A guide to using Stock Photography in your content marketing

Ross Hall

April 15, 2021
(Updated on July 21, 2021)

A camera on a table next to a macbook with photos on the screen

Images are an integral part of content marketing. They appear at the top of blog posts, teasing the visitor to read on. Sometimes they’re found further down the page, adding context or breaking up longer copy. Social media is awash with photographs of smiling people, panoramic vistas and carefully crafted graphics. These photographs and illustrations demand our attention, and sometimes we’re willing to oblige.

Creating a unique photo for each blog post would be a full-time job. Fortunately, there are ways you can short-cut this process and use work that’s already created. This is the “stock photograph”, an image that’s ready for you to use. All you need do is agree to a few terms, possibly pay a fee, and you can use it in your next piece of content marketing. At least, that’s the theory.

In this article, I’ll walk through what stock photograph is and isn’t. I’ll look at when it’s sensible to use stock, and when you might be better investing in custom photography. There are also some issues you need to be aware of that I’ll outline.

What is a “Stock Photograph”?

A stock photograph is one the creator licenses so other people can use it. The image could be of any subject; from a celebrity to a landscape to random people doing everyday activities. Whereas commissioned photographs will be for your exclusive use, anyone agreeing to a licence can use stock photos. The licence will vary from being free to having high fees for exclusivity. Stock applies to more than photographs and can include graphics, videos and other media. You can find them through professional stock libraries or direct from creators.

How do you find stock?

There are a multitude of stock libraries catering to all kinds of content and price ranges. Usually you’ll enter some search criteria, then browse through different media that matches. Some libraries will allow you to download heavily watermarked or unusable samples you can test in your content. Once you’ve found an image you want to use, you pay a fee and download the full-sized content.

Some well-known stock libraries you could explore are Adobe Stock, Shutterstock and Getty Images.

Creative Commons – A Free Option

Some photographers are happy to let people use their work for free, often under a “Creative Commons” licence. This sets out in plain terms how you can – and can’t – use an image. Usually you must link to the photographer, and there can be restrictions on changing an image to fit your site, or where you can use it.

Flickr, Unsplash and Pexels are popular sites to find free and Creative Commons stock images.

Public Domain photographs

When you take a photograph, you own the copyright. This means someone else can’t use it without your explicit permission. When you give permission, you can charge a fee and place restrictions on how it can be used. There is no need to register your photograph anywhere or watermark it. With a few exceptions you own the copyright by default.

Photographs in the “Public Domain” don’t have this protection. Anyone can reproduce and use the image in the way they want. It becomes public domain a few decades after the creator dies, or if they explicitly declare it and give up their copyright.

There is a perception that any image found on the web is “public domain”. This is not the case. An image shared may still be subject to copyright, and you shouldn’t use it in your content marketing. To do so risks damaging your both your brand and your reputation. The copyright owner could also sue you. “I found it on Google” is not a credible defence in public or the courts.

How will you use a stock photograph?

Stock images come with a licence that sets out what you can – and cannot – do. Rather than buy an image you can’t use, it’s sensible to know what you’re planning on doing with it first. This will help you avoid expensive mistakes.

What if you want to create a PDF version of the same article?

Will you use it in more than one place? Most of the time you’ll use an image in a single blog post or on a single page, and licences will usually give you this “single use” permission. Even if you share a link with the image in it, most licences will take a pragmatic view and accept this as a single use. However, use the image on multiple pages or in print and online versions, and you may need to buy another licence.

Will you modify the image?

Once you’ve got the image you may want to crop it to fit your layout or apply a little Photoshop to change it. This is known as “modification” and not all licences allow it. Even converting to black and white may not be permitted. Before you fire up your editing software, make sure the licence allows “modifications”, “editing” or “derivations”.

A screenshot of affinity photo being used to edit a photograph
Editing a stock photograph using Affinity Photo

Will you use it on packaging or content you charge for?

Often found in free stock, restrictions on making money with the image could apply. If you are using the image on something that’s sold, avoid any licence that excludes commercial use. I’d suggest you don’t use stock photography on packaging, unless you have an exclusive licence.

Do you need exclusive rights?

If you want to be the only person allowed to use the image expect to pay for the privilege. Generally, stock is sold to more than one person at a time, so the high-impact image you’re about to use could be on tens, if not hundreds of other articles. I’ll come back to this problem later.

Royalty or Royalty Free?

A licence that incurs a royalty has to be renewed regularly, with a new fee paid. This can be expensive, as one company found when it was paying over £2,000 a year to use a single, exclusive image on a critical web page. Royalty Free licences require a single fee and you’re then free to use the image without paying again.

Is there a model release?

This is important where the image features a person and you’re using it to promote your business or products. The subject signs a model release to confirm they’ve given up any rights to their image being used. Some models may keep rights to restrict how their image is used, such as a vegan refusing to promote meat products. This will be included in the licence terms.

If you’re in any doubt about whether the licence is suitable, contact the stock library. Breaking the terms of the licence could lead you liable to unexpected fees or costs down the line. For example, I worked with a small business charged several thousand pounds in unauthorised use fees. Their former marketing manager reused the same image time again without re-licensing it. When the stock library discovered this was happening, they set out to recover the money they should have been paid.

Keeping records

Knowing which images you’ve paid for and the terms of their licences is an important part of your record keeping. You should keep a note of where you sourced it from, any restrictions on how you can use it, and whether it needs renewing. This record makes it easier for you and your creatives to use individual photos correctly. This can also become important if you have to revisit a piece of content and want to make changes. Checking the asset register first will help avoid potentially expensive mistakes.

Screenshot of a ninox database showing fields used to record details of a photograph
An image recorded in a project asset register

When I supply a photo to clients, or if they supply stock, I’ll compress the media files and a copy of the licence and put it in the project folder. This keeps everything together as originally purchased. Then I add it to the project manifest so there’s a record of the image, where the client got it from and the main licence conditions.

When should you use stock photography?

As with everything in business, when to use stock and what to use comes down to budget. Stock is cost effective for the steady stream of blog posts and content that’s become the norm for many companies. Creative commons and free libraries can be attractive.

However, the risk is your image will be used widely elsewhere. In the course of a week I saw the same image of a young woman holding the plank position being used for a yoga retreat, a restaurant and a LinkedIn article on men’s health. An image search found several hundred separate blog posts where it was being used. As the image drifted past on my feeds, I assumed I’d read the content and skipped it. What was a beautiful image with a lot of impact quickly became another piece of social media noise.

Screenshot of a LinkedIn article with a woman doing the plank and showing how many other posts used the same image
The original LinkedIn post that prompted this article. Over 230 different blog posts had used the image, and it showed up on 2.9 million search results

Another issue is relevance. The temptation is to use an image that has a high impact without relevance to the content. More than one person who read the LinkedIn article about men doing press-ups questioned why the hero image was a woman doing a plank. The author’s credibility was dented a little as they chased clicks with a cheap visual trick.

If it’s high profile, use bespoke photography

For cornerstone or high-profile content, stock may not be the way to go. Bespoke images will stand out more and limit the harm from using one that’s widely seen. If it isn’t possible to commission bespoke photography, using paid stock will reduce the number of times an image is seen elsewhere. The more you pay, the less likely you are to see it on someone else’s blog.

If it’s specific to you, use bespoke photography

If you need something that’s specific to your business use bespoke photography. Don’t try to photoshop your product into an image; the cost of doing it properly is high. Nor should you use stock photos of people to represent your customers and staff.

I worked with a company that had photos of their smiling staff on their recruitment pages. I knew one of them was a model and had never worked for the company. Not only had they used stock images, the testimonials about being trustworthy and a great place to work were also fake. It transpired the workforce knew and used it as part of their “reasons HR can’t be trusted” narrative.

Common problems

After you’ve sourced images with the correct licences for your content, there are still issues that could surface. The most common I’ve encountered focus on whether there was a licence, the person in the photo, and using images of celebrities.

Do you have a valid license?

Using reputable stock library will mitigate a lot of the risk of accidentally sourcing an unlicensed image. You should buy any licences directly from the stock library, not leave it to your agency or freelancers. The only exception to this is where the freelancer provides the images from their own stock. If you use their stock, make sure they warrant they own the original copyright and the rights to licence it.

A few years ago I found a company was using one of my images on their marketing materials. They argued a freelancer had given them licence and they’d used it in good faith. That didn’t matter as the freelancer had no rights to the image, nor permission to sell any. A few days after the small claims court summons arrived, they settled the unauthorised use fee.

The “morality” risk

Finding the smiling face on your latest promotion belongs to a well known “adult actress” could embarrass, depending on your branding and opinion. Models working in the adult entertainment industry sometimes shoot so-called “vanilla” sets that find their way into stock libraries. You may not know until you get an email from a fan, or a public message on social media.

If this is a potential issue check who the model is before you commit to a licence. Google image search can help if this information isn’t available in the image description. Checking Model Mayhem or PurplePort should give some insight into their previous work.

Celebrity “Endorsement”

Have you found a stock photo of a celeb using your product? It might be tempting to put that front-and-centre in your marketing. Doing so could cost you dearly.

While “Celeb X wears our product” as a comment in a blog post might be acceptable, going further could land you in hot water. Implying the celebrity endorses or supports your business could be seen as misrepresentation. At best a regulator might ban your marketing (some can demand you delete blog posts). It might also lead to a high-profile court case from the celebrity claiming you’re using their likeness without permission.

If you find one of these images use Google Image Search to find out if a reputable website has reported it (better yet, someone shared the news story on Instagram or Twitter). Use this as the starting point for sharing on your blog and social media feeds.

Build your own stock library

As well as using a professional stock library, you could create your own. Bringing together photographs from across your business will give you a pool of unique content. When your next blog post or marketing campaign is due, you’ll have images ready to use. You’ll also find it easier to swap images when members of staff leave or join.

Creating your own library is not without problems. You should make sure everyone in an image has signed a release, no personal data or sensitive information is on display and deal with the question of who owns the copyright.

The big question: to stock or not to stock?

Stock images can be a relatively inexpensive way to add colour and life to your content marketing. However, before you raid Google looking for images, bear the following in mind:

Above all, the rules of content marketing apply. Use images that are related to your topic and support your message. A click bait picture of a pretty girl may get you a click, but it could turn your target audience away.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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