Finding and Using Images

Academic Image Use

Images often play an important role in scholarly research. Depending on the topic of research, textual documents from books, journals, and websites may not be sufficient. You may need a scientific photograph, a piece of art, a map, or a graph to prove your point.

This page introduces you to the major aspects of image location, creation, and use.

For more information on visual literacy, contact Access Services Librarian, Elizabeth Teaff.

For more information about copyright’s impact on media use, contact Paula Kiser.

Finding Images

The following sections outline the process of an effective media search–a process that includes the identification of project need and the location of appropriate resources.

Identifying Your Need

Before you conduct your image search, consider the following:

  • What is the purpose of the image within your project? Will it be as illustration, evidence, primary source, focus of analysis, critique, or commentary?
  • What is your intended audience?
  • What is the environment for your project (e.g., academic vs. web page)?
  • What specific criteria should your image meet (e.g., subject, pictorial content, color, resolution)?
  • Are there discipline-specific conventions for image use?
  • What image sources will you choose from (e.g., digital, print, subscription databases, web, books or articles, repositories, or personal creations)?

Items to consider as you start your search:

  • Since images can come from different media types and materials, do not exclude the possible use of paintings, prints, photographs, or born-digital images.
  • You can use images to communicate data and information (e.g., charts, graphs, maps, diagrams, models, renderings, or elevations).
  • Existing images can be modified or repurposed to produce new visual content.
  • Your image search may be affected by image rights and use restrictions.
  • What role does textual information play in using images (e.g., captions or other descriptions, personal or user-generated tags, creator information, repository names, keywords, or descriptions of visual content)?

Adapted from the ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education

Understanding Resolution

Resolution is a measure of the sharpness and detail in an image or optical system. Resolution is measured by DPI (dots per inch).


Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Understanding File Types

General Terms:

  • Aliasing: A distortion or artifact that results from poorly reconstructed or sampled images.
  • Image Compression: A process that reduces the amount of space necessary for data to be stored or transmitted. Compression techniques utilize a means for averaging or discarding the least significant information.
  • Lossless: Digital compression techniques in which no information is lost; an object is identical before and after being compressed and restored.
  • Lossy: Digital compression techniques in which information is lost; an object is altered after being compressed and restored. Lossy compression sacrifices fidelity for size; fidelity and compressed file size are inversely proportional. The technique may be used in instances where the loss of information is not noticeable or significant.
  • Vector Graphic: “Graphics that are made up using mathematical equations based on straight lines and curves. Vector graphics are infinitely scaleable.” — Evans, Poppy, et al.The Graphic Design Reference & Specification Book. Rockport Publishers, 2013. p. 214
  • Raster Graphic: An image formed from a grid of pixels. Raster graphics are typically generated by scanning rows sequentially from top to bottom. A television image is an example of a raster graphic.

Raster vs. Vector Graphics


Image by Darth Stabro from Wikimedia Commons

File Formats:

  • Bitmap : A type of raster graphic formed by an array of bits, each bit representing the corresponding pixel’s value. The more samples per inch (spi), the higher the resolution. There are a fixed number of samples in a bitmap image (unlike with vector graphics). Bitmaps cannot be displayed or printed at resolutions beyond that of the particular output device without having aliasing occur. — Wolf, Peter. Graphic Design, Translated: A Visual Directory of Terms for Global Design Rockport Publishers, 2010. p. 24
  • PNG: A raster graphics file format that supports lossless data compression. PNG was created as an improved, non-patented replacement for Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), and is the most used lossless image compression format on the Internet. PNG offers a variety of background transparency options.
  • GIF: Most commonly seen as an 8-bit file format for graphics used for the web. Includes support for animations.
  • JPEG: A lossy standard that can compress the data to minimize the file size.
  • PDF (Portable Document Format): A file format developed by Adobe Systems that can include text and graphics. The format can be read using the freely distributed Adobe Reader.
  • SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics): A file type for vector graphics; can be created or manipulated using software such as Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape.
  • TIFF (Tagged Image File Format): A standard for storing a raster graphic and metadata that describes the image content and characteristics. TIFF is a proprietary format and trademark owned by Adobe, although the specifications are published and freely available. It is platform independent and widely supported.

Unless otherwise noted, definitions are from Wikipedia and/or the Society of American Archivists.

Resources for Finding Images

NameSubject AreaDescriptionUse/RightsSubscription Required
ArtstorArt & Art History“The Artstor Digital Library is a nonprofit resource that provides over 1.8 million digital images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and sciences with an accessible suite of software tools for teaching and research.”—Artstor“You may only access and use the Artstor Digital Library and any content in the Library, for educational and scholarly uses that are noncommercial in nature. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited”—Artstor
See full permitted and prohibited uses.
Creative Commons SearchGood for All Subject AreasCreative Commons Search allows users to search exterior databases for Creative Commons licensed items (images, video, audio, & media). Currently, users can search Europeana, Flickr, Fotopedia, Google, Google Images, Jamendo, Open Clip Art Library, SpinXpress, Wikimedia Commons, YouTube, Pixabay, ccMixter, & SoundCloud.Do not assume that the results displayed in this search portal are under a Creative Commons (CC) license. Verify that the work is actually under a CC license by following the link. If you are in doubt you should contact the copyright holder directly, or try to contact the site where you found the content.NO
CSIRO: Science ImageSciencesCSIRO: Science Image is an image library specializing in science and nature images. It is presented by CSIRO, Australia’s major science research organization.All images are free to download under a Creative Commons license.NO
Google ImagesGood for All Subject AreasImage search service owned by Google and introduced in 2001. It allows users to search the Web for image content.Images could be in the public domain, subject to the copyright laws of the image owners country, or under Creative Commons Licensing, etc..NO
Oxford Art OnlineArt & Art HistoryOxford Art Online searches images in reference works including Grove Art Online, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, The Oxford Companion to Western Art, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, as well as many articles and bibliographies.Images subject to Copyright.YES
U.S. Government Photos and ImagesGood for All Subject AreasIncluded are results for Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, NASA Images, National Science Foundation Images, the Smithsonian, and many more governmental webpages.Some of these photos are in the public domain or U.S. government works and may be used without permission or fee. However, some images may be protected by license or copyright. Read the disclaimers on each site before using these images.

If you have questions about the copyright status of an image, contact the government agency that produced the image.

Washington & Lee’s Digital ArchiveGood for All Subject AreasW&L’s Digital Archive provides online access to materials from Leyburn Library’s Special Collections & Archives including manuscript collections, University Archives, and rare books. Student research and scholarship, including Honors Theses, Senior Theses, and Capstone projects, and faculty and staff research and scholarship are made available as a part of University Archives.Items subject US Copyright Law.NO
Wikimedia CommonsGood for All Subject AreasA database of millions of freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute.Almost all content hosted on Wikimedia Commons may be freely reused subject to certain restrictions.NO
Yale Art GalleryArt History .tiff images provided.Many images are in the Public Domain. Look for this information in the item record.NO
Washington & Lee’s Special Collections & ArchivesGood for All Subject AreasLocated on Lower Level 1 of Leyburn Library, the Special Collections & Archives department helps you locate and access rare books and periodicals, printed matter including maps, posters, broadsides, thousands of prints and photographic images, unique manuscript collections, and the University Archives. It is especially strong in the area of local Virginia history. Digitization of materials is available on a case by case basis. Please visit us Monday-Friday 9:00-4:30.

Items subject US Copyright LawNO

Using Images

Once you have found appropriate images, you still may need to alter them to fit your project. Remember, as with any other data, avoid altering content in a way that may be misleading or misrepresent the original source.

Also, if you use the intellectual property of others, remember to provide appropriate attribution/citation.

Image Editing Software

Raster Graphics Editing Programs

Software NameAvailability
Adobe PhotoshopAvailable in certain university computer labs
GimpFree software download available at

Vector Graphics Editing Programs

Software NameAvailability
Adobe IllustratorAvailable in certain university computer labs
InkscapeFree software download available at

Creating Your Own Images

Just as when evaluating found images, creating images requires consideration of visual need, desired resolution, and appropriate file type. Additionally, creating images involves considerable creativity–from the selection and combination of colors to the thoughtful choice of font style.

Check out Adobe Color CC for help creating a color palette.

Read Smashing Magazine’s “What Font Should I Use” to learn about the principles of font selection and application.

If you are creating data visualizations (charts, graphs, infographics), remember to consider the needs of those who are color blind. If you differentiate data via color, those who are color blind or have some form of visual impairment may have difficulty interpreting your work. For more information on creating accessible visualizations, read Smashing Magazine’s “Color Contrast Tips and Tools for Accessibility” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Creating Color-Blind Accessible Figures.”

Need More Help?

Emily Cook