chevron-down chevron-left chevron-right chevron-up home circle comment double-caret-left double-caret-right like like2 twitter epale-arrow-up text-bubble cloud stop caret-down caret-up caret-left caret-right file-text

EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Top Six Free Photo Banks for Use in Education in 2020

by Peter Baláž
Language: EN
Document available also in: SK FR RO ES DE PL LV

“It’s better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times” applies to the adult education, as well. Teaching materials and marketing materials that make appropriate use of graphics have the upper hand over a continuous body of text. However, if there is no skilful graphic artist around, making your own visuals may be quite a challenge. Fortunately, there are a lot of ready-to-use and high-quality images that can be found on the internet legally and free of charge. We are bringing you a selection of 6 such websites (photo banks).

The human mind has been evolving for thousands of years, surrounded by images, sounds, and other sensory sensations. This layer of the human mind is still active today and it’s even faster compared to the newer layers, such as the one that processes text and other symbols. Images evoke emotions much faster and more intensely than plain text, which helps memorise the learning material. Moreover, many people have a “visual memory”, which means they remember things best when they see them.

Is it really free of charge? And is it legal?

The short answer is: it can be, but you need to be careful!

The images you find on the internet belong to someone and the author usually holds all their copyrights (for example, if you take a picture of an empty street with your mobile phone, you are the author and you own all the rights under the copyright law). The use of such an image can be seen as a form of theft. And no, stating “source: internet” in small font size below the image won’t help a bit. There are various exceptions in the copyright law regarding the use of such materials by formal education institutions. If you teach in such an institution and want to make use of this exception, I recommend studying up on it well (we will not cover it in this article), otherwise you will be walking on thin ice. But there is a simpler way..

Authors may choose to intentionally waive some of their rights. They do so for various reasons – some want to market themselves at a low cost, some want to showcase their artistic talent, others want to contribute to a good cause. While intentions vary, the method is the same – free licensing. Typically, the licence is listed next to the image.

How to use licences?

We’ll get to the specific websites in a moment. We first need to clarify a thing or two about licences, so that you can use the images while teaching without a worry.


Paid licences:

  1. Rights-managed (RM) licensing: you are paying for a specific use of the image and you cannot use the image for any other purposes;
  2. Royalty-free (RF) licensing: although the name suggests that this is a completely free licence, in reality, you have to pay for the image once (and only once) and then you can use it for a wide range of activities. You are not paying for the image based on the times you have used it or according to your earnings.

We are not going to go into more detail on paid licences. Let’s instead focus on free licences.


Free licences:

  1. Public domain (PD)/Creative Commons Zero (CC0): the copyright to an image has expired or never existed in the first place (for example, there was no such thing as copyright law in the Middle Ages), which means you can use the image for virtually whatever purpose and however you want;
  2. Creative Commons (CC): CC are the best known of the so-called “public licences”, there are several types that you can choose from depending on how you want to use the image;
  3. photo banks’ own licences: these vary the most from one another, so you need to read the information on the photo bank’s website carefully; you can usually use the images for free and also for commercial purposes but you cannot upload them to other photo banks or sell them without editing.

The photo banks included in this article are free of charge.

There is one small catch with the Creative Commons (CC) licences. Some (specifically CC BY-NC and CC BY-NC-SA) only allow non-commercial use. The question is what exactly does the term “non-commercial” mean. While opinions vary, one thing is for sure – the argument that using the image does not generate profit or that the material is used by a non-profit organisation will not hold up (at least not by itself). If you don’t want to delve deeper into copyright, you should avoid “non-commercial use only” licences.

0. Google Images

Google Images is listed outside the main list because it is not a photo bank. I mention it anyway because let’s be honest, it’s the first place you will check ;-)

Google finds images all over the internet based on your search queries – regardless of categories, image quality, or copyright types. In order to display free images only, try searching for an image as you normally would, then click on “Tools” in the top menu and then on the “Usage Rights” filter. Select the right (licence) you want to use from the menu. Always make sure to check the right on the image page, as well.

1. Unsplash

Unsplash contains more than 1.5 million photos of a consistently high quality. In addition to the search engine, it also offers thematic collections. It uses its own completely-free licence.

2. Pixabay

Pixabay is one of the best-known photo banks, and for a good reason! Its image collection is truly remarkable. In addition to photos, it also offers a number of clip-art images and illustrations and even some videos. If you intend to use Pixabay often, it is worth it to register. Then you won’t have to fill out a captcha field when downloading images. The main downside is that the image quality is not as consistently high compared to e.g. Unsplash, but this drawback is usually compensated by the extensive number of images available.

3. Gratisography

Gratisography, Ryan McGuire’s personal project, is exceptional in its specific – and often surreal – style. Unlike other photo banks, it does not contain such a large number of images, but if you are looking for something with an edge, you are in the right place.

4. Pikwizard

Many photo banks offer loads of photos of people in visibly unnatural poses and with clichéd expressions. Some of these can also be found on Pikwizard, but it mostly contains photos of people in everyday situations who behave naturally. Licences (yes, there are 2 versions) are significantly more extensive compared to other photo banks, which makes starting out a bit more difficult. However, once you get through it, you will have access to high-quality photos of natural-looking people.

5. Pexels

Pexels offers a wide range of (mostly) artistic and original photos under a very permissive and simple licence. You can search for photos via keywords, save them to your collections, and follow authors. 

6. Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons holds a special place on this list because of its enormous impact on education. It is a multimedia repository for the most famous encyclopaedia – Wikipedia (and also for its sister projects). The selection is quite extensive, as it currently contains over 63 million files! However, the quality varies greatly, the files are checked for copyright but the low quality of a photo is generally not a reason to remove it. Therefore, in the individual categories, you can turn on the option to display only high-quality files. Unfortunately, the user interface is not as intuitive as compared to typical photo banks.

The choice of licences is a particularity. Usually, the completely-free Creative Commons licences are used but there are tens of thousands of files that use a different licence. It is necessary to pay close attention to their use. It is usually required to mention the author’s name, which many photo banks have stopped requesting. On the other hand, you can make a copy of the entire Wikimedia Commons, something typical photo banks generally strictly forbid.

How to choose?

In this article, I have mentioned only a few photo banks and with a bit of searching, you will find many more. How to choose between them?

First of all, what is the goal you want to achieve with the image? A surreal image of a man in a rabbit costume and a well-exposed photo of the mountains at dusk will create a different effect. Different photo banks contain images from different fields, so you should take this into consideration when choosing the right one for you.

Quality is an extremely important factor. If the quality is consistently high, you will not see low-quality images while searching. If you do, it is generally a good idea to use a different photo bank with stricter quality control.

As licences tend to vary a little in certain details, you need to be well-versed in them (especially when working on more expensive projects). This article contained only services where that should not pose a big problem.


Images can help you make your educational projects for adults more pleasant and better – from marketing to the teaching itself. In most cases, free images from the Internet will make do, just don’t forget to pay attention to copyright (I repeat that stating “source: Internet” is not enough – after all, you do not cite the literature used in the following manner: “source: book”. Or do you? :) There are currently many options to choose from and new ones are appearing all the time. So take the first step and start using images in your education endeavours completely legally and for free.

Michal Matúšov

About the author: Michal is a long-time free education enthusiast, a co-founder of “Wikimedia Slovakia” and “Esperanto and Free Knowledge”, and an intern at E@I as part of the European Solidarity Corps initiative.

text licensed by: CC BY 4.0



Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Epale SoundCloud Share on LinkedIn Share on email
Refresh comments Enable auto refresh

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5
  • Piotr Maczuga's picture
    PIxabay czy Pexel są dla mnie podstawą od wielu lat i uważam, że serwisy takie powinien znać każdy, kto tworzy treści. Trendy są obecnie takie, że drogie banki zdjęć stały się raczej rozwiązaniem dla najbogatszych - jedno zdjęcie w tradycyjnym banku kosztuje nawet kilkadziesiąt euro! Warto też szukać w miejscach mniej oczywistych, jak Internet Archive, aby używać też obrazów i zdjęć historycznych. Dzięki Wikimedia Commons możemy korzystać choćby z reprodukcji dzieł sztuki. Na co dzień o tym nie myślimy, ale prawa autorskie nawet do starych dzieł (Mona Lista?) nie są takie oczywiste. Choć ochrona minęła i przeszły one do domeny publicznej, to można niechcący naruszyć inne prawa (przecież ktoś te obrazy fotografuje i taka reprodukcja fotograficzna też może, choć nie musi, być chroniona). Jeśli więc dostajemy bazy, które są sprawdzone, to to już samo w sobie jest skarbem.
  • Ieva Cekule's picture
    Paldies par jaunām idejām - grafiskie attēli noderēs ne tikai pieaugušo izglītībai bet arī priekš bērnu izglītības. Ir labi, ka kāds padalās ar informāciju! Labi, ka ir dažādas mājas lapas, kurās katrā var atrast sev nepieciešamo.
  • Dörte Stahl's picture
    I would like to recommend the free picture bank .
    This collection is to be an offer, in order to represent the variety of the society. Therefore you find for example photos of humans with handicaps, from the LGBTQ - Community and other, photographically often underrepresented groups. An English version is available. Registration for use is required. And: "All photographies can be used free of charge for editorial purposes. The author must be provided in all publishings. For all other needs of the photographies, please drop us a message with your inquiry."
  • Jozef Petluš's picture
    Ďakujem za užitočné tipy a vysvetlenie licencií. 

  • Kathy-Liana BRAVO's picture
    Merci pour le travail de regroupement.

    Si j'étais déjà bien familiarisée avec certaines d'entre elles, il y a quelques nouveautés.

    Malheureusement toutes ont une défaut terrible: le manque de diversité!
    Les photos sont bien trop souvent celles de personnes de type européen, et l'identification des publics auxquels nous souhaitons nous adresser pour les projets à caractère social notamment est parfois difficile. L'idéal serait effectivement un monde où cette notion d'identification ne passe pas par la couelur de peau, mais ce Monde est encore en construction...