In a perfect design world, we would have access to custom images for every project. But the reality is that time and budget constraints can prevent this from happening. When we run into those types of limitations, we often turn to stock photos.
As a professional design firm, we have to be careful about what images we use. Utilizing overused images can come across as looking like a cheap effort. Using improperly licensed images can push us (and our clients) into a legal issue. Fortunately, due to the sheer volume of available stock imagery, you should be able to find anything you need for little or no cost.
So what are some things to consider when using stock photography in design?
Is it legal to use stock photos?
First things first: We are not lawyers, nor are we in a position to give legal advice so this isn’t legal advice. That said, it is perfectly legal to use stock photos provided you follow the rules. There are numerous stock photo sites and it seems like many more pop up every day. Some sites offer royalty free stock photos, but each site has its own set of rules regarding legality. If you find a stock image you want to use, but sure to check these rules.
Some photos are not licensed for commercial purposes. Some stock photos are licensed for editorial use only (such as news articles or blog posts.) Some photos are only licensed for web. Photos that are licensed for print may have limits on the number of times you can print and distribute the photo.
As with most services, the rules can vary. Be extra diligent if a site offers free stock images, though. While there are many solid options, some sites are just looking for traffic so their legality is sometimes questionable.
Where can I find sources of free stock images?
Many stock photo companies provide free, high quality images just for signing up for their mailing list. These may not always fit a specific purpose at any given time, but if you’re looking to build your own internal library of stock photos this may be a great place to start. Free files may only be available for a short amount of time, so keep an eye on those emails. You never know when a picture of an empty coffee cup might come in handy.
Two sources we use often are pexels.com and unsplash.com. Each site is a collection of free, high resolution images released with a Creative Commons license. Just make sure you follow their rules so you don’t find yourself in legal trouble. More often than not, the only requirement is that you give the original creator credit for the work but sometimes even this isn’t needed.
What is a Creative Commons license?
A Creative Commons license is a public copyright license that allows free distribution of a created work that could be otherwise copyrighted. A creator might use a CC license when they want to give other people the right to share, use, and expand on something they have created.
There are multiple types of Creative Commons licenses, though, so take care to ensure you’re following the proper rules. Some may fall under an attribution required license. You can read more about those at creativecommons.org.
What are public domain images?
Public domain images are images that aren’t copyrightable or have had their copyrights expire. Generally speaking, these images are free to use and modify as you see fit. Laws defining copyright vary from country to country, so make sure you do your research before using any images that appear to be in the public domain. Many US government images are public domain, but the rules vary for their use.
If you’re ready to find the perfect images for your blog post, social media page, or if you just want to start building your own personal curated collections, check out our tips on this post.