How to Find The Perfect Stock Photo for Social Media

How to Find The Perfect Stock Photo for Social Media


You’ve just created a website, or maybe your latest blog post, and you need some visuals to go with it to help grab your audience. But where do you look? Sure, there are billions of photos and graphics online, but how do you choose the best one, and what are the legal ramifications of using those visuals?

There are many things to consider when choosing visuals for your projects. For example, are you legally allowed to use a particular image? Once you choose an image and pay for it, are you allowed to use it forever or is there a time limit on it? What resolution works best for your particular project? Where can you find “families” of similar photos to use in the same project to keep the same look and feel throughout? What are some reputable and recommended places to search for and purchase photos from, and is it possible to negotiate the price?

Sarah Fix is an expert in stock photography and the rules surrounding usage of online images, in a career spanning over 20 years in the field.  She is the current President of the Digital Media Licensing Association and has lectured extensively on the topics of commercial content creation and stock library production.


Rich: Sarah Fix is the VP of Creative and member of Blend Images. She’s responsible for overall creative direction, marketing and photographer development. She began her career in stock photography back in 1993 at Westlight as an account executive and was promoted to become Managing Photo Editor.

Westlight was later acquired by Corpus back in 1997 where Sarah became Manager of Content Development. She was responsible for Pan Asian Content Development. In 2003 Sarah moved onto Brand X Pictures – great name – where she served as Director of Photography and was later promoted to Associate Creative Director for Picture Arts before joining Blend Images.

Sarah is currently serving as President of Digital Marketing Licensing Association – formerly known as PACA –  and has lectured extensively about commercial content creation and stock library production in the United States and abroad. In other words, there are very few people on the planet who are more able to talk about how to use images online and what the rules are around that.

Sarah, welcome to the show.

Sarah: Thanks for having me.

Rich: So this is great. And of course I ran into you, you came to the Agents Of ChangeConference where we got into a nice conversation about the use of images online. So let’s just start of, why are visuals so important in social media and digital marketing?

Sarah: Today really our universal language is visual. It’s reported that as many as 200,000 images are posted on Facebook every minute, and that 800 billion will be created this year alone. So we have consumers that have become incredibly visually sophisticated. I think to be competitive and relevant as a marketer it’s important to not only have substantive content, but you really also have to have imagery that resonates. It’s the best way to be able to tell a story quickly.

Rich: That’s very true, visuals being the international language. And just that idea where we all resonate around different words differently, but the images really kind of bring us all together. It really is shorthand for a lot of conversations.

So I’ve been doing this for a while, since 1997 building websites, and it feels like there’s a lot of ways to get images for our websites or blogs or social media. So what’s keeping me from doing an image search on Google for say, “firefighter”, and just using that on my website?

Sarah: That’s a good questions, So if you use Google as a search mechanism to be able to find your images, it doesn’t mean that that image is going to allow you to be able to license the image legally and to do that through the copyright holder. So it’s really important to go through a reputable company that licensed the imagery and has the rights to license that copyrighted work.

Rich: Alright, so what happens to me – and I’ll be the first to admit over the years I may have played fast and loose and not really understood back in 1997 what all the rules were – how do I find images I can use on my website without getting into hot water?

Sarah: Well, there’s a number of different ways that you can do that. There are many different companies that license media, and one way that you can kind of shorthand the process is the trade association that I’m currently the President for, Digital Media Licensing Association. They have a great tool – it’s a nonprofit organization – that’s called DMLA Search, and you can go there and all of the members that belong to this trade organization are people that care about advocacy and copyright protection and it’s a great place to be able to find different people that license media. You can do a search on the site and it will pull up all the different people, for example if you type in a concept, it will pull up all the different members that have imagery and how many images. So when you click on the link of that member it will take you to their website in that specific search.

So it’s a great way to quickly work through a wide range of different places to be able to find content. Of course I also work with Blend Images, we’re a stock photography agency and we’re also a great source.

Rich: Alright, so I’m looking for these images, I see that there’s different types of licenses out there. I remember back in the day talking to a photographer that wanted to license photos and then we would have to pay him every year, it didn’t seem to make sense.

What kind of licenses are there out there, and I’m a small business, what kind of license make more sense for me?

Sarah: What I think we really kind of need to talk about is the value proposition. So there’s kind of almost a sliding scale of exclusivity that goes around different images and what your needs are.  So if you are wanting an image for a blog where you’re doing a lot of turnover of different imagery that you’re needing to use, that might not necessarily have the same value to you and to your overall project as something where you’re doing an advertising campaign.

So the pricing and the resolution and all those things that go along with it can make a difference. So on the high end you have Rights Managed. Rights Managed is priced for the value that that picture has to the project. So if you’re doing the cover of a magazine or an ad campaign and that image is going to be sent out globally and you want to maybe restrict what other competitors you have that are going to be able to use that image, you can actually go and take a look at the sales history and how many people have used it in the past, are they direct competitors of yours, and limit who can use it for a set length of time. So that, obviously, is a more expensive proposition.

For the next tier down it would be Premium Royalty Free, this is basically priced by resolution. You can have anywhere from 75dpi which is going to be online use all the way to something that’s going to be a high res file that might be something in a $500 price range, depending on what company you’re working with.

The next tier from that is going to be a Mid Stock price. And that price might be somewhere from $5-$10, up to maybe $40. And the next tier from that might be free imagery. So the difference of what you’re getting for that, first of all some imagery is just more expensive for the photographer to create than other imagery and they have to be able to get a return on that. So depending on the uniqueness and the value of that production will make a difference of where that image is placed in that sliding scale that we just kind of talked about with different licensing models.

So if you’re getting a free image, on the one extreme, that might have thousands and thousands – or even millions – of downloads for that particular image. So then you have to think how competitive is it to use that image and how important to you to be able to get something that might be more resonant to your buyer and to pay more money. Sometimes that difference might just be spending $10.

With Blend, we’re primarily a premium, royalty-free company that also does Rights Managed. But we also have a value priced option that would allow people to be able to use that body of work for $10, which would be fine for a lot of blog use, social media, that type of thing. So I think there’s a lot more options out there than what people may be aware of.

Rich: Absolutely. And for me, personally, since we design websites a lot of times when clients don’t have their own photography or a quality photography that’s not going to work for them and we start looking at different royalty-free imagery, there’s this level that’s going to be on the homepage and slideshows, and in my personal opinion people don’t spend nearly enough on that. They don’t realize that the best looking website can be completely destroyed by bad photos. So that’s where I think you can spend your money.

At the same time, as a small business blogger, I can’t see my way to spending $10, $20, $50 or certainly not $500 for an image that’s going to appear on the blog post. For me that just doesn’t make sense and I’m going to need to think about some of those value options or even occasionally opening up my iPhone to take a picture for those blog posts. So I think it’s about understanding the value proposition and what are you trying to get across with your photography and the images that you use.

Sarah: One other thing I would add is that for most – if not many – of the royalty-free licenses, you’re able to use that image in perpetuity, and sometimes it’s a 10 year license. But that’s along time to be able to use it for multiple uses on multiple different devices and different projects. So if there is an image that you think is especially strong and you think you might use it multiple times,  that might be another reason to make the investment of specific images. And also if you are using a lot of imagery, that does give you negotiating power, so it gives you the ability to maybe set up a relationship with an individual agency and to be able to get a break on price for those images that you do think that you might be able to use multiple times.

Rich: So you think it might be worth – in certain situations – negotiating with a company because you’re planning on buying so many photos?

Sarah: Absolutely. It’s a competitive market out there and there are so many usages that are happening today and technology has really made these different usages possible. So traditionally a stock agency would work with somebody in a print environment only and it could be much more expensive. But today many stock agencies really understand that there’s a much wider range of usage and are willing to price competitively for things like social media and blog posts, and also you do have a certain amount of leverage if you are able to do a volume deal, especially for a set length of time. It’s definitely worth talking to the agency to get a better price.

Rich: One of the things my creative director will often talk about when he’s looking for photos or an entire website is talking about a “family of photos”, meaning somebody that went out and took a bunch of photos with the same filter and the same perspective in something like that to use. Like in a medical website they’ll all have that similar look and feel, and I notice when sites don’t do that there’s  a lot of inconsistency.

Can we buy families of photos, or what kind of recommendations might you have to keep the look and feel consistent as we move through a website, or maybe even through a blog.

Sarah: Yeah, it really depends in the individual agency and how good their technology is. A lot of times you have the ability to be able to find an image that you like in the image previews section that you can then also see similars to that imagery.

Also, I think a lot of people aren’t’ really aware of the fact that you can talk to the different agencies and ask them to do research for you on your behalf and ask them to pull together similars that have the same look and feel. It’s also true that a lot of agencies today, their point of differentiation is really an aesthetic one. So there’s certain agencies where you really can get a very concentrated look and feel of what it is just by the nature of those agencies.

Rich: Do you have any tips? I know that I spend a decent amount of time looking through images – not nearly as much as my creative director – but for my own blog or some of the social media posts that I do, and also for a lot of presentations that I do. I always want to find dramatic imagery that while it doesn’t take away from the talk kind of supports what I’m saying. Do you have any tactics on how to do better searches when we’re at a site like Blend or some of these other royalty-free sites?

Sarah: You know, I think the technology for the websites can make it easier or more difficult to find what you’re looking for. But I also really think it’s a good tactic to ask them to do research for you, because the researcher is very familiar with the overall collection and they can get a really good understanding of whatever it is you’re looking for and can kind of shorthand that process for you. There’s no reason why you couldn’t go to several different agencies and ask for that to be done so that you can have the expert in that collection be able to kind of pull that body of work for you.

** (14:17 – started talking about the hand shaking bit) **

Rich: Alright, so one of my least favorite photos on the interwebs these days is the two hands shaking, or if one is African American, the one that’s promoting racial integration by having two hands shaking. And here in Maine, the most overused photo is of the Portland Headlight. So what other things are becoming hackneyed that you think people should stay away from, or that you just continue to see over and over again?

Sarah: It’s funny, kind of a joke amongst everybody on the creative side of stock photography, we always reference this thing that went viral is people laughing with salads. It just kind of goes to the point exactly what you’re talking about of that there’s certain subjects that have become overdone and formulaic, and I think that the important thing – and something that I always stress of photographers – is how do you kind of elevate or break that idea completely and take a totally different approach.

I think more than anything else, a handshake can still be a very effective concept, but you have to really be able to, I think, make it a motive. There’s a million different ways that you can create the power and the connection of people shaking hands, although it presents a big challenge because there is so much of that content out there to do that.

There’s a really interesting article in the November issue right now of Harvard Business Review and there’s a really lengthy article there about digital marketing, and they have this section that says that companies that connect with the customer’s emotions have huge payoffs. They go into great detail of talking about these high impact motivators and how you really need to resonate on that level. And I think as we come to looking at all these new technologies is that it’s just that much more important to really be able to hit the emotions of what it is with what you’re trying to do in your marketing piece.

Rich: Interesting. So along those lines I have seen some research that shows that people will follow the eye site of a person in a photograph. So in other words if I have a photo of a woman on my website, she should be facing towards my copy and not away from my copy because immediately my eye is drawn to her face and then the direction that she’s looking at. And apparently there’s been a lot of research into this. Are there other things that you know about how we should or should not use images within our digital marketing?

Sarah: I think for the most past, there’s such a wide range of different things that people are trying to accomplish with different marketing projects and there’s different ways of being able to do it successfully. I think the most important thing is really just making sure you know your audience and you know the key concepts for that audience and trying to pick imagery that matches that appropriately. Certainly composition and not creating unnecessary tension and all those design aesthetics are certainly an important part of that as well.

It’s interesting, I was just talking to an art buyer at a major textbook publisher and they have totally different needs. They don’t want to have images where people are making direct eye contact. Although, that is unusual. So it’s interesting that different projects require different types of imagery and the design layout and making sure there’s not unnecessary tension playing an important part of it.

Rich: Define “unnecessary tension”, I’m not sure I follow that.

Sarah: Well, just exactly what you mentioned. I think if you have eye contact that’s looking away from copy that you eye naturally wants to be having everything directionally supporting another. If somebody’s eyes are looking off page in a different direction of your copy, you’re naturally going to be looking away from that copy. So it’s everything kind of supporting one another so that where you want somebody’s eye to first go and then secondarily to go, that visual and the design and layout should support what you’re trying to achieve and the priorities of what somebody is looking at.

Rich: Right now there’s a movement to be putting words on top of images. Are there any rules that we need to be aware of when it comes to getting royalty-free photos or art, and then layering our own stuff on or ways that we might be cropping it that we could run afoul of the rules?

Sarah: I think there’s a couple of different points to that issue. From an aesthetic standpoint you have to either really ghost back the image or make sure that there’s not too much contrast going on in the image so that you can really make sure to focus on the type or whatever it is you want to say so that it doesn’t look busy. So from an aesthetic standpoint I would say stay away from overly contrast images unless you’re really ghosting it back.

From a legal standpoint I would say that you’ve got to really make sure that what is the texture putting over the person, for example. If you’re saying that this person suffers from AIDS that could be considered a sensitive subject issue, and then associating the person that’s in the model with having AIDS. So that might require additional – depending on the end user license agreement and its association with the credible source you went to – you want to make sure that you have the rights to be able to use something that could be considered defamatory. So those are the points I think to truly take a look at when looking at that trend.

Rich: One more question before I let you go. Let’s say that I’m using an image on my website and all of a sudden I realize that it’s very relevant for an email newsletter I want to send out. If I bought this from most of these licensing companies, this royalty-free imagery, am I allowed to reuse it multiple times, maybe once on my website and once on my blog, post it to Facebook and also use it in an email newsletter?

Sarah: For the most part, yes. It really depends on the end user license agreement. But by the nature of royalty-free, the reason the licensing model came about in the first place is because it did feel like it was very complex and not as efficient to be able to have to go back later to renegotiate rights. So the royalty-free license is a complete e-commerce transaction, it gives you the ability usually to either have rights in perpetuity or for a 10 year time period to be able to use it for many different usages. You can’t relicense the image yourself and there are limitations, but for the most part for marketing-type projects, you have the ability to use it as much as you want.

Rich: Awesome. This has been very helpful and I definitely think we got it all straightened out on how we can find and use images legally for our website and blog. Sarah, where can we learn more about you online?

Sarah: Probably the best way is my email address, Also you could go to our website and under “contacts” you can go there as well to reach me. I think those are the best places.

Rich: Alright, well Sarah thank you very much. I appreciate the time today.

Sarah: Yeah, thank you.

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