Visual storytelling has been an important feature of human dialogue since cavemen were drawing on walls. And our brains still rely heavily on images: 93% of all communication is visual; blogs with photos attract six times the engagement of text-only articles, and Twitter posts with images receive 150% more retweets. Ignore these statistics to your peril.

Ignoring the irony of a 1,500 word article talking about the need for images for a second, visual communication is important across your whole content mix. The good news is, brilliant images are easily accessible online. The bad news, that doesn’t mean you’re free to use them. In fact, using the wrong image with the wrong attribution can land you with a sizeable fine.

The big players take copyright law seriously. Getty once demanded a payment of £6000 from a church in Lichfield after they inadvertently used images sourced from the company on their website – an extreme example, granted, but a stark illustration of the potential consequences of getting things wrong.

Fear not. With a little knowledge about the correct procedures, the worry of copyright infringement doesn’t need to be a barrier. Here are six ways to find great images for your content and make sure you’re using them legally.

1. Stock Libraries

Stock libraries provide high-quality images that are arguably the next best thing to a custom photo shoot. From an elephant pouring an old lady a glass of wine to an apple eating a pig (nope, not a typo), the range of images available is almost infinite. If you play by the rules, using stock photography should be a doddle. Get it wrong and you can land yourself in hot water.

The internet is littered with tales of litigation threats from stock image giants. One freelance web designer was issued with a £2400 demand notice from Corbis for using a small shopping cart icon. Getty demanded a payment of £1600 from a business after they inherited a site containing copyrighted images. We’ve experienced the wrath of Getty ourselves – after unwittingly using one of their images we were landed with a fine of £850. Ouch.

Even if you have an account with a stock photography site, it’s still possible to come unstuck. Many people wrongly assume that holding a licence means you don’t need an attribution. That’s not the case. Shutterstock, for example, insists on a credit in the form of ‘Name of Artist/’ when using images in an editorial context.

The benefits of using stock images far outweigh the bad though. They’re usually pretty cheap, the pics are high quality, and, as mentioned above, the variety is unending. The only thing to watch is the ‘stock feel’: images tend to have a certain cheesy feel to them, to the point that various stock images have become internet memes. Our tip? Don’t settle for the images on page one, and be creative with what you search for. An article about fine dining doesn’t have to be accompanied with pictures of a smiling couple eating dinner.

Stock libraries generally offer two types of licence; rights-managed, which heavily restricts the use of images and is typically more expensive, and royalty free, which means once you’ve purchased the licence you are free to use the image as many times as you like. Check the usage rights before you buy.

2. Freebies

Although stock snaps are usually pretty good value, you can’t beat a freebie. Luckily, there are many sites where you can find great free images. We won’t list them all here because, well, we’ve already done that on a previous blog.

But before you go adorning your articles with free pictures, make sure you’ve clued yourself up on the rules. ‘Free’ doesn’t always mean ‘free from attribution’, and you could still find yourself in a pickle if you get it wrong. Even if you’re using a site like Pixabay which doesn’t ask you to attribute, it’s worth adding a note and a hyperlink to the original page.

Take a look at this page from Wikimedia Commons and click ‘use this file on the web’ to see how easy it is to correctly attribute their free images. Also, this user-friendly guide from Flickr will help you to navigate their rules with ease.

3. Creative Commons

While not specifically an image gallery, Creative Commons (CC) is the licensing by which most image sites operate. CC is a nonprofit organisation that supports artists who want to share their work for free under standardised terms. It essentially acts as an intermediary between artists and end users, removing the need to obtain individual permissions.

CC licensed images can be found on sites such as Google, Flickr, Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons. But for ease, use this great tool which allows you to search for photos from a number of sites that use CC licences.

There are six types of CC licence, which can cause confusion. 

Creative commons license spectrum

And in plain English:

  1. “Attribution Only” is the most straightforward licence, where you must give appropriate credit and indicate if any changes have been made.
  2. “Attribution, Share Alike” is the same as “Attribution Only”, except that if you make any changes to the image you must allow others to build upon and share your work.
  3. With “Attribution, No Derivatives” you must give appropriate credit (i.e. include Title, Author, Source, and Licence) and are not permitted to make any changes to the work.
  4. With “Attribution, Non-Commercial” you must give appropriate credit and cannot use the image where it is primarily intended for commercial advantage or monetary gain.
  5. “Attribution, Non-Commercial, and Share Alike” is the same as “Attribution, Share Alike”, except that you may not use the image for commercial advantage or monetary gain.
  6. “Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives” is the same as “Attribution, No Derivatives”, except that you may not use the image for commercial advantage or monetary gain.

The official ins and outs of CC best practice are long and, frankly, dull. But for the masochists amongst you, the full guide is here.

4. Direct to source

If you come across the perfect image for your article and it’s attributed to a specific photographer, it should be pretty easy to track them down and ask for permission to use it. Generally speaking, they’ll get back to you pretty quickly – after all, this is a sales opportunity for them.

However, talented freelance photographers are under no obligation to offer you permission to use their work and they are free to charge whatever they want. Approach the situation as you would any other business deal – send them an email explaining what you’d like to use the image for and where it will appear, pitching this as a benefit if you can. Be careful not to come across so eager that they shoot over an eye-watering quote. Once they come back with a rate, you can haggle until you reach a mutually agreeable position. Expect to pay between £100-£250 per image for a decent freelancer’s pictures.

Make it snappy: A pro photographer will have a bank of niche images, but you may need to reach for the chequebook

Events are a little different. If you’ve written an event report, the press office will usually hold a big bank of original, high quality pics for you to use. And they’re usually pretty accommodating, too. Drop them an email and ask for permission to use the image or, better still, give them a call. You’ll typically find press office contact details on the ‘Contact Us’ page or in the website footer. The press team will let you know if you need to leave an attribution or not.

5. Headshots

If you’re conducting an interview piece or a case study, we recommend that you always include a picture of the interviewee. Most business people will have high-resolution snaps of themselves so just ask. Blog images look better in landscape so it’s worth asking for a landscape image where possible. Get the interviewee’s permission on email and you won’t need to include an attribution.

6. Take your own

If you’re looking for originality, or have a very specific idea for an image, your best option is to take the photo yourself. If you’ve got an in-house snapper, or someone with a little flair for photography, use them – but make sure the images are of good quality and fit the article.

A note on SEO

We’ve covered how to legally find and use images for your articles – the next step is to get the most out of them.

Sizing or formatting your image incorrectly can have serious implications for your SEO and site speed. Make sure you consider which file type is most suitable for your image: JPEG is usually best for digital media on account of it’s smaller file size. Besides, the quality loss isn’t perceptible to most eyes. It’s also best practice to reduce the file size as much as possible using an online compression tool like TinyPNG, Compress JPEG or Short Pixel (the list is endless) and pay attention to the alt text, file name and descriptions – all of which can show up when there’s a problem rendering the image, when a screen reader is being used or in search engine results. Use Google’s Webmaster Guidelines if in doubt.

So now you’re ready to jump online and find the perfect photo for your next project. Whatever your budget, there’s a myriad of options available to bring your words to life. Just remember, wherever you source your image, attribution is everything.

A picture may be worth 1000 words, but it’s not worth a £1000 fine.

With every post we write for clients, we provide a relevant, copyright free featured image as a cherry on top. But that just scratches the surface of our offering; we offer measured and measurable content strategy, quality content  production and in-depth reporting so you know what’s working and what isn’t. In some cases, we even help companies define their offering. Like London-based design and innovation experts, Rare Design. Check out that case study here.

Image credits:

CC licence table – By Creative commons (the original CC license symbols), the combined work by Shaddim and is hereby cc-by-4.0 licensed.

Featured image – via Pixabay


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Kate Jones

Kate is a writer and coach with a background in FMCG leadership. She’s a wannabe health nut but has an unfortunate love of chips. When she's not writing she likes to read scary novels and run until her toenails hurt.

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