As a graphic design teacher for 6 years, one of my favorite classes to give is the one where I talk about copyright. Why is such a boring topic one my favorites, you ask? Simple. It’s because my students’ reactions to being told that just because an image appears in a Google search doesn’t mean its free are hysterical and priceless. I get all sorts of reactions, from “Well if it shows up on Google then its public domain and I can use it” to “You mean I to pay for it?!”
Yes folks, you might have dish out some cash, but fortunately, there are lots of image bases out there that you can use completely free, where you can legitimately use them for commercial projects, no problem. 99Designs has a great blog post with a list of the best ones: https://99designs.com/blog/resources/public-domain-image-resources/ or this blog post from Chasing Heartbeats Photography that has over 40 different free and paid resources: https://chasingheartbeats.com/stock-photography-websites/. In general, the people who own the photos are not putting it up on the internet for anyone to use. They will put it up for various reasons, but please, respect their rights and ask before you use it, or use an image they have delineated beforehand as open source.
What I really want to discuss here, though, is how to tell which images you can use when you perform a regular Plain Jane Google Search. So, in no particular order, here are a few things to take into consideration:
Make sure that the image you want to use is available for reuse.
You can check this by clicking Tools, and the Usage Rights. The dropdown menu that appears will show you different filters you can use to sort through the images based on license.
Which option you choose will depend on the project you need it for. Are you making a birthday party for your son and need a picture of a gift box? So you’ll want to select, Labeled for noncommercial reuse. Are you publishing a book and need a reference photo of the solar system? Choose, Labeled for reuse. Are you designing a poster and want an image of a crowd that you can distort? If the original image will still be recognizable when you are done with it, make sure to select, Labeled for reuse with modification. You get the idea. All the images that appear in a Google search are someone else’s intellectual property, so do them a favor and only use them if they agreed to it first. Also, please note that in general people are very nice. I have had photos I have found on Google that I have wanted to use for various projects that were NOT marked as labeled for reuse, but I went ahead and found the creator of the image and emailed them. Almost every single time I have gotten really nice emails from people saying that for sure we can use it, no problem. Some ask to be credited, and some want a copy of the book, but rarely does someone ask for pay, unless they are a professional. So finding an image doesn’t mean you can’t use it, but it does mean that you should have respect and not steal it.
Check the size and resolution
This one is a little trickier. I had a client who was finding reference photos for his book and kept sending me images that were 121x300px and asking me, can I use this for printing? And the answer to that, in a nutshell, is NO. The general rule that I tell people is to figure out the size, in inches, that you need for printing, and multiply each dimension by 300. The result is your pixel size that you need to look for. So, for example, if you need a photo of JFK, and in the book it will be printed at 2×3 inches, then you will need an image that is AT LEAST 600x900px in order for it to print properly.
You can filter Google images by size in the Tools, right near the Usage rights. The pixel size of each image is listed on the image, when you hover over it with your mouse. You can also choose Show Sizes under the More tools dropdown menu at the top of the screen.
For those who want to understand my calculation above, here it is. I am trying to simplify as much as I can, but be forewarned, if you really want to understand, you have to slog through some technical stuff first.
Image resolution 101
First, what is resolution? Resolution is the quality of an image. It refers to the amount of pixels per square inch of image. Pixels are the little squares that make up an image. Zoom up to an image real close, and you will see that it is made up of little colored squares, that when you zoom back out, make up your image. Resolution is how many little squares of color you can squeeze into every inch of space. This matters because the more pixels you have per inch, the higher quality your image will be. That camera you have on your phone? The megapixels is telling you the amount of pixels that you can optimally get out of each image you take.
Resolution differs between screen and print. Because of the nature of the printing process, and the fact that the images are printed on a paper, you need more pixels per inch to produce a high quality printed image then you do to produce a high quality image that is only going to be viewed on screen. So understanding that, now you can understand the numbers. The optimal screen resolution is 72 dpi. DPI stand for Dots Per Inch. Also referred to as PPI – Pixels Per Inch, but dpi is more common for some reason. Anyway, so you need 72 pixels of color per inch of image in order for it to be clear and sharp on your screen. Optimal print resolution is 300 dpi. That means you need 300 pixels per inch of color in order to print an image that looks as beautiful on paper as it does on your computer screen.
So that leads us to my rudimentary calculation, above. To figure out what size image you need, multiply the size of the image, in inches, by 300 (the dpi needed). That gives you your optimal pixel size to look for in your image search.
What happens if the image is too small, and you just enlarge it yourself? Bad things. Whatever program you are in is going to try to compensate for the lack of pixels by either adding it (which is what Photoshop does), or enlarging each pixel. This results in a very blurry, low quality photo that screams, “I downloaded this image from Google without knowing what I was doing!” Please don’t do this. Especially not for professional projects. If you want to do it to your son’s birthday card, I can’t stop you. But I am begging you, don’t try to enlarge teeny tiny images yourself. And if you got to this point in the article and still have no idea what to do, might I suggest to contact a professional graphic designer to help you?
So that’s it. If I left anything out, please let me know in the comments, below, and I will try to address it in future posts. Good luck with your next project!
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