How Stock Images Can Help—or Hurt—Your Brand

Images draw us to blogs and social media posts, increasing engagement and shares. Images make websites unique and act as a visual extension of your organization’s brand. Images also turn simple printed brochures and flyers into memorable collateral.

However, unless you have a full-time staff photographer, you may not know where to find the best images, or in what context you can use them. Using stock photos in your design and branding efforts is often necessary, but you must source and use them correctly. Understanding image licensing terms is critical. Have you fallen in love with a photo, but it’s marked “editorial use only”? What if you need to use a photo of a celebrity or a well-known landmark? You may face the risk of copyright violation and a legal takedown notice. Aside from legal issues, a badly chosen photo reflects poorly on your brand and may not reach your target audience.

Copyright and Licensing Terms to Understand

Before looking at potential sources for images, it may be useful to review image licensing terms.

  • Royalty-free: This license type permits you to use the images for multiple purposes without having to pay a royalty fee for each use. Most stock images you find through online services fall under this definition. This license type also means you can use the same image both on your website and in printed material.
  • Commercial use: Stock photos licensed for commercial use can be used in ad campaigns, brochures, websites, and other places in print or digital where you promote or sell services or raise awareness for your business. This also applies to indirect ways you may promote your business, including blog posts and social media.
  • Editorial use: These are photos of recognizable people and places without model or property releases. You can use them to illustrate news articles, but not for commercial use. An article about a trend featuring a celebrity is acceptable; however, using that same photo on your website or brochure is not.
  • Creative Commons: This license type enables the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. These images may be free, but they may require attribution. There are several types of licenses; see the Creative Commons FAQ for a detailed discussion.

Sources for Images: Paying for Stock Images

You can’t just grab images you find while performing a Google search and use them in your blogs or social media for free, with no payment or attribution. The simplest way to avoid issues is to purchase stock images. Shutterstock, iStock, Getty Images, and Adobe Stock Photos are good sites to start you on your stock photo journey. Most stock photos will require a license purchase to use them in a commercial capacity.

When searching for stock images, make sure that there are no specific names or dates that are associated with the image, title, or metadata. These specific images are editorial use only, and can only be used to illustrate news articles. To find images that are cleared for commercial use, search for broad terms that don’t infringe on events, celebrities, or certain landmarks.

Stock image companies have multiple levels of licensing. For example, Bigstock makes distinctions between “Standard” and “Extended” based on whether it will be used in print or digitally, and how many times the image will be reproduced. Remember, how the image will be used matters.

The bottom line: Determine the use of an image before setting your heart on a particular image―and do your homework on the correct licensing options to use.

Sources for Images: Free ImagesFinding free images that do not have licenses can be difficult, but two good places to start are Google Images with “Labeled for reuse or modification” checked. (You may still have to credit the author to use these images.) Some sites for free stock photos include:

Using Images to Enhance Your Brand

Besides licensing and usage of stock image, there are bigger questions to ask about the images you select. Are they a good fit for your brand and your message? A consistent brand means your communications have a sense of visual identity and cohesiveness, in terms of palette and message. This extends to your choice of images.

  • Clichéd, overused imagery does your brand no favors. Try to avoid obvious choices for stock photos, or think about using them in a fresh way. For example, images can be cropped to change focus.
  • Images also have to be appropriate for the audience. What grabs Millennial consumers is not the same as what appeals to a B2B audience of top-level managers and business decision makers.
  • Match the image to the content. An image related to the content of the post gives readers a preview into the content, and helps make it more likely they will click, read, and engage.
  • Make imagery consistent in style and tone. Websites with multiple images that are uniquely different without a theme connecting them creates a haphazard tone and may work against the professional standard you want to achieve.

These tips apply no matter where you use stock images, including websites, social media, blogs, or printed materials. If selecting stock images feels overwhelming, experienced graphic designers can work with you to understand your brand and recommend images that engage your intended audience, complement your content, and make the most of your budget. Used wisely, stock images can make your digital content shine and your brochures pop.