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I’ve written articles and given presentations on basics of graphics and finding good, quality, safe-to-use stock photos for marketing, but it finding and properly using images online can still feel tricky. And most of that teaching about images had been in my other business, for my nonprofit clients. My solopreneur, small business pals need this advice too! And you need to know where to find quality images that represent your diverse audiences. So much of traditional stock photography is bland, boring, and white-washed. So, here are my tips on finding, and safely using, other people’s images for your marketing purposes.
Another reason I care about this topic – I’ve been a serious amateur photographer since I was a kid. I’ve lost count of how many cameras I’ve owned – and there’s probably a half-dozen of them in spots in my office just now! I even found a few older film cameras (one with a roll from the late 80s still inside!) last summer during a major cleaning project! I’ve had Instamatic with flash cubes, Polaroids, 110 film, my first 35mm point-n-shoot, disposables, the glorious 70s era Pentax SLR I learned to shoot and develop black&white film for, the expanding collection of DSLRs, action cams, and a new mirror-less camera I now own.I may have a little problem! I try to take classes every year to get better and to use my own photos were possible on my site and in my marketing.
AND ... I have that graduate degree in library and information science, so I have a little training in intellectual property and copyright. Plus it's a basic part of the library profession's ethics code to always look out for and protect IP and copyright. Yeah, I'm a bit nerdy and a stickler for this stuff!
Even with the crisp, high-def, high mega pixel cameras we carry in our pockets now, it’s still not always possible or practical to take and use our own photos. Sometimes a story or content needs a particular type of image. And what if we need photos to represent our diverse audiences, but it's not possible to do a photo shoot? Or you really want a certain object, a look, or an aesthetic?
So where do we turn to safely find quality, representative photos?
To stock photography.
And now, to Creative Commons licensed images.
Read on for tips, warnings, definitions, and my lists of favorite photo sources to use in your marketing.
Representation matters. Your audience and prospective clients need to see themselves represented -accurately and authentically. People want, and respond to, seeing people like themselves in every situation. Our websites, e-books, reports, course materials, and social media posts should show the diversity that is out there among our communities.
But the world of stock photography and images for use in marketing materials have been “so historically stereotyped that representation often dips into parody.”
It can be hard to find diverse stock photos representing a true range of people, across ethnicity, race, culture, body size, gender, setting, and action or role. And when you did find a photo, it would have a 'token' person of color stuck in the background. Or someone would be dressed so stereo-typically and inappropriately for the context of the photo that it felt like a joke to the nationality or ethnicity 'represented.' Or photos with larger bodies only showed them in unhealthy situations or as fat-shaming. How awful! Where were the black business women, the Latinx business owners, the BIPOC students studying or coding? Where were the active people in wheelchairs, or my fellow larger women doing Zumba?
Thankfully more diverse photo collections and resources have popping up regularly, presenting a beautiful range of skin tones, ethnic backgrounds, genders, and ages. Some of the larger, mainstream stock houses have added diverse photos, but in side collections. Granted, a few that I loved and recommended (like WOCInTech, ColorStock), have stopped or disappeared; and many of the better, more diverse collections are royalty-free cost-free, so you pay per image or join a monthly membership. But there are options out there and it shouldn’t be hard at all for you to find and use truly diverse and representative images in your marketing.
When in doubt, get explicit permission for exactly the use you have in mind, from the original copyright owner of the image. When still in doubt, do NOT use that image!
Until fairly recently (mid to late 2010s), if you wanted to find and use an image for marketing purposes and you weren’t taking your own photographs or hiring a photographer, it meant turning to stock images. Now, there are more people sharing images online under other licensing arrangements - notably Creative Commons (more on that below). You may not need to purchase credits or images very often – but there are instances where it’s absolutely necessary to protect yourself from copyright infringement or costly court battles.
Royalty Free does NOT mean “free”, as in no-cost. It means you do not have to pay ongoing royalties to the rights owner for every use of the image, or for the number of times it is seen, nor do you have to secure the model release, etc. BUT you must pay for the license, the right to use the image (including multiple times) in a certain manner. Costs for the license are often based on image resolution size, related to file size. What size you need to purchase a license for depends on what you’re using the image for – in a blog post vs. high resolution in a video vs. print quality, etc. [see chart below]
NOTE – most royalty free image licenses are for NON-COMMERCIAL use. Which would cover most blog posts, presentations, use only internally in an organiization.
Just because you may not be ‘selling’ a thing (like a free report, e-book, social media post) , doesn’t mean you couldn’t run afoul of COMMERCIAL vs. NON-COMMERCIAL use. This is where you may need to consult an expert in intellectual property, trademark, copyright law.
Commercial Use = commonly defined as use that is intended for commercial, promotional, endorsement, advertising, or merchandising purposes. Examples could include a branded organizational website, brochures, products, product packaging, advertisements.
For example – if you are selling that e-book, you may need a different license than if you used an image in a blog post.
Editorial Use = any image marked as such can only be used for news or purely informational purposes. This is mostly because they feature other entities that have their own copyright, trademark, and intellectual property issues – such as celebrities, public figures, commercial products, logos, etc. Don't use editorial images on posts that are promoting anything.
[Update: oh man I am geeking out - Deposit Photos made a beautiful interactive history of stock photos, with emphasis on all the changes in the 2000s that have led us to having more resources, more natural and authentic images, more diversity, and how those style changes came to be.]
The resolution and size of the image you need may depend on how or where you intend to use an image. Consider all the places that image may appear in your marketing - and make decisions based on license level and image size accordingly.
The safest images you can use in your marketing materials are ones that you yourself have taken and thus explicitly have permission to use. Baring that (because we’re not all photographers, nor can we take all the images we may need), purchasing a license to use a photo is the next safest way to go. Buying the rights through a well-established stock site, that’s done all the legal work for you, can save you hassles in the long run. Yes, it costs money and I realize you have limited budgets – but if you want a really safe route, this is it.
Some of these images, under “labeled for reuse” be permissible to use with correct attribution, or are under Creative Commons licenses. Some have been ‘borrowed’ or lifted from other sites improperly, and even used on sites like Wikipedia - leading us to think they are 'safe' when they are not.
Another big caveat and to bust a misconception …
Merely giving credit or attribution or a citation to an image you found online does NOT count as permission to safely use that image. UNLESS you acquired that image specifically from a site that offers images in exchange for certain forms of attribution. If you see an image you like on some other site, you can’t ‘borrow’ it, use it on your site and just link back to the original. Well, that’s better than nothing … sort of. But you didn’t explicitly ask for permission from the photo’s copyright owner. Go ask permission!
* I’ve had accounts or purchased images over the years from Corbis, Fotolia, iStock, Shutterstock, 123RF, and Deposit Photos. I don’t personally recommend Getty Images because of some predatory, overly legalistic, and other wise unsavory behavior on their part. However, Getty has several diverse collections they've added under partnerships in recent years: 67Percent (plus-size women), LeanIn (women in business leadership), and the Muslim Girl Collection.
The only active R-F stock account where I have credits right now is Deposit Photo - I think they are less stereotypical, bland, or white-washed compared to other sites. But I mostly use CreativeCommons C0 images from sites like Unsplash, Pixabay and Nappy. Or the images from my Canva account (which admittedly often come from Unsplash!).
** Another note - I have a Canva for Work/Canva Pro account – and that includes access to a LOT of their stock photos, for free. [the image in the header/featured image for this post came as a free photo while using Canva] You do get more photos vs. the 100% free Canva account. [In 2020 they made some changes to make more images widely available but this many change again]
Canva offers very cheap vectors, illustrations, and photos to purchase and use in your designs. Ironically – many of the photos they charge $1 for come from some of the CC0 sites seen below, others from other stock photo sites. But at least you know if you purchase an image as part of your design, you are in the clear. Always check licenses and terms in case they change!
Royalty-Free Stock photos are not the only game in town anymore as more artists and creators are choosing to put their images out in the public domain and allow for reuse, modification, and use for a variety of purposes with NO attribution required, no rights management – in fact they are giving up their rights. These are images you can use in just about any manner you see fit. I use them in my workshops and presentations, in blog posts, in the featured images from my site that get shared to social media, etc. However, just because I could use these images for a commercial purpose, my own desire to see artists appropriately compensated means I will not. I’ll purchase images for those uses. You do you, though. 😉
Creative Commons arose as a way for individual creators, artists, writers, photographers or visual artists to to standardize and grant copyright permissions for their work. It's evolved as more creative folks use CC, and as more creators use a variety of types or levels of permission for their work.
Creative Commons Zero – the most open of all the Creative Commons licenses, CC0 means a photographer, illustrator, author or any creator has given over their works to the Public Domain and waived their rights to control the work. CC0 items may be modified, used, or reused however you’d like.
There are other levels of Creative Commons license - do NOT assume that an image found through a search for "creative commons" is a CC0, available to use however you want.
You may find other images available to use freely, if you give proper attribution. Here are tips on how to attribute:
If you want to be on the right side of attribution, use the “Attribution – BY” (CC BY) or the “Attribution-NonCommercial” (CC BY-NC) licenses and follow these styles. If you modify an image, you must note that in your attribution. If you want to be super-duper safe, you CAN give attributions even for CC0.
Flickr Attribution: title / author / source / CC license
Wikimedia Commons Attribution: title / author / CC license / source
CC0 Attribution: title / author / source / is in the public domain
My top two, the ones pinned to my browser and that I probably use at least every other day: Pixabay (inc. clip art, illustrations, vectors, video clips) and Unsplash (gorgeous work! a site started by and for serious photographers).
Many of the Creative Commons licensed sites are just as bad as the big r-f stock photo sites in terms of lack of diverse images.
I feel Unsplash and Nappy are best at having images that don’t look like stereotypical, boring, bland, all-white-dudes stock photos. Be sure to check out the list of diverse, royalty-free sites as well.
Note: on some of the free, CC0 sites there are very large ads for royalty-free stock sites and sometimes your search will even bring back results - usually shown at the top - that actually are paid images from an r-f 'partner'. Just double check where and what you click!
Our marketing needs graphics and quality photos. Photos are everywhere - from book covers (e-books too), to blog posts and social media. And we have long had to turn to stock images to use in marketing - and those images have often been underwhelming, inauthentic, boring, or laughable. But there are options out there and thankfully more being added every day. You CAN safely find and use quality, inexpensive (even free), representative images in your marketing.
We can't keep using the same old photos in our marketing. We must create experiences that welcome everyone in, and not leave anyone out. There are resources out there - as shown here - that can allow any small business owner, solopreneur or marketer to be inclusive in their communications and marketing. Show your audience through your image choices that they matter too. Celebrate your mighty marketing mojo with thoughtful, quality, representative images.
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