Amazing Public Domain Images

It’s usually a safe bet that if you’re looking at an outstanding image, someone owns it. That should mean too that someone has paid to enable you to see that image, whether it’s the publisher, the ad company or the buyer.

And yet when it comes to photography, some of the best things really are free. That’s because copyright only lasts as long as the owner’s lifetime plus around seventy years so many images have fallen into the public domain, and also because one of the biggest sources of images is the US government. And because the government serves the citizens, the citizens own the images.

Here are some of the most amazing pictures that belong to everyone… or no one.

The Blue Marble
Image courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center

One of the few photographs to show the Earth in its entirety, The Blue Marble was shot on December 7, 1972 from Apollo 17 as it left orbit on the way to the moon. Officially, the photograph is credited to the entire crew, but it was mostly likely to have been taken by Jack Schmitt using a 70mm Hasselblad. It was the last time that humans have been high enough to shoot the entire Earth in one frame and is one of the most widely distributed images in the world.

Eagle Nebula’s Pillar’s of Creation

Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University), and NASA/ESA

This image of the Eagle nebula was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in April 1995 and shows giant columns of hydrogen and dust several light years high. The colors have been changed to enhance the image’s scientific value. The stars would actually appear a blue-ish white rather than red-eye and pink.


NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

Supercells are the most serious types of thunderstorm, producing huge amounts of hail, rain and wind. Almost a third of supercells also spawn tornadoes. This image of a supercell was created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in May 1985.

Antarctic Jellyfish

Photography: Henry Kaiser

It’s not just the governments storm watchers who are taking dramatic pictures of nature. This photograph of a jellyfish was shot by Henry Kaiser of the National Science Foundation under the Ross Sea ice in October 2005.

The San Francisco Earthquake from above, 1906

Photography: George Lawrence

All of the images we’ve seen so far entered the public domain after being taken by government agencies. This photograph was taken by aerial photographer George Lawrence just three weeks after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — and the fire that followed.

Lawrence used a large format camera attached to a kite to take the image.

Ansel Adams’ Manzanar Collection

Photography: Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams is best known for his landscape photography but during the Second World War, he tried his hand at photojournalism to record the lives of Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar. Calling the internment “a great injustice” Adams shot portraits as well as daily life in the camp.

The collection is now in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Tumbler Snapper Rope Tricks

Photography: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

This photograph shows a nuclear explosion less than 1 millisecond after detonation. The image was taken in Nevada during the Tumble Snapper test series using a Rapatronic camera. The fireball is about 20 meters in diameter and the spikes underneath are the vaporization of the bomb’s mooring cables. The mottled complexion of the fireball is caused by the vaporized bomb material

7 comments for this post.

  1. Ben Said:

    Amazing photos, especially that nuclear explosion!

    Is there a central place where one can find all works that are public domain such as paintings and photographs?

  2. Mandy Said:

    Great shots, I especially like the Blue Marble and the San Francisco Earthquake.

    So does this mean we could use them on our sites and if so where would we get them from?

  3. Greg Said:

    Also don't forget to check out the work of the New Deal, FSA photographers in the Library of Congress. - Walker Evans, Dorthy Lange, Arthur Rothstein and many others.

  4. Avenues_NP Said:

    Great pictures there.. esp The Antartic Jellyfish.. Jellyfish never fails to amuse me..

  5. Tray Said:

    Just the Type of Photos I was looking for. THe Images on the Internet can be so amazing sometimes. I Needed something for my Buzzbot Presentation with Web2upgrade.

  6. TVS Said:

    The blue marble photo you have is not the original - it's an upside down version. In the original picture taken of the earth, the south pole is at the top.

  7. WC Said:

    Since blue marble is a public domain image, can somebody use that image as part of a larger copyrighted image?

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