As artists, we like to take inspiration from our lives and what’s around us for our artwork. But sometimes, that’s not possible. There are some things you can’t see in your day-to-day life. And that’s where reference photos come in!
A high-quality reference image will improve your accuracy, so you can focus on your artistic vision.
But there’s something else you need to think about when it comes to using reference photos. You can’t use any old image you find on Google. If you do, you could end up on the wrong side of copyright law.
So, you need to source copyright-free, high-quality images. But finding these images isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’ve often spent hours looking for great artist reference images for my artwork.
Many of the options aren’t good quality, or you have to sign up for a paid subscription. As an artist, you may not have the cash for extra expenses.
That’s why I’ve put together this guide to the best places to find free artist reference photos. You can use these websites to source your free reference images for your artwork!
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The Best Sites for Artist Reference Photos
Here’s my roundup of the best websites to find reference photos for drawing, painting, or digital art.
(Image credit: Unsplash)
Unsplash is one of the most well-known places to find reference photos and stock images. This website includes some of the best shots you’ll find anywhere on the web.
Photographers love Unsplash for its wide range of photos of all types and categories. In this huge database, you’ll find more than 2 million images.
The vast majority of them are high-quality of the standard of professional photographers. Unsplash curates every single image to make sure they are up to they are the best around.
And the best thing about Unsplash? It’s entirely free!
You can download as many images as you like. Plus, all photos come with a CC0 license, so you don’t need to worry about checking every image.
When navigating Unsplash, you have two options. You can click on one of the categories to explore a page full of images all around the same topic. You’ll find all sorts of categories, such as:
- Health & Wellness
- And many more.
But these categories are very wide, so it’s hard to find exactly what you need. If you have something specific in mind, your other option is to use the search function.
You can search for keywords to help you find the right kind of image for your artwork. It can be a little tricky to identify the exact words to use to get your desired results. So, you may need to do some trial and error.
But overall, Unsplash is one of the best places to look for artist reference photos! With so many beautiful images available, you’re sure to find what you need.
Pros & Cons:
- More than 2 million images to choose from
- There are a wide variety of images of excellent quality
- All the images have a Creative Commons license – no accreditation necessary
- You can use the Categories pages or the search function to find what you need
- It can be tricky to work out which keywords to use when searching for an image
(Image credit: Pixabay)
If you’ve ever looked for photos online, you’ve probably come across Pixabay. With its extensive library of 2 million images, it’s a great place to look for artist reference photos.
The Pixabay license covers all the images on this website. What this means is that you can use every single image how you like, including commercially. There’s no need to credit the photographer (unless you’d like to!)
Pixabay doesn’t just offer free images, though. You can also find copyright-free videos, vector images, illustrations, and even music. That makes it a one-stop shop for anything you need for inspiration.
There’s a very simple and user-friendly search bar on Pixabay. You can choose to download each image in a range of sizes, which is a nice touch. It ensures that the image is of the right quality and can save you time, as you won’t need to compress it.
Another fantastic feature is the filtering options for narrowing down your search. You can select a specific image size, color, orientation, or category.
When you download an image, Pixabay will prompt you to tick a Captcha to prove you’re human. But if you sign up for a free account, you don’t need to do that. I’d recommend signing up for an account because that Captcha can get annoying. (Especially if you’re downloading a lot of photos!)
One drawback of using Pixabay is that you’ll see iStock images at the top of the page when searching for something. These images aren’t free, which can be confusing and frustrating if you don’t realize at first.
But despite this, Pixabay is another excellent website for art reference photos.
Pros & Cons:
- Every image is available for use commercially with no credit necessary
- There are 2 million photos to choose from
- You can also download illustrations, vectors, videos, etc
- Excellent filtering options by size, type, color, and more
- You can choose the image size when you download
- You need to sign up for a free account to avoid a Captcha when you download
- It also displays paid stock images which can be confusing
(Image credit: Flickr)
Flickr might have the largest collection of art reference photos anywhere on the web. This site boasts tens of billion photos, with millions of new shots uploaded every day.
While it’s great to have so many photos to pick from, it can also be a bit overwhelming. And as Flickr doesn’t filter or check the image quality, you’ll need to sift through them for yourself. Expect to find amateur shots among the professional photos.
Not all the images on Flickr are copyright-free. What comes in handy is the option to filter by license type, so you can quickly find the right kind of images. This way, you won’t find the perfect image and then discover that you can’t use it.
If you can’t find what you need on other websites, then give Flickr a try. Or, you can bypass them and come straight to Flickr. You’re sure to find what you need!
Pros & Cons:
- There are billions of photos on Flickr
- You can browse through tags and galleries or use the search bar
- You can filter by license type, so you’re confident using your chosen photos
- There are lower-quality images mixed in – you’ll need to choose carefully
- Not all photos have a Creative Commons license
(Image credit: Dreamstime)
Dreamstime is a less well-known site that hosts both free and paid stock photography. But it still boasts more than 160 million photos and 36 million users.
You will find a lot of promotion of Dreamstime’s Premium plan across the website. It’s easy to get distracted by the paid photos, but you don’t need to pay anything to find great shots.
There’s a specific section of the website for free images you can use as photo reference for artists. You can search for specific words to find what you need.
Each image is displayed with a watermark on it at first. You will need to sign up for a free account to remove the watermark and download any photos. While that can slow you down the first time, it’s not a big drawback.
This website isn’t as user-friendly at first, as you’ll need to learn how to navigate and access the free images. But it still has a great library of quality images you can download to inspire your artwork.
Pros & Cons:
- It has free and paid stock images available
- You can filter it so you only see free stock images in the public domain
- You have to sign up for a free account to download images
- The photos are displayed with a watermark on them
- There’s a lot of marketing of the paid images and subscriptions across the entire website
(Image credit: FreePik)
This user-friendly website is simple and straightforward. You’ll love it if you quickly want to find a free reference image for your artwork.
FreePik has an excellent search bar where you can look for words or phrases. But the best thing is that you can also filter these results to only see free images. You can also find vectors, icons, and PSD files all on the same website.
You can use these photos for both personal and commercial use. Do take note that the images on FreePik require attribution. You’ll need to credit the photographer when you use their pictures. If you want to use images without attribution, check out the other websites on this list.
There is some advertising of FreePik’s paid plans. But it’s not too in your face and doesn’t take away from this great website and its smooth user experience. So, it’s not surprising that FreePik gets 50 million views every month!
Pros & Cons:
- This website is very easy to use and provides a great user experience
- It’s easy to search for any type of image and filter to see only free images
- You can use FreePik photos for commercial and personal use
- You will need to credit the photographer when you use their images
- There are some ads on the website which not everyone likes
(Image credit: Pexels)
Pexels is another big name when it comes to stock images. This website compiles images from a range of sources to make them easily accessible.
The great news about Pexels is that most images have a Creative Commons license. That doesn’t cover every photo, so it’s still wise to check first.
You’ll find millions of photos on Pexels, so it’s good to know that the website is straightforward to navigate. While it doesn’t beat Pixabay, it’s still one of the first places I look online for a reference image.
It’s also a simple concept. Every single image on Pexels is available for free download and use. The Pexels license allows modifications and commercial use without any attribution.
You can download an image with a click of a button. But if you sign up for a free account, you get extra features like a download history. So, you can quickly return to any image to see it again without having to search.
So, you can feel confident using Pexels images for your artwork!
Pros & Cons:
- Pexels has a massive selection of images for your inspiration and artwork
- The website is simple and easy to use
- Downloading images is very quick – no account necessary
- The Pexels License allows you to use every image commercially without accreditation
- It doesn’t have as many images as Pixabay
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Wikimedia Commons puts 75+ million photos at your disposal. That comes with pros and cons. First of all, you can find a photo of almost anything you can imagine on this site.
But at the same time, anyone can contribute. So, there’s no guarantee that an image will be high quality. If you want to use a photo as an art reference image, you need it to be as defined, true to life, and detailed as possible.
That means you’ll need to get used to picking out great photos from mediocre ones.
When it comes to licenses, you’ll need to check whether the images are CC0 or in the public domain. Don’t miss this step, as not all photos have a public license for commercial use. You don’t want to infringe on copyright unknowingly.
Wikimedia Commons is a fairly clunky website. It doesn’t look visually appealing, and there aren’t any categories to browse.
It does have a search function, though. You can get more tailored results by filtering them by license type, file type, and image size.
Pros & Cons:
- This website is a little clunky but has lots of photos to choose from
- Anyone can contribute, so not all images are high quality
- You can filter images by license type
- There aren’t any categories to look through
Public Domain Pictures
(Image credit: Public Domain Pictures)
This smaller website doesn’t offer such a wide variety as the big names like Pexels and Pixabay. But you’ll find thousands of images on every topic imaginable, from holidays to food to flowers.
You can download any photo on this website for free if you only need the Standard License. But if you want the Extended License, you’ll need to pay for each image individually. You can find out more about the license types here.
Most of the images on this website are of excellent quality. They will work perfectly as a photo reference for artists.
Pros & Cons:
- It has an excellent selection of professional photography to choose from
- You can browse within tons of different categories or search for a specific word
- The licensing is a little confusing – make sure you’re clear on what type of license you need
(Image credit: ISO Republic)
ISO Republic looks gorgeous and is easy to use. The photos are also breathtaking and sure to inspire your creativity.
From the homepage, you can access loads of categories to find specific types of images. Or, you can search to look for a photo that exactly meets your needs.
Every image on ISO Republic has a Creative Commons license. You can use it commercially and without crediting the photographer. Knowing that provides peace of mind, as there are no limits to which photos you can use.
You can download an image with one click of a button. That’s just one of the reasons why ISO Republic is such a popular reference image site!
Pros & Cons:
- It’s easy to download images – no account necessary
- Every image is free to use and has a CC0 license
- You don’t need to credit the photographer
- The website has categories and a simple search function you can use to find images
- The selection isn’t as large as other stock image websites
Public Domain Archive
(Image credit: Public Domain Archive)
Public Domain Archive doesn’t have as many photos as the other options on this list. But what sets it apart is that every image is jaw-droppingly beautiful. They are all of the highest quality, which makes them ideal as art reference photos.
Whenever you’re low on ideas, Public Domain Archive is the perfect place to come. You can browse through the images and find some new inspiration.
As the name suggests, all these photos are free to use, even commercially. There’s no confusion over license type on this website.
Downloading any image is as simple as clicking the button. But there isn’t an easy way to search through the photos.
There are no categories, and it doesn’t even have a search bar. So, you need to be prepared to flick through page after page. That can get a little time-consuming if you’re looking for something specific.
Pros & Cons:
- This website has gorgeous, high-quality images
- You can use all these images for free and for commercial purposes
- The selection is quite limited
- There’s no search bar or categories – you have to click between pages of photos
- It’s hard to find what you need
Tip: save the image above to your Pinterest to re-read this article later!
The Wrap Up
There you have the ultimate guide to the best websites for art reference photos. With millions of images at your fingertips, you’re sure to find the perfect photo or inspiration.
Let me know if you have any other favorite reference image sites! Or share your artwork inspired by a photo you downloaded – I’d love to see it!
Don’t forget to follow me over on Pinterest. I’ll keep you up to date on the best tips and resources for creative professionals.
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