scientific photo

20: Best scientific photo databases

Do you need a highquality image of the human lung system or cell signalling pathways or a colony of Australian termites? Does you next paper or presentation showcase the distribution pattern of a specific wildflower in California or how deep-sea water samples in the Arctic are collected? Standard stock photography databases do not include these kinds of specialised images. That’s why we’re here to give you an overview on the best collections of science-related photo databases, both paid and free ones.     

If you’re looking for very specific scientific footage, to enhance and communicate your research subject, you may not find it in the free photo databases that we presented in our last blog post #19: The 5 best free photo databases for your scientific presentations. But the right image can be instrumental in illustrating crucial information to new audiences, or the finer points of a specific method to experts. Luckily, there are a whole bunch of scientific picture collections available where you can find the exact illustration you need! 

Some of these databases are free, and some you have to pay for to get access to their photographs. The size and the themes of the collections vary a lot as do user-friendliness, quality and image size. We have found a variety of collections after a deep search online, so that you can get those specialised photographs that your next presentation or paper requires. 

I. Databases for free scientific photographs 

1. Smart Servier Medical Art

The Servier database includes about 3,000 illustrations related to the medical, anatomy and biology fields. The collection is set up with the researchers’ need to illustrate academic papers or presentations in mind. You won’t find any photographs here, only coloured drawings and illustrations. All images are provided under the Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0). 

2. The Somersault 1824 Library of Science & Medical Illustrations 

The Somersault collection includes illustrations in the fields of anatomy, cell biology, molecular biology, microbiology as well as labware and genetics. This database also provides illustrations and symbols, but no photographs. Technically, the download is free but they ask you to provide a fair price for the images you use, to support their operations. The illustrations are provided under the Creative Commons 4.0.   

3. Science Image 

Science Image includes about 4,300+ free science-related images from the Australian CSIRO, mostly photographs from areas like astronomy, microscopy, biology, and nature photography. The photos can be downloaded in only one resolution. A handy filtering system allows you to look for specific photo orientations or colours. The use of all photos is free as long as sources are credited. 

4. Public Health Image Library

The Public Health Image Library specialises in images that deal with all aspect of public health communication. Their philosophy is that much of the information critical to the communication of public health messages is pictorial rather than text-based, therefore their pictures can be used for free, but ask you to give credit to the Library. Simply credit the original institution and contributor when possible, and thank the Library in the index. 

5. The Cell Image Library

The Cell Image Library is a repository for images and video clips of cells from a variety of organisms. Most photographs come in different resolutions and file types. A very good keyword search tool allows you to find highly specialised photographs or illustrations. All images are free for download and use according to the Creative Commons licenses. 

6. Saxifraga Foundation

The database from the Saxifraga Foundation provides free nature photographs. This includes, plants, animals, biotopes, landscapes (geographical and geomorphological and human activities. You can download and use them for free, provided you credit the source and any commercial use is excluded. 

7. Wikimedia commons

Wikimedia includes millions of image files. If you go to the meta-category “Science images”, you will be directed to science-related footage, including their database of illustrations. You will need to systematically dive a bit deeper into the search function, as it contains many subcategories which are further subdivided. So, its searchability function is somewhat laborious, but well worth the effort. The database has a very good collection of historic images and illustrations that are difficult to get anywhere else. Typically, all the images are free use, but for every image you can see which rights and licenses apply.  

8. US Geological Survey (USGS)

The USGS’s Multimedia Gallery is a great resource for all sorts of visual information (photographs, videos, webcams) from the environmental and geosciences field related to the US. The database is notable for its very good subject filters and even allows you to pick specific locations and time scales. Free images, as well as paid resources are available for your selection. All images used from the database need to be credited to the USGS. 

9. American Museum of Natural History

The Digital Special Collections of the American Museum of Natural History’s Research Library provides access to rich collections of digitised archival photographs, art and memorabilia images. So if you are looking for historical pictures, this is a good place to start. Images can be downloaded for free but are to be used for academic and non-commercial purposes only. 

10. Earth Science World Image Bank

The ESWIB database  is run by the American Geoscience Institute and is a great source for all images related to geosciences. The interface looks a bit dated, and depending on your browser, you may need to change settings to display their photographs. Downloading is easy (two types of resolution), but use of the images is permitted for academic and non-commercial purposes only. 

11. NASA Image Portal

The NASA Image Portal is a great source for images and videos related to astronomy and earth observation. The images can be downloaded and used for non-commercial purposes for free. 

12. Image Data Resource

The Image Data Resource (IDR) is a public repository of image datasets from published scientific studies, where you can search and access high-quality biology-related photographs. You can use the images for free following the Creative Commons license 4.0. 

II. Databases for paid scientific photographs 

1. Adobe Stock

You will find great footage on Adobe Stock, a professional image and video database with over 100 million items for download (photos, illustrations, and videos). However, you need to buy a license, and depending on the number of pictures you are aiming to download per month, the license fee varies. You can also test-run the database and get the first 10 photographs for free, but don’t forget to cancel it afterwards, otherwise you have to pay a monthly fee. Adobe Stock is not specifically a scientific photo database, but because it includes so many photos in total, that the scientific part alone is very large. 

2. Science Photo Library 

The paid service of the Science Photo Library offers science and medicine related photographs and videos (royalty-free). It also offers special fees for students and educators. The quality of images is very high and the site features a very good keyword search tool, which allows you to search categories like animals, astronomy, chemistry, environment, geosciences, human body, industry, mathematics, physics, transportation and technology.  

3. Science Source Images

The commercial Science Source Images service offers high-quality science-related photographs on all aspects of scientific research. Photos can be purchased as digital files (various file types) as well as print products. 

4. EBSCO Health’s Scientific & Medical ART Imagebase 

The EBSCO Image database offers about 24,000+ medical and scientific illustrations that can be purchased for commercial and any other use. 

III. Further collections 

If we haven’t covered a database that meets your specific requirements, there are several good overviews available on additional databases that collect images related to very specific themes and topics at: 

V. Conclusion: 

When you need specific scientific photographs to illustrate your research presentation, you are not limited to your own photography skills. Depending on your subject, you will even find several detailed databases to choose from, which include photos, illustrations and videos to make your talk stand out and to communicate more successfully.  Don’t forget that communicating science is the second part to doing research- you want to share your discoveries with your peers and public in a way that’s understandable and memorable. And nothing communicates better that images and video!

Relevant resources:  

More information: 

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Cover photo by Graham Blight on Science Image by CSIRO.

© 2019 Tress Academic

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