Friday, April 25, 2014

Three pitfalls of using online photos in your self-published kids’ book.

image You may have noticed that there are lots and lots and LOTS of photos out there on the Internet… lots of which are free for the taking.  One source for beautiful free photos is Wikimedia Commons, so let’s start there, looking at how to find pictures and legally reuse them in your own project.

(top photo credit:  Nicolás García, Wikimedia)

Whatever you’re looking for, you can find it on Wikimedia.  Here’s a sample search I did, looking for pictures of fruit that I could use for this post (click to see all the great results!):

Click to take a look and see the vast wealth that’s out there – all of it totally, absolutely free.  (And click here for Part 2, in which I round up the Good, the Bad and the UGLY of the types of kids’ books you can create using photos…)

But there’s a catch!  Well, 3, at least. 

You might see the wealth of free photos out there and start thinking, “hey, online photos are a promising way to avoid paying an illustrator.”  But “free” often has a price, so hold your horses for a minute. 

Let’s look at 3 of the most common pitfalls of using Wikimedia art… and then I’ll show you how you can avoid them, to take your book to the next level!

1.  Check the resolution!

This is the absolute first principle of any kind of printing and publishing – all images must meet the minimum standard of 300 dpi, or dots per inch (I’ll explain a bit more about what that means in a second). 

Looking good on the monitor and in your word-processing program simply isn’t enough.  You have to start with a high-quality, high-resolution picture.

Just because a picture looks GREAT on your screen doesn’t mean it will look GREAT in your book.  Here’s a picture from Wikimedia that looks wonderful on my monitor – wow, imagine using this in a book about healthy fruits and vegetables!  I’ve made it nice and big here, and you can click to see it full-sized.


(Photo by Bill Ebbesen)

But BIG doesn’t necessarily mean high-quality either.  You might think this 11x7 image would fit perfectly for a 7.5” x 7.5” square picture book… except that it’s only 72dpi.  Printed on the pages of a children’s book, it would look very, very blurry.

(I promise; I’ve tried it!  How do you think I learned all this stuff?  Yeah, the hard way…)

Another way of thinking about dpi is as “pixels” – little dots of colour.  If the pixels are too spread out, the picture’s going to look awful in print.  But if you squash them together to make the image clearer (= “better quality”), you may end up with a teeny tiny picture.

If you have a good photo program, like Photoshop, you can resize it and change the dots per inch along the way.  But the math involved is obvious:  resizing this 11x7, 72dpi image into a 300dpi image gives you an image that’s smaller than 3”x2”!


Which, in turn, is going to look mighty skimpy on any size of picture-book page.

However, all is not lost!  Underneath many photos on Wikimedia is a list of sizes in which the photo is available.  You might NOT be seeing the best-quality version available!


Oh, look… we’re actually seeing one of the smallest sizes available.  Click on the link to the largest-possible size to see if you can get a better quality version.


Happily, this HUGE image, when squashed down to 300dpi, comes out to around 13”x8”… perfect for almost any size of kids’ book!

However, that’s not always possible.  If you can’t find a way to get the picture you want in a decent size, a decent-sized, 300dpi image to use in your book… you’ll have to keep on looking for one that works.

2.  Check the license!

Let’s say I’m writing a picture book about Chanukah and I want to include a photo of a menorah.  Here’s a nice one I found on Wikimedia (that incidentally looks a lot like my mother’s):


Perfect!  But I need to check to make sure I can legally use it in my book. 

What?  This is the internet, and everybody steals everything from everybody?  Okay, maybe… but let’s take the moral high road here and remember that a law is a law, and occasionally, people get cranky enough to enforce their copyright claims, to the tune of thousands of dollars.

Happily for my Chanukah book, there’s a Licensing section on every Wikimedia page.  This one has a symbol like this:

image image

All this gobbledygook means the picture is in the public domain.  Anybody can use it, in any way (share and remix), for any reason.  Yay!

(Maybe I’ll share more about the gobbledygook in another post!)

But let’s say I find this picture and want to use it in my book:


(Photo taken for DC Minyan by Rebecca Israel.)

Its Licensing section isn’t quite as simple:

image image

These symbols mean that I can use the picture all I want, in any way (share and remix), but ONLY if I a) give credit to the original photographer (attribution) and – here’s the catch if you’re trying to publish a book – b) distribute the resulting image absolutely free (share alike).


This basically means I can use the picture on my blog, where you’re free to look at it, copy it, use it for your own blog, etc.  But I can’t and you can’t use it in a book, on a t-shirt or mug, or on or in anything else that we’re not giving away for free. 

So before you snatch an image off the Internet, check the license carefully!

(Want to know more about copyright, like what YOUR rights are?  Check out Five facts about copyright that won’t bore you to tears!)

3.  Check your wallet – but don’t skimp!


Remember why you’re doing this – to create a book; a story kids will love.  The pictures have to serve the story, and not the other way around.

Only use photos you’ve found online if they’re perfect for the story you want to create… and if you can’t find photos that are perfect on any free site or in the public domain, consider paying for a few that are, or hiring an illustrator either in addition or instead.

I’ve used public-domain photos in a few of my books, including Seven Special Gifts, about the fruits of the land of Israel.  But I also paid an illustrator to create cartoon versions of the fruits.


Every photo you see in the book is public-domain.  Every cartoon was created for me by the illustrator.  I love the playful effect of the characters dancing in front of their real-life setting… but it also means I paid almost as much as I would have for fully-illustrated pages, even though the background photos were free.

The important thing is that you shouldn’t have to rework your story or settle for inferior pictures just because they’re free.

As I said in the beginning, there’s often a hidden price for “free” – make sure you and your readers don’t have to pay that price.

(Click here to keep on reading with my round up of the Good, the Bad and the UGLY of kids’ picture books illustrated with photos…)

Do you have any great ideas for using free or public-domain photos?  Any terrific sites to help hunt them down?  I’d love to hear them!


  1. In general I would refrain from using ANY Wilkimedia image. Even if you see the symbol that it's in the pubic domain you can't be sure. The image may have been "stolen" from the original photographer and made its way to Wiki where someone said it's public domain. It's usually not. Think about it. If someone takes a high quality image of something why would they just let the world use it for free? Better to be safe and at least go to an online subscription site where you can download images either cheaply per image or may a one month subscription fee and download up to 25 different images every day for a month. Better to be safe especially if you plan on making money from an image you find on the web.

    1. Jeff, there are legitimate reasons why people give away their images for free. In some cases, it's for publicity. In some cases, they give away a lower-res version of a photo they'd be willing to sell for money (though from what I understand, the copyright issue on this is not as clear-cut). Sometimes, they're older photos that are in the public domain. Also, a lot of amateur photographers just want recognition, not money. Wikimedia actually published a list of its Top-12 photos from 2013 that I'm sure has garnered its photographers plenty of interest:
      Hope that helps explain things, and thanks for stopping by!

  2. Thanks for the precious information. Can you believe it, I had never heard of Wikimedia commons before!

    1. Wow - well, I'm always happy to help. Thanks, Earl!

  3. Good points, Jennifer! This is helpful advice to writers & artists.

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of three poetry books, a scholarly book, and the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, hardback--2006, paperback--2007, e-book, audio, and Spanish edition--2008, 3rd paperback edition and iPad app--2012)
    Website is

  4. Wow! Great tips! Licenses can be tricky, so that's always good information to have. Thanks for sharing on the Kid Lit Blog Hop. :)

    1. Very, VERY tricky. More to be written on this subject, for sure. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Thanks so much for this informative post. I tend to use few pictures from the internet, but even after reading all the fine print, sometimes I'm just not sure. This helps a lot. Thanks for sharing on the Kid Lit Blog Hop.

    1. Well, I'm happy that I was able to help sift through things a little. Thank you for stopping by!


As always, I love to hear from you.