How to run reverse image searches

Reverse image searches might sound complicated, but they’re easy to run – and surprisingly helpful

Sunday, 7 April, 2024

There’s a common misconception that images published online are all free to use and repurpose for your own – or your company’s own – benefit.

In fact, copyright applies to images online just as much as it applies to content.

Fines can be substantial, levied on each copyrighted image you’ve used, with additional costs (potential profits, legal charges and so on) on top.

Being pursued for copyright infringement is not a scenario any individual or business wants to find themselves in.

Yet how can you find out whether a photograph you’ve seen online is suitable for reuse or not?

The ‘right intentions

If you’re looking for images while building a website, we’ve previously explained how to search the internet for Creative Commons Zero (CC0) pictures which are free to modify and reuse.

We’ve also discussed how to use Google or Bing to search for photos specifically uploaded as free to reuse and republish.

But what if you stumble across a perfect photo and don’t know where it came from?

This is where a reverse image search might help.

In the same way entering text into a search engine in quotation marks can often uncover the origin of a phrase or sentence, there are image search tools which allow you to do the same.

If an exact match to the photograph can’t be found, very similar images might be displayed, helping you identify anything from bands and plants to landmarks and products.

Competing against Bing’s Visual Search tool, Google Lens allows you to upload or drag-and-drop an image (or its host URL) into web browsers including Chrome, Safari and Firefox.

A more limited version of Lens is offered on mobile devices, minus the URL option mentioned above, though it is easier to take a picture through your camera utility.

There are also apps such as Photo Sherlock or Search By Image on Android and iOS, helping to verify the origins of photos, screenshots and memes.

Bear in mind that these apps may involve intrusive advertising or occasionally freeze, while any reverse image searches could draw a blank or misidentify certain images.

From personal experience, a cat was once identified as a shrub, while a photograph of a musician returned results relating to a similar looking (though unrelated) artist.

What else is this useful for?

Reverse image searches have become especially popular in the horticultural world, helping to identify plant species, with a profusion of apps sprouting up in response to consumer demand.

Searches might uncover interesting information about a photograph – where in the world a shot of a dramatic-looking building was taken – or lead to further sources of info.

Anyone running a reverse image search on the stunning building at the top of this article would find themselves learning about a luxury hotel in Ayrshire.

Reverse searching a meme could reveal where the original image came from, or other variations/captions/modifications which have been made.

It could be used to identify a deepfake, or an online dating profile using plagiarised visuals.

It’s also useful for sourcing high-resolution versions of a thumbnail or low-res image – though the copyright issues we’ve discussed above still apply unless it’s CC0.

Finally, reverse image searches may reveal the photographer or copyright holder of a particular image, enabling you to approach them and request rights to reuse their work.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!