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Are You SURE You Can Use That Photo?

Have you ever needed a photo to go with a blog post, or fill a void on your firm’s website, or spice up a Facebook or LinkedIn post? It’s so easy to jump online and search for an image, everyone does it. And since you are not using it to “sell” anything, it’s OK to post it, right?


Whether you are posting an image to a social site or printing it on the side of a product package, it is imperative that you understand how image rights work. Photos are almost always owned by the photographer. The photographer can release the rights to photos on a case-by-case basis.

Here’s three easy ways to be sure you can legally use a photo:

License a Royalty-Free Image

“Royalty-Free” basically means that if you pay a fee, you purchase the rights to use the image. There are some restrictions that vary depending on where you purchase the shot and the image itself, so be sure to read the licensing agreement. Note that “Rights-Managed” images are typically licensed for a specific use (like on a website, in a brochure, in a magazine ad), for at a specific size (full page, half page, etc) for a set duration (one day/month/year), for a defined quantity (500 brochures, a magazine with a 500,000 circulation). My two favorite royalty-free stock photo sites of late are iStock Photo and Stocksy.

Use the Google Images Usage Rights Search

Go to Google Images and enter the search term you are looking for. In the example below, I searched for “clock”.

Next, click the “Search Tools” tab.

In the sub-nav menu that appears, select “Usage rights”.

From there you will see five options:

  • Not filtered by license
  • Labeled for reuse with modification
  • Labeled for reuse
  • Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification
  • Labeled for noncommercial reuse

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 12.11.43 PM

Do not select the top option, as this includes all images, most of which are not free to use. “Labeled for reuse with modification” means that you can use the image as well as modify it, such as crop or retouch the image. I avoid selecting “noncommercial” options if I plan to use the image on a company website or even a company social media page.

Generally, I select “Labeled for reuse with modification,” as it’s the safest way to go.

Hire a Photographer, or Take a Picture Yourself

Whenever possible, I prefer to hire a photographer. In cases where I have little or no budget, I sometimes email the photographer to see if he/she will license a particular shot to me (I identify the image, what I need it for, and how much I have to spend). Offering to include a credit line or (even better) link to the photographer’s website can really help. If your budget is zero, grab your iPhone and take a shot yourself. But be advised: if your photo includes a recognizable product (like an iPhone), company logo, person’s face, private property (office or residence), you should not use it.

By following one of the three options above, you can rest assured that the photo in your article, post, email or newsletter is legally safe use.

Vanessa Schaefer


Vanessa Schaefer, the President & Creative Director of Clockwork Design Group, has over twenty years of experience helping A/E/C and other professional service firms create websites, printed materials, impactful proposals, and strong corporate brands.

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