Thursday, January 26th, 2023

A comprehensive guide to using stock photos and graphics

Graphic showing a woman writing on a piece of paper with other images of varying themes and topics around her.

Images are an important 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 image for each blog post could be a full-time job. Fortunately a “stock image”, a ready-made graphic or photo, can help. 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 guide I’ll walk through what a stock image is – and isn’t. I’ll look at when it’s sensible to use one, how licenses work and some of the pitfalls you might face.

Inside this guide…

What are stock images?

What type of stock images are there?

When should I use one?

How do I choose an image for my content?

Where can I find them?

Can I use Google image search of social media?

What does it cost to use a stock image?

What is a license?

What is a “Creative Commons” license?

What is a “Public Domain” image?

What problems could affect me?

How do I avoid them?

What if there are people in the image?

Bottom line.

Resources & Links

What are stock images?

A stock image is one that’s been created and licensed for other people to use.

For example, I take a photograph of a random tree and upload it to a stock library. You need a photo of a tree for your website, find my image and license it. This is you using a stock image.

This differs from bespoke images where you want a photograph of a specific tree and commission a photographer to take it for your exclusive use.

What types of stock images are there?

Stock images aren’t limited to photographs. You’ll also find vector images, illustrations, charts and even videos. They also cover a broad a range of topics, from people doing Yoga to protests to fine details of machinery.

Photograph of a woman in black dress looking to the right with her hand covering her eyes
A generic stock photograph. Often models are asked to pose in slightly awkward positions.

When should I use a stock image?

There are few hard and fast rules on whether or not to use stock images. As a rough guide, the less expensive an image is to use, the more likely it will be used. This can dull the impact of your marketing if thousands of competitors and bloggers are using the same image.

Stock images shouldn’t be used if you’re trying to portray your staff, customers or products. Aside from being deceptive and potentially counter-productive, this is illegal in some jurisdictions.

In general, I steer towards bespoke photography for content specific to products, services and the workings of a business, and carefully chosen stock images elsewhere.

How do I choose a stock image for my content?

Selecting the right image to accompany content is part art, part science. The art is a subjective view of whether the image supports your message in an attractive and appealing way. The science is its objective quality.

Choosing images is a topic in its own right, and I will post a separate guide by the end of February 2023. In summary:

  • the image should be related to your content, for example a post about male health might include an illustration of a man jogging
  • it should avoid cliches or clickbait. A photo of a woman in a yoga pose wouldn’t be appropriate for an article on male health
  • a photo should be clear and crisp with the subject in sharp focus
  • the image should be the right size and orientation to fit in your design. Too large, and it will need to be reduced in size. Too small, and it’s best to discard it as scaling images up reduces both the quality and impact.
Screenshot of a woman doing the plank on an article about men's health, with more than 20,000 other articles sharing the same image
Example of a click bait image: what does a woman doing the plank have to do with men’s health? It was also found on more than 20,000 other blog posts, social media posts and web pages.

Where can I find stock images?

There are numerous stock libraries online which make images available to use on your website, in marketing materials and so on. I’ve included links to some of the most popular at the end of this guide.

Some image sharing sites such as Flickr and DeviantArt also let users license their work.

Many photographers will license their images directly. If you find an image you like on a photographer’s site, you could approach them and ask to use it.

Generally you cannot use an image “because” it’s on Google, Bing or any of the social media platforms. Image search and social media may help you find images, photographers and artists, but the images you see are not licensed for you to use.

What does it cost to use a stock image?

Prices start at free and can easily pass thousands of dollars for exclusive, unique images. As a rule of thumb, the cheaper an image is to use, the more likely you are to find other people using it.

What is a license?

Images have a copyright, which is a right in law for the creator to control how their work is used. This is usually set out in a license. It forms a contract that says you will use image X in way Y.

Some common features of licenses include:

  • how many times you can use the image (e.g. only once in one design, or as many times as you need)
  • whether you can modify the image, which could prevent you from cropping it to fit your design, or changing a color image to black and white
  • restrictions on using the image for “commercial purposes”, such as not putting it behind a paywall or on materials that you charge for
  • so-called “morality clauses” that can prevent the image being used in certain industries or alongside specific products (such as alcohol, drugs or fossil fuels)
  • whether you need to pay a separate fee for each use of the image (e.g. once for a blog post, again for the email announcing it, a third time for sharing on Twitter, fourth for Facebook etc), after a specific time period (e.g. an annual renewal fee), or “royalty free” where you pay once and can use the image as needed
  • restrictions on transfer rights, so if you sell your business the new owner may need to secure a new license to continue using a photograph.

You should check the license matches how you want to use an image. For example, if you want to use one across web, email and social media and crop it to suit, there’s no point choosing an image with “one use, no modifications allowed” restrictions.

What is a “Creative Commons” license?

Some creatives are happy to share images without charging for their use, provided certain conditions are met. While this means you could have access to a free image, you may have to acknowledge who created it, and make your version of the image freely available on the same terms.

The “creative commons” is a set of licenses that cover this.

Screenshot of a sample creative commons license
A summary of a typical creative commons license.

What is a “public domain” image?

Copyrights on images expire several decades after the death of the creator. Alternatively, a photographer or designer may decide to give up their rights over an image. These are called “public domain” images and can be used without paying any fees and in any way you see fit.

Again, it’s important to note images you find on Google, Bing etc are not in the public domain by default.

Black and white portrait of a Victorian woman from 1886
A public domain portrait of Frances Folsom Cleveland by Charles Milton Bell. The photographer died over 100 years ago, and his copyright has long expired. Source.

What problems could affect me?

The three most common problems I’ve encountered with stock images are:

  • using an image without a license. This usually happens when an image is downloaded from Google, social media or even another website without checking
  • using an image in a way not permitted by the license. This tends to happen when an image is cropped to fit a design and the license prohibits modification, or using a “non-commercial” image in product packaging or marketing materials
  • implying an endorsement. Usually this is where a headshot is used in a way that suggests it was an employee or customer who said a quote.

If you use a stock image inappropriately you could:

  • be sued by the rights holder. This could result in higher costs from defending a case and paying compensation. In extreme cases it can end in criminal convictions
  • have your content removed from social media, which is usually flagged in your timeline as “deleted due to a copyright complaint”, harming your brand. Repeat offenses can end in your accounts being suspended or deleted
  • face a fine or ban if a regulator takes action against you, particularly if the image relates to marketing or advertising.

It’s worth remembering that while you may be based in a country where what you’re doing is entirely legal, if your content can be seen in a country where it isn’t you might still be exposed.

How do I avoid these problems?

The simplest answer is to assume every image you come across is protected by copyright. On a practical level:

Only source stock images from reputable libraries or direct from creatives.

Social media and Google image search are useful for ideas or finding new talent to approach, but you shouldn’t download and use images from them directly.

Make sure you have the right permissions for how you want to use the image.

If you want a cropped photo for half a dozen designs across email, web and print, there’s no point in choosing one that has a single use, no modifications license.

Keep records.

On the rare occasions I use a stock image, I always keep a link to the page and a screenshot of where I sourced it, a copy of the license text and the original file I downloaded. With clients, I recommend they download their own files rather than rely on a license “gifted” by their designer.

Screenshot of an asset register showing information about the license for an image
Screenshot from an asset register created for a brochure project. It provides an immediate reference to where images were sourced and their license conditions

Do I need to take extra precautions if there are people in a stock photo?

If there are people in the image, you need to be aware of a some additional potential problems. People in photos are usually called subjects or models. The latter is a professional term used for those who make their living posing for photographers and artists. The former could be anyone, regardless of whether they agreed to be in the image or not.

Using images with inappropriate subjects and models can leave you open to brand damage through social media campaigns, court cases or regulatory action. Key questions you should answer are:

  • has everyone who can be recognised agreed to appear in the image? In some jurisdictions, for example in Japan, using an image of a person who hasn’t agreed to be in it could lead to you being sued.
  • are there any “morality risks” that prevent you from using an image? Images with models who are well known activists against your industry, or too young to promote your products, should be discounted.
  • has the model/subject appeared in advertising or on sites that might harm your branding? Models who act as influencers for competitors, or run websites and social media feeds contrary to your values should also be discounted.

Photographers who use models will often get a “model release”. This is a contract that confirms the model was paid and agrees to release any rights they might have. If in doubt ask for a copy of the release for your files, although what you receive will likely be redacted to remove personal information about the model.

Photograph from my stock library. I know I can use this image because the model was paid and I have a model release from her.

The bottom line: should I use stock images?

Stock images are a useful tool to add color and depth to content. Used correctly, they can have a positive impact on conversion rates and engagement. However, they need to be treated like any other asset in the business:

  • get your stock images from a reputable stock library, or direct from a creative
  • remember free and low priced images are more likely to be used by competitors and bloggers, which will dull the impact of your content
  • always use an image with a license that matches how you want to use it now and in the future
  • keep records of where you sourced an image and the license that applied at the time.

Resources and Links

Stock libraries and image sharing sites with licensing options




Death to Stock



Creative Commons

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction. Find out more.