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Sourcing affordable images for your website

Photography and illustrations are critical in creating an engaging website, but many small businesses struggle to find professional and relevant images at an affordable cost. In this article we look into the world of stock photography and how small businesses can use it to bring their website to life at a relatively low cost.

Original versus stock images

High quality images are essential to give your website a professional and modern appearance. In an ideal world, every business would hire a professional photographer or graphic designer to create the perfect portfolio of visuals. However this expense is beyond the reach of many small companies, particularly when any business developments may require a fresh set of photos.

Amateur photography does have its place. With photos of work you’ve carried out (for example building projects) or team events, you can get away with a gallery of images which you have taken – there isn’t an expectation that these will be highly polished photographic gems. But when you’re looking for the perfect image to front your website’s homepage you need something high quality which will reflect the professionalism of your business.

This is where stock photography and illustrations can provide a relatively cheap solution. Stock images are photos and illustrations by professional creatives which are mainly sold through online marketplaces (the lower cost end of the market is known as ‘microstock’), meaning that your chosen image is immediately available for download. There are millions of images out there so you can usually find exactly what you need.

Intellectual property rights

Like all creative works, photos and illustrations are protected by intellectual property rights. So you cannot, for example, search for an image on Google and then simply save this image for use on your website. You may think that no-one will ever know if you do this, but many large stock image libraries will carry out sophisticated image searches throughout the internet to identify unlicensed uses of their images and then take action against the owner of that website.

A Google search may provide you with lots of excellent images, but don’t assume you can use them for your website.

If you have photographs taken for you by a professional photographer, ask about the copyright of the photos and whether this will be assigned to you. If you don’t do this then the photographer retains the copyright and you are effectively using the photos under licence to them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you do need to be aware of your usage rights.

When you use photos or illustrations from a stock photo library you are often doing so under a ‘royalty free’ licence, which means that once you have the licence you can use the image as many times as you like (eg on your website and brochures) and for as long as you like, without having to pay any additional fees. You should note that in the majority of cases when you purchase an image, that image will remain on sale and can be used by anyone else. Only images which are purchased on an ‘exclusive’ contract will be removed from sale.

Free stock images

There are some great image libraries available where you can download good quality photography and illustrations for free. When you do searches on these marketplaces you’ll often find the first search results are actually advertising images from paid-for stock libraries – this advertising is how most free stock libraries make their money (so don’t be annoyed about it!).

The images highlighted in red are actually adverts linking through to non-free stock images.

When using free stock images you should always check the licensing carefully to ensure that they can be used for commercial purposes (ie on your business website).

You should also be careful to check whether the library holds a release form for any images showing recognisable people or objects/places which are protected by intellectual property rights. A release form is a document signed by the model (if the photo is of a person) or the owner of the property (if the photo is of an object or location) to state that the photo may be sold for commercial use. If it isn’t crystal clear that the necessary permissions have been obtained, proceed with caution.

Free stock image sources

Pixabay offers over 1 million images free of charge. They are distributed under a Creative Commons CC0 licence and can therefore be used without specific permission and without including a credit for editorial or commercial purposes.

Unsplash have over 300,000 photographs available free of charge for commercial and non commercial use without the requirement to post an credit to the author.

FreePik offers mainly illustrations (vector files), but also some photographs. To use the images for free you must include an attribution/credit to the author of the image. To avoid this requirement you need to purchase a monthly subscription. The hold over 500,000 images.

Purchasing stock images

Inevitably, stock images which are given away for free don’t tend to have quite the professional edge of purchased pictures. It can also be difficult to find good photos which show people on free sites. So it’s usually worth investing in a few paid for stock photos, particularly for the high impact areas of your website (eg top of the homepage).

This shows the same search as above (“coffee shop”). While the free library predominantly shows photos of cups of coffee, the paid for website offers a greater range of images, many of which featuring customers in genuine coffee shop settings.

When you purchase from an established stock photo marketplace you get an assurance of quality and legitimacy which is sometimes missing from free sources. You’ll also get a much wider choice of photos – in fact you’ll probably be spoilt for choice!

Charging structures

There are generally three ways to purchase stock images:

Pay as you go

Some stock sites will allow you to simply pay as you go for images. If you only want one or two images then this may be the best option for you, however it is not offered by all providers. If you need more images then purchasing credits will usually be more economical.

Purchasing credits

As a small business this will generally be the best option. You will pay a number of credits and then use the credits to download images. Please note that the credits will have an expiry date, so we recommend identifying the images you want first, then purchasing the credits. Using credits will make each image purchase slightly cheaper than if you had opted for pay as you go.


Purchasing a subscription allows you to download a number of images for a fixed period of time, for example 10 images per month. This is the best option for design agencies or large businesses (as the per image cost is reduced through bulk buying) but generally would be too much for a small businesses’ needs.

Stock libraries to try

Shutterstock was established in 2003 and currently has over 166 million photos, illustrations, videos and audio files available to download.

Started in 2000, iStock is now owned by the “godfather” of the stock photography industry, Getty Images. It holds tens of millions of images.

Dreamstime is a European stock image library, started in 2000, and holding 66 million images, including a selection of images available free of charge.

Specialist images

There are also many marketplaces available which sell images for specialist sectors. Here are just a few examples:

Searching the site

Most large stock libraries will have advanced search options to help you find your way through the often overwhelming number of available images.

These will allow you to filter your search by various options such as image orientation, photos vs illustrations, whether the image contains people, and even by dominant colour. You can usually sort the results by popularity, which is often helpful in finding the best images (although also images which have been most used elsewhere).

The advanced search options are displayed on the left hand side of iStock’s search results.

Reading the small print

It’s very easy to tick the “I’ve read the terms and conditions” box without even giving it a glance, but when using stock images it’s important that you familiarise yourself with what the stock library is taking responsibility for and, more importantly, what is your responsibility. Here are a few examples of common terms of use:

You are solely responsible for determining whether your use of any Media requires the consent of any third party or the license of any additional rights

The above section from Dreamstime’s terms of use is common, and basically states that it’s ultimately your responsibility to ensure that you are not infringing any intellectual property rights in your use of the image. Stock libraries use this type of clause because it’s virtually impossible for them to verify the legitimacy of every image. Most credible stock libraries will take reasonable measures to ensure that they are not distributing images which cannot be used for the stated purpose, however you should always proceed with caution if you have any doubts.

No matter what license you buy, you can never use iStock content for use in any logo or trademark

When you purchase a stock image you are not purchasing the copyright to that image, just a licence to use it. Therefore you cannot use the image in creating a logo or trademark because these are themselves subject to copyright.

You may not portray any person depicted in Visual Content (a “Model”) in a way that a reasonable person would find offensive

This term from the Shutterstock terms of use is very common. Often the terms will give examples of what would be considered ‘offensive’ use of the images.