Reference Photos and Copyright Law

When using a reference photo for artwork, it is important use to only copyright-free photos, or photos used with the written permission of the photographer.

When a photographer takes a picture, he owns the copyright.  Even if you pay for copies of his photos, he still owns the original image. If the photo appears on the Internet, it is not free to use. If you are able to contact the photographer and receive his written permission, it would be okay to use for artwork. Otherwise it would be an infringement of his rights.

However, after approximately 120 years from the date of creation, a photo may fall into the public domain. Photos of Native Americans taken in the 1800s by Edward Sheriff Curtis have fallen into the public domain and are considered copyright free.

Using a copyrighted photo and changing a small part of it is not fair use and is an infringement of copyright law. If it is a photo of cows, and you use a couple of the cows in your artwork, it is okay. If the photo is of a cow on a hill, and your artwork looks like that, then it is not okay.

Fortunately there are many sites on the Internet that offer copyright-free photos for an artist’s use. Some charge a small, reasonable fee, and some are free.

  • Wildlife Reference Photos (
  • Paint My Photo (
  • Wendy’s Photos for Creatives (on Facebook)
  • Birds of the World (on Facebook)
  • Pixabay (
  • Morgue File (

These are only the sites that I’m familiar with. There are many more. If you want to email me sites that you like, I’d be glad to include them on this list.


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