Stock Photography 101

Recently I shared some information about the many file formats for digital imagery. If you missed it, check out The Alphabet Soup of Image File Formats. Today, I’ll share some industry secrets about where you can find these file types…

Recently I shared some information about the many file formats for digital imagery. If you missed it, check out The Alphabet Soup of Image File Formats. Today, I’ll share some industry secrets about where you can find these file types for use in your digital marketing projects – and many of them are absolutely free.

First, let’s talk a bit about licensing. 

Through the magic of Google, it’s possible to find a photo of essentially anything you could imagine on the World Wide Web. With just a few clicks or drags, these images can be saved to your personal computer and devices. Most of these images are not free for use in creative work or marketing campaigns, however. The exceptions are those that fall under public domain.

What’s a designer to do? Essentially, there are three options: buy, download for free, or attribute.

Buy

Images and vector art are available for purchase online in rights-managed and royalty-free formats. I remember my early days as a design intern, working with rights-managed photography from Tony Stone and Getty Images (in actual catalogs and on CD-ROM, nonetheless). To properly license each image, you were required to describe in glorious detail exactly how the image would be used – from image size, to project type, to how long the image would circulate. The process was laborious and expensive. And then, in the 1990’s, the digital revolution brought us royalty-free stock photography. For these images, you pay only once for use; essentially buying a non-transferrable license. The less restrictive nature of royalty-free imagery has made it the most widely used photo-licensing system in creative work.

Some of my favorite vendors for royalty-free stock photography include iStock and Shutterstock. Images can be purchased singularly, and subscriptions are also available to offer a cost-savings if you are a frequent flyer. Vector images, illustrations, and icon sets are also available, in addition to traditional photography. Quality is top shelf, and a robust search functionality is offered. You’ll find most anything you need under the “paid” umbrella – for fun, try searching for dog riding bike in sunglasses on iStock and you’ll see.

Download for Free

The variety and quality of free stock photography services has improved over the years. I’ve often been able to find decent quality photos (and vector) for no charge if client budgets are tight. The tradeoff is that it’s often difficult to fulfill specific imagery needs, and the quality is not as high as compared to purchased stock. If you have basic imagery needs and have the time to rummage through, explore Pixabay, Pexels, and Unsplash

Attribution

You may see images on the web with a small caption beneath crediting the artist. Rules regarding attribution vary widely among vendors. As a designer, I find the attribution visually distracting, but this middle-of-the-road approach may afford some diversity in imagery while providing a cost-savings. Have a look at Creative Commons (photos and vector) and The Noun Project (a comprehensive collection of icons).

Some final notes

As you consider which stock photography options are right for you, keep in mind that custom photography needs (product shots, team member headshots, etc.) are always best served by hiring a professional photographer. If customization is not of concern, the widely accessible array of digital images will work for most needs and budgets. Happy searching!

Christa Blackman

Christa Blackman is a Creative Director who has designed print and interactive communications for Fortune 500 companies for over twenty years. She studied Graphic Design and English at the undergraduate level, and completed a Master’s degree with a thesis focused on usability. She has a passion for visual storytelling built upon a strong design foundation.