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Part of the reason that the “vintage collage style” is so prevalent nowadays is because vintage images are easy to get– because they’re no longer under copyright!
That means artists can use public domain photos and ephemera provided by universities, libraries, archives and freebie websites without worrying about paying a commercial usage fee. Great stuff if you’re short on money and don’t mind digging through pages of search results.
But what do you do if you’re not into the vintage look, or just want to use modern ephemera?
Luckily, there’s lots of ways to find modern ephemera that you can use in your collages. You can even find royalty free or commercial usage ones if you need to.
The trick is to know how to search for them on the right websites.
Sidenote: If you have a Canva Pro account you can just search their photo collection for stuff and use it directly in your collage or art journal page– this is especially handy if you’re over there making something anyway.
Search tips for modern digital ephemera
1. Use general search terms at first.
Rather than searching for very specific keywords, like “shipping labels,” try searching for something slightly broader, like “paper.” Creators who upload photos tend to tags their works with general search terms (to bring in more viewers), so that’s why a generic term often brings up more options than super specific ones.
2. Look for flat lay/top-down photos.
This is key for photos of paper ephemera! If you’re looking for a photo of a bunch of paper, for instance, using one that’s been shot from top-down will make it much easier to incorporate into a collage because you won’t have to worry about angles. A bad angle will make it look like your clipping is flying off the page…not a great look, to be honest.
Flat lay photos also tend to have a bunch of little objects neatly organized on a tabletop. Perfect for cutting out individual bits and using in a collage!
For instance, this photo of a desk top has a computer, coffee cup, notepad and pencils, all which have large gaps around them that make them easy to lift out and use somewhere else.
3. Check related images or collections.
If you find a good photo, check for related images or images by the same creator. This usually means clicking on the creator’s name, or scrolling down the page to look for suggested related images. Sometimes you’ll also be able to search through the tags for that image and find other ones tagged with the same keyword.
All the websites listed here have a “related images” feature, to make it easier on searching.
4. Think outside the box.
The piece of ephemera you need may be one part of a larger image!
For instance, if you’re looking for a notebook, you might want to search for images of office spaces or desk tops, as mentioned above. Or if you’re looking for coffee cups, you might find better images searching for “coffee shop” or even “breakfast.”
You might also want to try searching by a “feelings” keyword, as that may pull up some unusual images or portraits to use. Pexels and Pixabay both have search suggestions for feelings like “happy” or “angry”– use them!
Remember that you’ll be editing, cropping, and removing backgrounds from these modern images, maybe more than what you’d do to a vintage image that’s already been edited. That opens up lots of new sources for modern bits of ephemera! Think broadly, and you’ll be able to find lots of great images.
Where to Find Free Modern Ephemera and Photos
Note: Be sure to double-check the DPI of the images you download and make sure you’re downloading them in the highest possible setting. Some websites will only let you download 300 DPI images if you pay for the images, or if you have a subscription.
Pixabay has a huge number of modern photos (as well as vintage ones), though they do tend to be more on the “stock photo” side of things. Still, this is a good website to search for specific images as the tagging system and related images widget is excellent at pulling out what you’re looking for.
Tip: Search under the “vectors” filter for modern illustrated images of people and things.
A similar kind of selection to Pixabay, with a searchable “trending topics” tab. Also good for images of animals!
Tip: Search using keywords like “travel” or “happy” and you’ll find a wider range of things than otherwise.
The artistic side of stock photos! Great for photos of people, modern objects like computers and smart phones, and even landscapes or cityscapes.
Tip: Check the street photography page for images of cities and people with a sort of “urban roaming photographer” feel.
Flickr Creative Commons
An excellent source for modern photos that DON’T look like stock photos. The Flickr Creative Commons are images uploaded by users (including large institutions like universities) which other people have permission to use in their own art pieces.
Tip: If you especially like one creator’s photo, click their username to go to their main page. You’ll be able to see everything else they’ve uploaded, and then you can just search their photos for something in particular.
Library of Congress
Surprisingly, as normally the LOC is the go-to for vintage images and ephemera, the LOC actually has quite a few modern images (as in, even from the last 10 years). They tend to be focused on specific important moments from political, governmental, or societal events rather than random objects, but if you use their filters correctly you’ll be able to find some great images.
Finding “junk” images online
While you can always take photos of things you want to use and just upload them yourself, there’s ways to find images online.
Note: I don’t recommend using these for anything you plan to sell due to copyright concerns; ONLY use these for your personal creations.
Some ideas for finding junk ephemera:
- Product websites, especially if they have marketing materials for download. Look for pages called something like “press kit” or “marketing” and you may be able to find high quality images of their products and logos.
- Business’ social media accounts, especially Twitter or Facebook.
- Tourism websites, the more specific the better. These’ll have images of local places, maps, and other great ephemera to download.
- The USPS website, for images of stamps!
- Book publisher or author websites, for images of book covers.
- Local government websites or social media accounts.
There’s lots of places to find modern images for junk journals or digital collages, you just have to know how to find them. Let me know if you have a great source for ephemera and I’ll add it to the list!
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