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Tips on Using Stock Photos

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Now that businesses regularly use photos not only in print materials but also across the digital and mobile world, publishers must find images for everything from company Websites and author blogs to social media sites and beyond. Often, they turn to stock photo sites in hopes of discovering the best photo for the job while saving time and money.

Locating and using stock images in the most compelling and cost-effective way may seem an overwhelming challenge at first, given the millions of images that sites offer, and it does take some knowledge and some skill. Here is a quick look at what you need to know to get the best from today’s stock photography world.


Licensing Basics

Stock photos are licensed images that can be purchased for specific purposes, including uses on the Web and in online and print media. They are available in collections that cover a wide range of subjects and topics, such as landmarks, business situations, food, family, travel, nature, sports, health and wellness concepts, and much more.

The photographers who created these images retain their copyrights regardless of the number of user purchases.

To use a stock photo, you must purchase an editorial-only license, a commercial license, or, if the photo is only for personal use, a retail license. The license may be Royalty Free (RF, and this does not mean that you pay nothing), Rights Managed (RM), or Commissioned. For detailed information on these alternatives, see “What You Need to Know About Using Third-Party Photos” in the February Independent.

The main types of stock photography are macrostock, or traditional, and microstock, a crowdsourcing model featuring very low fees. Traditional images generally have relatively high prices and are more likely to be available exclusively (RM) or under an RF license that involves paying once and using the image under a set of specific requirements. Microstock images, which have lower prices and are “royalty-free,” now dominate the stock photography industry, accounting for over 90 percent of the downloads ever made.

Stock photograph agencies generally employ rigorous review and editing procedures, so some stock images may be of better quality than photographs shot on assignment. The review process also covers various legal issues.

For instance, editors at stock photo sites are aware that literally thousands of “things” besides company logos and names are protected by copyright laws. Examples include images of rubber ducks wearing sunglasses, a specific paper towel dispenser, the Eiffel tower at night, some car and building designs, and phones and computers, among many others. Although the editors address this issue, customers should always make sure to understand license and copyright requirements and usage limitations to avoid potential infringements.

Because stock images may have been sold many times to many customers, it makes sense to find out how many times an image you’re interested in has been downloaded. Then you should be able to avoid purchasing an image that might already be featured on a competitor’s Website and/or in its advertisements.


Cost Comparisons

Using stock photography can mean paying a low price for high quality. For example, a user who needs to illustrate a blog featuring financial information will pay less than a dollar for an image showing shiny coins. It would be pointless as well as expensive to hire a photographer to shoot this simple image.

The cost of any particular stock photo will depend on the stock agency’s subscription or credit purchase plan.

Some stock agencies offer a wide variety of subscriptions to suit the budgets of regular corporate members. Typically, subscription packages include approximately 750 images per month for about $240. In most cases, the larger the subscription, the cheaper each stock photo. A daily or monthly subscription is one popular option for users at midsize and large companies.

The price per image tends to be higher with credit purchase plans. These plans allow you to purchase credits, or “currency,” on a stock agency’s Website, and amounts are then deducted for each download you select, based on the license, file size, popularity, and more. Credit purchase plans allow you to purchase an RF license, the most commonly used type, for as low as $1, or an extended license for an extended set of rights, which costs about $30 to $40. If you hired a photographer, you might pay $200 to $300 for a shot of the same subject, and depending on which photographer you picked, the cost could rise to several thousand dollars. In addition, if you planned to use the image for worldwide advertising with billboards, posters, and other print or electronic media, you might have to pay close to $10,000.

Remember: Each stock agency has its own pricing and its own fine print, so it’s important to understand the terms of any agreement you are considering. Notice—just for instance—how many photos per day a subscription allows and how long a credit plan will be active.


Ways to Search

To find what you are looking for on stock Websites, you might start by simply typing the most relevant keywords—“woman, beach, summer,” for example—into a search box. Result pages will be instantly displayed, but keywords won’t always let you find what you need in a stock collection that includes hundreds of thousands of images.


For instance, here are three very different images revealed on the first page of results for a search for “power”:

The key to finding the image you need is being specific when you search. Some stock sites offer advanced tools that let users filter search results by price range, keyword exclusion, image color, resolution or orientation, age, race, gender, number of models, image license, and more. These tools are easy to use. With just a few checks in the appropriate boxes, you can significantly narrow results returned to images that match your needs.

Let’s say you need photo of a quarter horse. Remember that the photographers supply the keywords for their images. Some may do stunning photos of horses but not think to include details such as breed. Others—maybe niche photographers—might post their images with complete descriptions and details about breed. So try searches for your quarter horse photo with and without the breed type.

Be as creative as possible when searching for the best image, and make use of any advanced search tools a stock agency offers. For example, a search for “businesswoman” will return hundreds of thousands of images. But you should be able to find the exact businesswoman you are looking for if you filter results.


Options may include filtering by race, age, and other model-related characteristics, such as expressions; and advanced filters may allow you to specify certain photographers and certain image properties. The pictures of young businesswomen below were among those provided in response to a search for “young business woman phone” with advanced filters.

Another tip: Some stock agencies let you restrict results. For example, suppose you need a photo of two sisters playing outside. For this search you could start with the keywords “girls” and “sisters.” If that yields too many results, you could try adding the word “two.” You might then get a bunch of images with two girls or even two sisters in them that also show other children, and you would probably get a bunch of family pictures too. This is when you could use the restrict option to keep “mother, father, boy,” and so on from appearing in the next set of results. And then you might get exactly what you need.

Make it a point to examine the modifiers that can be checked off on each agency’s site. They can be incredibly helpful. For example, if you are looking only for vector-based artwork (the kind driven by complex mathematical equations), you may be able to choose the option for “vectors-only,” and avoid having to use the word “vector” in your keyword search string.

Also, be sure to look through several pages of search results before choosing a final image. With your target customer in mind, you may find that some types of images have a stronger impact than others, even though they seem no different than the others in technical terms.

The right image in a marketing piece can help convey a deeper message than you may be able to communicate in copy alone. And even though pictures speak a thousand words, poor images do nothing to advance your company’s marketing message.

By taking the time to demystify the world of stock photography, you can ultimately save both time and money, as well as enhance your company’s brand.


Serban Enache is the CEO and co-owner of the stock photography site Dreamstime.com. He reports that it has more than 130,000 contributing photographers and offers more than 16 million images for 6 million clients ranging from individuals to Fortune 500 companies. To learn more, please visit dreamstime.com.

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