Reverse image search

If you’re using images online, or on slides that will be uploaded online, you need to know whether you’re allowed to use these pictures. But what if you don’t know where your images are from? Sometimes they’ve been sitting on your hard drive for a while, or you found it on social media without a source.

This is where reverse image search can be very helpful. It lets you search for an image online, using the image as a query.

This coffee break, do a reverse image search

Start with an image that you know exists online. If you don’t have anything ready, you can download this image as a starter picture.

Do a search in two separate reverse image search engines:

  • On TinEye, upload the image by clicking the arrow next to the search bar.
  • On Google Images, click the camera icon in the search bar, then select the upload tab.

Look at the search results and see if you can figure out where your image originated.

What have you learned?

You may have noticed very different results pop up on the two different search engines.

If you used the example image, the Google Image search results may have pointed you the image on Wikimedia Commons, where it’s mentioned that the image comes from government-funded work and is therefore in the public domain. On TinEye, if you sort results by date, you can even find the name of the person who took the image in some of the older sources.

There are some interesting search results for the demo image as well: It looks like some stock image sites are selling the image, even though it’s in the public domain!

Reverse image search results are not straightforward. You often won’t get a single search result that immediately tells you who owns the copyright, but it gives you a way to look for image creators, or to check where you’ve seen a certain image before.

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Image credits: Top of post – colour-altered image of an original by Peter Heeling on Skitterphoto (CC0) Demo image (link in post) – HeLa images via NIH/Wikimedia Commons, public domain.