3 Ways To Know if Stock Photos are Free to Use

Photographs are an important part of storytelling. However, professional photography is expensive and simple not financially feasible for many startup or even small businesses. There is no denying that images are vital to spreading a message. Studies have shown that social media content that includes images generates significantly more engagement than those same messages without images. This does not mean that you must resort to taking professional photography courses yourself or exploit your child for their abstract Crayola renderings.

Rather, stock photos are the answer. Stock photos are photographs that have been shot, edited, and are ready to be used. Used correctly, stock photos can bring your content and marketing campaigns to life. Stock photography is no longer limited to images that show people in business suits awkwardly standing around a piece of paper or laughing next to the watercooler. The fact is, there are hundreds of thousands of unique and powerful stock photo images available for use to enhance your content.

However, just because you see an (uncredited) photo online does not mean that it is free for you to use for your own purposes. In fact, utilizing the wrong photo may result in legal consequences. Copyright Infringement is a real issue and can result in costly legal expenses. Some stock photos are available for a fee for individual images or are available by paying for access to a digital library. Other stock photos are available for free – but how can you tell which is which? Below are three ways to know if stock photos are free to use.

The Photo is From a (Free) Stock Photo Website

A growing number of websites exclusively host stock photos which are free to the public. Many – but not all – of these photographs are free from copyright restrictions or are licensed for use in the public domain. This means that you can use the photographs, even for commercial purposes, without asking for permission from the artist. However, depending on the website, you may still need to credit the original artist!

Below, five free stock photo websites are linked. You can (and should!) utilize these websites to share your story, build your business, or otherwise enhance your content. If you don’t find the right photo for your purposes in one of these websites, consider looking at one of the many other stock photo websites that are available!






The Artist Provided Explicit Permission

Anyone providing content or labor should be compensated for their work. It is the law! However, there are some exceptions to this rule. One exception is when an artist has explicitly provided permission for others to use their work for free. Some artists provide limited licensing permission, which means that they permit the use of their work under certain conditions (e.g. perhaps the artist is okay with use of their work in blog posts or murals, but is not okay with the use of their artwork in marketing material for profit). Some artists provide permission to use their artwork for free and for any reason, but merely request that they be credited for the image.

If it is unclear whether you have permission to use an image for your work, consider reaching out to the artist directly for clarification.

Make It Your Own

What happens if you found a photograph that perfectly captures your content but you are unable to find the artist to request permission or it is unclear whether the image is free to use for the public. While your first instinct may be to go ahead and utilize the image – stop! Just because you cannot find the artist does not mean that it is free to use. However, you can still use the image if you proceed carefully.

In the United States, there is something called a “Fair Use” exception to copyright law. In short, the Fair Use doctrine states that copyrighted materials can be legally used if they are used tranformatively. For example, a video clip can be used for free if someone is making a parody of the original video, or providing commentary or criticism. You can use the Fair Use doctrine to your advantage when it comes to your own content.

Generally, if you “transform” the original photograph and make it your own, then the use of the photograph falls under the Fair Use exception to copyright law, and you are in the clear. If you are familiar with photograph editing software, you can try out different methods of transforming someone else’s photograph (or photographs!). This can include adding text to the image, using a color overlay (think of turning a color photo into a black-and-white photo), adding contrast or blurring parts of the photo, or layering multiple images together.

Keep in mind that the two images should be sufficiently distinct from one another. So, adjusting the contrast 1% would likely not be enough to qualify for a Fair Use exception. When you compare your transformed image to the original image, you should ask yourself: would most people consider these to be the same image? Alternatively: could they confuse the two images with each other? If the answer is a resounding “no” to both, then it is likely that you have met the criteria for transforming an image.

Say Yes to Stock Photos!

Stock photography is a fantastic, low-cost way to visually enhance and boost engagement with your content and marketing campaigns. Used correctly, stock photos will not hurt your business’s branding or image provided that it is used correctly.

Avoid using images if you are unable to locate the source or creator of the original work. There are dozens of free stock photo websites to use and, with tools like TinEye, it is becoming increasingly easier to reverse image search and find the original artist of the photo. If free stock photo websites do not have what you are looking for and you are unable to find the original artist, consider taking an original image and making it your own!

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