get more difficult, though…

Shutterstock offers two kinds of licenses: Standard and Enhanced. For a blog post, the standard license is enough, so don’t worry about the other one.  To use the standard license, you can prepay for a few images, or get a subscription, or a subscription for a whole team. You have to estimate in advance how many images you’re going to need to decide what would be best, but again, for a blog the most basic plan is probably best.

You can purchase stock images through a few other sites as well, but these are the best-known ones.


Rights-managed images

I’ve left this until the very last because this is the most difficult. The two stock image sites above sell you unlimited access to “royalty-free” images. They’re royalty-free because the owner of the image gets a one-time payment from you, and doesn’t get royalties based on how often the image was used. You can also pay to use a “rights-managed” image. Here, the owner of the image is paid proportional to the use of the image: If the image is used in high resolution and get lots of views, they get more than if a tiny image is only seen by a few people.

That means that if you want to pay to use one of those images, you need to consider the size of your audience, and how long you’re using the image for. If you’re including the image in a print magazine, the questions are easy to answer: you know how many copies of that issue are printed, and each issue is printed only once. If you’re putting the image on a blog, this becomes more complicated. How many visitors do you think that post will get? How long is the image staying online?

I looked up the price for a science-themed image in Getty Images, and the cheapest option was £39 for a three-month digital license, or £150 for full editorial use of a small image (for fifteen years). Custom options required filling in a complex form, and the costs get even higher.

And remember, rights-managed images are often images that appeared in the news, or on company websites. You can’t afford those on your blog, so just don’t even think about it and search for a different (free) image first.

Getty realises this, and has a special section on their site, Getty Embed, which allows you to search a subset of their images that are made available for use on non-commercial blogs. Not everything in their catalog is in there, and the image stays hosted on their site, but you can display it on yours. I’ve checked the terms of use and I think I’m allowed to use it in this blog in this context, so here’s a raccoon:



That’s it!

That concludes my two-part crazy long guide to using images on your blog. I know I didn’t mention everything (like more examples of embeddable images from third party sites, or image libraries available to bloggers on larger networks) but those all fall under “permissions” somehow.

Another thing that I didn’t touch on is the concept of “fair use”. It’s a sort of loophole in the (American) legal system that seems to say that you can use an image as long as you talk about that image, but it’s not meant to be used to justify image use, only to use in defence against a copyright claim. It’s super complicated, only really defensible when you explicitly talk about the work (definitely not when you just use an image to illustrate a vaguely related blog post), and you’re best off just not using images that you don’t have rights or permissions for.

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1 comment

John September 24, 2016 - 8:39 PM

fantastic post – I found this great collection of best free stock photos for commercial and/or personal use with different filters and download options .

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