When I was in High School, I used to download MP3s and video games illegally. It was fun hunting for the songs and software I wanted but “couldn’t afford” or “wouldn’t have  bought anyway.” But as a I matured in my faith, I realized this practice didn’t line up with God’s plan for my life or my ministry.Too often, the church infringes copyrights. We tell ourselves it’s because we’re doing the Lord’s work, so it’s OK to “borrow” images, music or software.

Using images in your ministry can really enhance your message, helping it stay in the minds of your hearers. Research shows that the more senses you can engage, the better the chance your content will stick. So what image options are available to churches that won’t break the budget?

One of the nice things about the internet is that there are lots of people willing to share their material with the world. Creative Commons provides a legal framework for making this happen. Photographers (among other types of artists) can choose to license their works for use under certain conditions. Check the Creative Commons Site for specific information about the licenses that are available. They can range from a simple attribution to more complex rights regarding modifications and new works based on the original image.

We use Creative Commons licensed photos almost exclusively in our sermon PowerPoints to help reinforce the message, with a simple credit on the bottom of the slides. On digital materials (like this blog), I like to link the photo to the original author so people can access it themselves. Of course, the license is just about worthless if you can’t find images. So how do you filter through the millions of images that are available for the Creative Commons licensed ones? Here are a few options:


Compfight is my go-to site for finding images. It’s not the most expansive 0ption (it only searches Flickr.com images), but it’s the easiest to use and quickly navigate. Type a search term into the box and hit enter to start finding images. After you’re first search, you’ll need to adjust some options to only get the Creative Commons content.

I grabbed this image from a sample search I did for trees. There are four sets of options to choose from in the left column of the page. They are:

Tags only / All text

This group decides what gets searched. Tags only will search the tags that people associate with their photos on Flickr. A good photographer will have lots of tags, others might have only one. For example, a “tree” photo might be tagged simply tree, or could include green, blue, sky, bark, ground, and bright as it describes other elements or characteristics of the photo. I’ve found searching tags only eliminates some lower quality images, but gives fewer results. All text will search the tags and any information entered in the description of the photo. This might include a story about where they were when they took the photo or other random details. If you can’t find an image from Tags only, try switching to All text.

Any license / Creative commons / Commercial

The search defaults to any license, which is fine if you’re just looking for inspiration. You’ll have to click through to each image to see if it’s actually usable, however. Creative commons will restrict your search to the images that are freely usable, assuming you follow the Creative Commons licensing restrictions the photographer licensed the photo under. The license appears in the right column of the Flickr page for the image. Hover over the icons below the licenses header to see which restrictions apply. The Commercial option will further restrict the search to items that can be used commercially. These images aren’t necessarily free–most can be licensed via links on the Flickr page.

Show originals / Hide originals / Only originals

Show or Hide originals will either display (or not) the original image size when you hover over the image in the search results. I find this option helpful if I need a high-resolution photo. For projection, you can usually get away with an 800×600 image or larger. 1024×768 or higher is preferred. Only originals will only show the photos that actually have an original that you can download.

Safe / Unsafe

This is a content filter for safe or unsafe images. I leave it on Safe, which eliminates some naughty images, but not all of them. Your best bet for eliminating naughty images is thinking about your search terms carefully. I remember trying to find an image to go with the verse in Genesis about God creating garments of skin for Adam and Eve. I put “leather” in the search box and got some …provocative… images.

Choosing (and Using) an Image

Once you’ve set your search terms, all of the images will appear on the right. Click on an image to go to the Flickr page for the image. Here’s an example page we used in our Easter sermon. To access larger versions of the image for download (if they exist), right-click on the image and choose the resolution you want to use. If you did it correctly, you should end up on this page. Now you can right-click the image and choose “Save image as…” or similar, depending on which web browser you use. You can also choose “Copy image” and just paste it into your presentation.

For the photo credit, I use: “Photo: username (website)” as the template. In this case, the username would be dtcchc, which you can find on the top of the page you were on when you saved the image. For website, I use Flickr.com for this image. If you’re using it online, you can link the photo to the image page that has the comments on it (on Flickr, that’s the page that ends with a number instead of photostream).

Other Options

Definitely start with CompFight, as it’s easy to use and accesses a large database of available photos on Flickr. You can also try Every Stock Photo, a site that searches Flickr and several other sites. I’ve also found some good images on Deviant Art, though there’s no easy search tool to restrict images there to only Creative Commons content. There’s also more questionable images on Deviant Art, so search at your own risk. The easiest way to find the creative commons is through a custom Google search. Enter in the search box:

site:deviantart.com “creative commons” search term(s)

The site: modifier will limit Google’s search to only that website. “creative commons” (with the quotes) will restrict results to only those that include the words “creative commons”, which will be present on pages that have the license. Search terms will narrow down the options to your subject matter. You won’t see previews, so you’ll have to click through each link to see what the image looks like. It’s definitely my last choice for searching, but there have been some good finds in there on occasion.