When it comes to improving your photography, studying the work of the great masters of portrait, landscape and fine-art photography can be really useful and inspirational

What did they include, and why? What did they choose not to include? Why compose the image in that particular way, and what did they do to enhance the image in the darkroom, or via photo-editing software?

Don McCullin once said that he has a massive database of great images in his head, which he can draw upon for ideas and inspiration at any time. Thanks to a recent move by the J. Paul Getty Collection, one of the best art archives in the world, we can not only research great photography but also download some of the finest examples from history for personal use (eg sharing or printing).

History channel

The collection has added a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licence to many classic images, and even better, they are available to download in high resolution. ‘We are committed to supporting and growing a diverse audience and have already noticed an uptick in image downloads on our site, averaging about 30,000 per month,’ noted Jenn Stringer, vice president, chief digital officer at the J. Paul Getty Trust.

The J Paul Getty collection has a powerful search engine, but you will need to search by the photographer’s name, or the photographic process used, to get meaningful results. While many older historic images – those by Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton or Felice Beato, for example – can be downloaded immediately, others will need to be ordered via the collection’s site (Ansel Adams or W. Eugene Smith, for instance).

So it’s rather pot luck if you want images straight away, but well worth trying a search – and so long as you confirm the images are only for personal, rather than commercial use, ordering them shouldn’t be an issue. You can also download some great paintings.

J Paul Getty downloads creative commons
Koboto Santaro (man in samurai armour) by Felice Beato
J Paul Getty collection download, creative commons
Chinese Man by John Thompson
J Paul Getty collection, free download, Julia Margaret Cameron
O Hark, O Hear, by Julia Margaret Cameron
J Paul Getty library, download, Roger Fenton
The Plateau of Sebastopol by Roger Fenton

Further reading
‘Unseen’ images in newly discovered Cameron album