When do I need to pay for a stock image?

In your fabulous design adventures, you might have considered using pictures for your next project. Better yet, maybe even stock pictures. They have the advantage of being ready-to-use, in comparison to a -usually quite expensive- professional photographer. If photos can definitely help you make an attractive design, it’s fairly easy to get lost in rights clearance and the legal aspects of model release.

A common misconception is that all images found on Google images are free to use. Doing so could actually leave you open to legal action from the photographer, more or less severe depending on how you used their pictures. You therefore need to be very careful about where you get your images from so as to avoid any complications.

So when can you use a picture, do you need to pay for it and how can you make sure you avoid legal trouble later down the line? Let’s explain all these points together in this article.


What are stock images

Let’s start by defining what is a stock picture. A stock picture is a highly professional photograph of a specific subject made available for creative, editorial or commercial purposes. Stock pictures are owned by the photographer and, as such, often require a fee to enable commercial use. Although there are free stock picture providers, it is common practice to pay for the photograph in order to reward the photographer’s work. The price then really depends on how you plan on using the picture, as elaborated in this article.


Should you pay for a stock picture

Everyone likes free stuff. Especially if you want to get many pictures, you’d like to avoid paying when possible. So when do you need to pay for a picture? It really depends on where you source your stock images and what you want to do.


You should pay for a picture when:

- You want to use it for commercial use

Advertising, leaflets, commercials, company websites, product design… If you want to promote your product, service or company, you need images with a commercial use licence.

- You want to use it for editorial use

News, blog articles, books, magazines… Especially in the case of news articles, it’s important to have the right picture, but also to make sure that you have the right to use it.

- You will show it to a large number of people

Posters and banners in the street, on social media, at your office… The more public it is, the more you might have to pay for the image usage. Especially in the case of rights managed images, certain images are restricted in terms of duration and audience.

In general, if the image will be shown to a large number of people, whether that’s for commercial or editorial use, you should make sure the images you are using comprehend the proper rights clearances. In addition, certain images are available only for editorial use, others only for commercial use or a specific set of uses. Royalty free stock photos, for example, can be used for commercial purposes, but not on resale/retail items. To be 100% sure, buy a stock image directly on a stock agency website such as Imageselect. Furthermore you can even contact our team to receive free advice!

On another hand, you might not need to pay for a picture when:

- The author gave you their approval

It might be worth asking the author if they agree to let you use their work. Whether that’s against a fee or a simple mention of their name is up to them. They might be selling their art themselves and you could help support what they do, even if you don’t plan on making a commercial with their artwork.

- The image is sourced from a provider of free images

There are a number of free image providers but, depending on which one you are using, they might only be featuring images and not enabling free use. Do double check the origin and purpose of the website before using their images.

- You will use pictures privately

Computer wallpaper, phone background… Many pictures are free to use online for such purposes. Even in the case of rights protected images, if you use the picture privately, chances are you won’t get caught. It is not the most straightforward way to do things and the author does always deserve to be rewarded but if you adhere to the underground rule of “there’s no crime if you don’t get caught” then you might be able to take the risk.

It is however very important to note that it is not because you can download a picture that you are free to use it. You need to make absolutely sure that, although the image is free, you can use it however you want. The easiest way to do so is either to contact the author, or a stock photography expert such as Imageselect.

What most people use stock pictures for

As previously mentioned, whether you need to pay for a picture or not is highly dependent on what you plan on using it for. Know that you will need to use licenced images  for the following purposes:
- Printed products: flyers, booklets, posters...
- Product design: labels, personalisation…
- Online use: website, newsletters, social media campaigns, blogs…
- Editing: magazines, books, newspapers…
- Graphic design: photo edits, photoshop…
- Presentations: slide deck, proposals…
- Advertising: banners, commercials, abri posters...

Stock pictures are very popular for many other purposes and can be used for pretty much everything. Because stock images come in high resolution, they are easy to edit and mold into anything you want.


Stock pictures vs free images

So what’s the real difference between stock pictures and free to use images? Well, not much. It all comes down to the author in the end. If they don’t care about the picture being free and people using it, then you might just get away with using their picture. Do note that the picture will remain their property so, if they later decide to put a licence on it, you will then need to buy it to keep using it.

Because of this aspect, it can be interesting to buy your photos from the get go. After all, nobody likes being surprised by an urgent email asking to take down an image or face legal action. Trust me. So should you buy images or use free images?


Pros and cons of stock pictures vs free images

Stock photography


- Straightforward
- You know what to expect in terms of duration and purposes you can use the image for
- Billions of images available across the web
- Support available from stock photography experts
- Available immediately
- You reward the photographer for his/her work


- Price - can be expensive for big projects
- The different licences can be confusing


Free images


- Free to use
- Available immediately
- Thousands available online
- No rights management issues


- Might become rights managed later
- It’s not always easy to be sure that you can freely use the picture without requiring additional approval from the author
- Moderately more restricted choice of images
- Not rewarding the photographer

So which one will you opt for? Let us know! We will advise you on what’s best for your idea and help you find the perfect images.

(Sep 2, 2021) Clemence Servonnat Getting started

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