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Finding photos for your album cover, book cover or website

Ever found yourself wondering where you can source a picture of an elf juggling flaming torches while riding a unicycle?

No, me neither.

But it can sometimes be hard finding the pictures you need for your record or CD cover, book/ebook cover or for use on your website.

Read on to learn about your options, including their advantages, disadvantages and potential pitfalls.

Photos for music releases – vinyl, CD, download/stream

If you’re looking for images to use on your music release, consider yourself relatively lucky.

Although it’s true that music release artwork should fit the music, as I mentioned in my post on how to create an album cover, there’s still quite a bit of scope to ‘break the rules’. This means you have a degree of creative freedom that book cover designers don’t generally have. Your album cover can feature more abstract imagery, which makes it easier to find or create something great that also complements the music.

Photos for book and ebook covers

If you’ve written a book about goblins and sorcery, people pretty much expect to see goblins and sorcery on the cover. And if your book is about a haunted house, the cover probably needs to show one. Or at least, the cover image should heavily imply those things.

An abstract painting or drawing is unlikely to fit the bill, meaning your book would be gathering dust on the shelves and your ebook hogging bits and bytes on a server somewhere.

Photos for websites

While imagery of some kind is expected on music or book packaging, it’s not strictly necessary on a website. You could theoretically just write a load of text, and job done. However, very few people are prepared to plough through reams of dense text on a screen, especially if they’re reading it on a phone, which is more likely to be the case today.

Relevant pictures here and there not only look nice, but also break up the text, providing a better reader experience.

What imagery your website needs, and how easy it is to create or acquire it, depends on the nature of your website.

If you maintain a blog about mountain biking, there’s no avoiding photos of mountain bikes, people riding mountain bikes, mountain bike components and various related clothing and accessories.

But if your blog is about a less visual topic, such as insurance, there’s not much of an alternative to people looking reassured and contented. In other words: stock photos (see further below).

Using your own photos and graphics

A wild mushroom growing at the roadside
An absolutely massive wild mushroom, diameter around 30cm, growing on the roadside.

Starting with the most obvious solution: use your own photos or other images!

The main advantage of this is that your images will be unique. Even though there are plenty of pictures of trees out there, nobody else is likely to be using exactly the same picture of exactly the same trees. You also own the copyright in your own photos, paintings, drawings or computer graphics. So provided you take a few careful precautions, such as not depicting identifiable people without their express permission, and taking care not to infringe any company’s trademarks, this solution is unlikely to lead to legal problems (with the caveat that I’m not a lawyer).

But a disadvantage here is that some people just aren’t able to take a decent photo (or paint, or draw). Some people just point and click, then wonder why the top of the subject’s head is missing.

If this is you, perhaps your partner/band members/friends or relatives etc can help out?

And the do-it-yourself approach is not suitable for all use cases. If you’re based in Africa and want to illustrate your blogpost about melting polar icecaps, you can’t easily just nip out and take a photo.

Tip

Whatever you do, don’t just download pictures off the internet. All the pictures you see on the internet are the copyright of somebody or other, so unless it’s explicitly stated that you can use them for your own purposes, you can’t. Reversing them, changing the colours or similar is also unlikely to placate any intellectual property rights lawyers.

The Creative Commons licences

Flash of lightning
A flash of lightning – this is a Creative Commons CC0 image, meaning I can use it for my own purposes, without crediting the creator (although I have done, at the bottom of the page).

Photos offered under one of the Creative Commons licences can be used in your own projects.

The different licence types govern whether you are permitted to modify the works, and under what terms, and whether you are allowed to use them in commercial projects. There is also the type CC0 (CC Zero), which permits you to use the works however you like, without restriction. You can find a full description of the different Creative Commons licence options here.

Try a search engine query along the lines of “photo of X creative commons”.

I’ve done this for website projects, and was able to turn up the goods for pictures of historical figures/historical buildings and pictures of the natural world.

Whether you’d have much luck with the juggling, unicycle-riding elf is debatable.

Remember to check which Creative Commons licence the image is published under, and ensure you use it accordingly. In all cases apart from CC0, you will need to credit the creator.

Stock photos

Top view of woman at desk with laptop, drink and notepad
Unless you’re brand new to the internet, you will have seen images like this (no disrespect to the photographer!).

Unless you’re only using the internet for the first time today (welcome; hope you enjoy it!), you will have seen them:

  • Beaming photogenic families frolicking on the beach
  • Diverse, multicultural teams sitting glued to a presentation or poring over a spreadsheet, with skyscrapers visible out of the office window behind them
  • Businesspeople shaking hands (pre-Covid!), possibly also superimposed over the Earth, with zeroes and ones circling it, to represent the information superhighway we’re all surfing (aargh!)
  • Somebody’s carefully curated, clinically tidy desk, housing only a MacBook, cup of coffee and maybe a notepad, pen, phone or pair of glasses etc, and maybe with a framed motivational statement hanging on the wall behind it
  • Four (or more) feet sticking out of the bottom of a bed illustrating just about any newspaper article about sex

Don’t panic – others are available. Read on below to learn about the different types of stock photo providers, and what you need to consider.

It used to be the case that anyone wanting stock photos had to crack open their purse or wallet and buy them. Prices ranged from more or less manageable for a single photo for a one-off project to astronomical. It was also possible to buy CD-ROMs (ask your parents) containing a collection of photos in a particular subject area, such as ‘business’ or ‘family’.

Most of the stock photo agencies were American, meaning so were the models. Their inevitably gleaming white teeth meant that the photos were not always suitable for use in the UK – a country in which outsiders consider dentistry as not being a particularly high priority. Plus there were other telltale giveaways, such as American wooden houses and people driving massive cars on the right-hand side of the road (OK, most of the world drives on the right…).

But at least you could buy photos as you needed them, and prices could be OK for an album cover or book cover project.

Most of the agencies now work on a subscription model basis, like pretty much everything else on the internet. Grrr! This means it’s only worth it if you have a regular need for stock photos, and the appropriate budget.

Does that mean they’re no longer any good for occasional use?

Not necessarily. One I’ve used a few times in recent years is iStock. Photos are competitively priced – at the time of writing around €10–€20 each, albeit requiring you buy credits, which you then redeem against photos. The good news is that it’s possible to buy exactly the amount of credits you need. If the photo you’d like to use costs just one credit, you can buy just one credit – you’re not forced to buy credits you’ll never use, meaning you’d be partially wasting your money.

But remember that a disadvantage of stock photos, whether you have to pay for them or not, is that (many) other people will have already used them! This will be especially true in the case of the more striking images. In some cases, the websites show download stats, so you can see how many thousand people got there before you.

Free stock photos

Recent years have seen the appearance and growth of a number of free stock photo sites, including Pixabay, Pixels, Unsplash and others.

As the description implies, photographers make their work available on these sites for you to use free of charge in your projects, whether for websites or physical products. And without necessarily having to credit the photographer. Some photographers are apparently just happy to know that their work is out there.

A seeming advantage of free stock photo sites over paid-for ones – apart from being free – is that they’re more international, with less of an American focus. Photographers all over the world contribute their work. This means there’s possibly a better chance of finding something you need, and which could plausibly have originated in your country. But it pays to study them closely – if you’re in Sweden, there probably shouldn’t be any palm trees or pyramids visible in the background.

Potential for uncertainty about the copyright holder

Free photos?

At first glance, that may sound too good to be true.

And if something sounds too good to be true, the chances are that it IS too good to be true. It’s the same with the spam emails you receive from the supposed relatives of African despots looking for a helping hand transferring their relative’s funds out of the country.

Because who’s to say that the person uploading photos for others to download and use free of charge is the copyright holder? There’s nothing stopping anyone just gathering a load of photos off the internet, creating an account and presenting them as their own work.

Even more seriously, and possibly getting into the realms of paranoia, but apparently there are photographers who upload their own work anonymously, wait until enough people have used it in their projects and then call the lawyers in, so they can pocket the money. Not everyone on the internet is nice!

While you’d like to think that the agencies offering paid-for photos check the copyright situation of the photos they offer, this is less likely to be the case with the free photo agencies. (And even then, you can imagine that the commercial stock photo sites presumably all have a team of hotshot lawyers who draft the terms and conditions in their favour.)

Representations of people

Representations of people are another problematic area. It’s just not possible to know if the people shown on stock photos have given their permission for their likeness to be used. Plus, some countries, for instance Germany, have strict privacy laws that prevent identifiable people being depicted on websites and social media, in newspapers or on TV etc.

Paid-for photo agencies should hopefully ensure that the appropriate release forms have been filled out and supporting documentation provided.

Marketing agencies using them as a source of backlinks

Something else I’ve noticed is that not everyone making photos available on these free photo sites is a photographer. Marketing agencies and other commercial enterprises sometimes upload photos relevant to their industries. Why’s that? So that if you use them on a website and credit them, including a link, they’re getting a link to their website from yours, which (can – it depends!) help with search engine optimisation, and therefore their position in search engine results.

While that’s not prohibited, as far as I know, in my opinion it does go against the spirit of things a bit.

Weigh up the risks

You’ll need to decide for yourself whether using free stock photo sites is worth the risk or not.

Hopefully, the majority of the photos are all above board, and do not present any risk to you if you use them in accordance with the terms and conditions. It’s just that things can get expensive if a minority of them aren’t.

If you only use a few images on one or two websites, they’re fairly fairly easy to replace if there’s a problem (although that doesn’t take into account any fines or legal costs you may have to pay). But it’s a different story if you run a massive website, or multiple websites, and use loads of them.

The potential risks are graver if you use them on physical products. If there’s a problem, you can’t really unsell that pile of records, books, mugs or T-shirts.

I’ve used them (sparingly) on website projects, but I wouldn’t use them for a commercial project. I’d rather prise open my wallet, let the moths out and pay for photos and let the stock photo provider (hopefully!) bear the risk.

Check the terms and conditions

Whether you buy stock photos to use for your project or decide to risk using one of the free stock photo sites, you’ll need to pay careful attention to the terms and conditions.

Credits

Do you have to credit the photographer and/or agency, and if so, what form must this take (wording, inclusion of URL etc)?

If you’re using them on a website, must the credit appear next to the photo, or is the bottom of the page or on some central picture credits page OK? Do you have to provide a link to the photographer/agency?

Permitted use

How are you permitted to use the photo?

In some cases, photos are licensed for use only on websites, and not other products. In other cases, you’re not allowed to use them on items that you intend to sell or otherwise monetise (such as music downloads and ebooks or physical products such as records, CDs, books, mugs and T-shirts etc). And sometimes, a restriction applies to how many copies of commercial and/or physical items you are allowed to produce. So it may be permitted to use the photo on a book or ebook cover, but only if a certain number of copies will be produced (or in the case of digital products, sold). Otherwise you would need some kind of extended licence (more expensive!) covering a larger print run/pressing or the possibility that your ebook really takes off.

There are also likely to be terms prohibiting the use of the photos in connection with pornographic or controversial types of content, as well as special terms governing their use in connection with topics that may potentially be embarrassing for the models shown in the photo, such as adverts for haemorrhoid treatments.

Editorial use only

Some images may be labelled ‘editorial use only’, meaning the image may only be used in news coverage. By way of an example: an agency photo of an actual, current earthquake may only be used in news reporting about that particular current earthquake, and not in a general article about earthquakes. In the midst of a catastrophe, it’s not possible to get everyone to sign release forms.

Freelancer portals

You may have visited some of these websites, looked at people’s profiles and thought, wow, they’re a great photographer or digital artist or whatever.

If you’re considering using those portals to hire someone to take a photo or create some artwork for you, ask yourself how it’s possible that they’re able to produce such top quality work for such a low price, even in developing countries.

Some of them will likely be using the same free photos you could have found yourself, with the attached risks mentioned earlier in this article, or even worse, photos just taken from somewhere on the internet, and used them as the basis of their work.

I always bang on about this, but it’s best to avoid these places.

Whoever offers to work for such a pittance isn’t necessarily going to be massively conscientious.

Summary

Congratulations if you’ve got this far! So basically, unless you’re a competent photographer or artist, you can see if you can find anything suitable under a Creative Commons licence. If not, consider shelling out a few euros/pounds/dollars/whatever on some stock photography, or if your budget is around zero, and you’re not planning on using the photos for commercial purposes or on physical goods, weigh up whether to risk using something from free stock photo sites or not. And whatever you do, don’t just download something, reverse it and hope that nobody will notice!

How did you solve your search for the perfect image for your music release, book cover or website? Let me know in the comments below.

Photos: Mushroom © Paul Jackson. Lightning FelixMittermeier, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons. Woman at desk © Avel Chuklanov at Unsplash.

Paul Jackson

I’m Paul Jackson, a British graphic designer/web designer in Essen, Germany. “I help record labels and other creative people realise their music, book and website projects.” See my about me page for more information.

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