Image Search Strategies

Searching for images often requires a different approach than searching for textual materials. Listed below are a few tips that will help you find and keep track of image resources.

1. Familiarize yourself with your topic

Successful image searches require a familiarity with your topic. Online images available through search engines such as Google Image Search can be very effective, but unless you are familiar with your topic, it will be difficult to discern whether the images you retrieve are mislabelled or misattributed.

For example, searching for "London Bridge" using Google Image Search will return mostly images of the Tower Bridge, which is the most iconic bridge in London, but not actually London Bridge.

  • Authoritative reference sources about your subject will supply you with more search terms.
  • Knowing specific terminology in addition to being able to recognize different representations of your subject matter (for example, a variety of graphic representations or types of digital imaging) will not only allow you to discern whether the images you retrieve are accurate, but also whether they are appropriate for inclusion in your project or paper.

2. Select image keywords and search terms

Searching for images requires a different approach than searching for textual materials and information. Images usually rely on accompanying descriptive text to identify them.

Searching by title, subject, and creator can be effective when looking for a specific work; however, images on the web usually rely on descriptive terms.

  • Search terms for images can be as diverse as style, genre, theme, date of creation and/or date depicted in image, individuals depicted in image, location, image type (e.g. microscopic photograph, diagram, animation), media (e.g. print, drawing, painting, photograph), and repository (e.g. digital or institutional).
  • It is often best to start your search by using one or two keywords. If you retrieve too many results, add additional keywords to reduce the number of matching images.

3. Choose appropriate databases

When looking for specific images the best place to start is a database that specializes in the subject matter or that collates images from multiple authoritative sources. (Artstor is an example of this type of resource.) Specialists have created these resources and the metadata attached to images will be more accurate than it will be on more general image websites.

  • Every database is structured differently so always refer to the "About" or "Help" pages, which provide information on image content and how images are indexed.
  • Never limit yourself to just one resource or search strategy. Always search multiple relevant databases to get the best results.
  • A great place to start is this list of image collections arranged by subject from the American Library Association Connect website: Digital Image Collection Guide.

4. Keep track of where you found an image and manage the images you find

If you have success with a specific search strategy or database be sure to keep track of what resources and methods work best. Give the images that you download simple, trackable file names (be sure to maintian the format e.g. jpg, tiff) and designate a place to consistently save them and their accompanying information. Maintaining a dependable method of tracking and managing images will help with image rights management and source citation.

  • If you use Google, create a folder in Drive with a document that tracks information and links. The storage feature works with Drive, Gmail, and Google Photos, so you can store files, save email attachments, and back-up photos directly to Drive.
  • Zotero can help you manage visual materials by collecting, organizing images and their metadata. The article “Zotero for Personal Image Management,” by Alexander Watkins introduces you to image management using Zotero and walks you through its functionality.

Reverse Image Searches

Reverse image searches are helpful tools if you forgot to keep track of where you found an image.

  • Google Images allows you to search by image by selecting the camera icon in the search box (search by image). You can upload an image file or search by image URL.
  • TinEye is an image search company whose website allows you to upload an image file or search using an image URL.

General Image Search Tips:

  • Images can be described in multiple ways and the visual elements you are looking for could only part of the image. If you are not getting the results you expect, be creative, adapt and broaden your search terms to reflect the different ways the image you are looking for could be described.
  • Before you start your search review, what you know about the image you are looking for? Who is in the image? What is the location? What is the date? What is the subject? Using keywords from each of these categories could improve your search results. Depending on the image, you may have more success searching place names (what place is depicted, or where the depicted object is located), time periods (the era depicted or the date of creation), artist names, photograph publishers, and/or even materials.
  • Images are often described using vocabulary that is not controlled by a thesaurus or subject headings. Try using synonyms, singular/plural variations, and different or no punctuation. Using term variations in your search process may help you find more results.
  • Depending who created the database you are searching, titles and place names may be in multiple languages. You may need to experiment with different translations, or try non-English vocabulary. A free online tool that may help is LOGOS, which is a multilingual translation portal. Also remember that artist names and place names can have more than one recognized spelling or format, so try searching alternate spellings.1

1. Adapted from “Image Search Tips and Strategies” from the University of Washington Libraries' Image Research Guide. Accessed April 5, 2016,

Content last reviewed: