Content is just as much about visual appeal as it is about the words surrounding them. While images and visual elements can help break text up and prevent the often intimidating large blocks of text, they can also work with the text to enhance the narrative and create a more engaging, vibrant, and fun experience for your readers. But you shouldn’t feel free to use any ol’ image you find online. Let’s take a look at some great image resources and the best practices for using images.

Poetic License, Artistic License, or Dramatic License

When a person takes a photo, draws a graphic, or otherwise creates an image, she owns the copyright to that image. That means she has control over who uses the image and how the image can be used. Instead of giving verbal or written consent to every single person who wants to use the image, the creator can include a license that sets the guidelines for the image’s use.

Sometimes, a license will require you to purchase the rights to use, modify, and distribute an image. This payment is known as a royalty, which provides compensation to the creator and legal protection for you by essentially giving you the license to use the image.

Ignoring copyrights and licenses can lead to hefty lawsuits, legal fees, monetary damages, criminal charges, and a tarnished reputation, but there’s also the matter of morals and ownership. Remember that you’re not just paying for the image: you’re paying for the tools, equipment, expertise, and years of education that contributed to the creation of the image.

Types of Stock Photos

A picture is worth a thousand words, and if you don’t have an in-house photographer, the best way to get those extra thousand words is to use some stock photos. Stock images appear in two forms:

Royalty-free images

Royalty-free images, which can be used in essentially any way, in as many projects as you want, and for an unlimited amount of time as long as you comply with the image license. Contrary to the name, you still have to pay a royalty for the license. The “free” part comes from the fact that you only have to pay once.

Rights-managed images

Rights-managed images, which have more restrictions. Even after you’ve paid for the license, rights-managed images place restrictions on the industry, geographic region, and duration of use.

You’re probably well-aware of paid subscription services, like iStock and Shutterstock, offering massive libraries of royalty-free stock images for a monthly fee—iStock works on a system of refillable credits. With such a massive amount of photos, the only downside is weeding through countless photos just to find the one that fits your needs. Prepare to cull through photos that aren’t quite up to par or are downright strange.

Free Stock Image Sites

If you don’t have the budget for such a service or want some different options, never fear. There are a ton of free stock image sites that offer quality photos for your use. Some of our favorites include:


Other Free Stock Image Sites- Creative Commons

If you’re still having trouble finding the right image, you can always turn to the Creative Commons. The Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that promotes the sharing and use of creative works by providing free copyright licenses that are easy to modify based on a creator’s needs. The idea is to make it easier for people to access creative works while providing creators with flexible legal protection.

Finding images on the Creative Commons can be a bit of a gamble—in terms of both quality and results—but you can generally find a handful of keepers by searching Flickr’s Creative Commons. If you are struggling to find the right image, below are some great alternative’s to guide you:

Using Icons Instead of Images

Photos aren’t the only visual elements, nor do they always fit in with all subjects or types of content. For example, photos can be difficult to properly integrate into infographics. If you’re having trouble or want something subtler, consider using icons instead. Icons are a great way to add a simple, effective bit of design to your content or your site.

Our favorite icon sites are The Noun Project and iconmonstr. Both offer free-to-use (with attribution) icons submitted by contributors. The Noun Project offers different account levels that allow you to purchase icon licenses so that you don’t have to include attribution.

Using Patterns Instead of Images

Patterns add a great splash of color and texture to the backgrounds of slideshows, infographics, one-pagers, and on-site pages. They work well alone, but truly shine when used in conjunction with images, icons, and fresh typography.

Our favorite pattern resources are Subtle Patterns and The Pattern Library. Subtle Patterns is a library of, well, subtle patterns that are free to use with attribution. The Pattern Library has more vibrant, whimsical offerings that are completely free to use, no attribution necessary.

Image Use Best Practices

The best practice you can learn is proper attribution, which you’ll have to do with any CC-licensed image or icon. The ideal attribution includes:

  • The title
  • The author
  • The source
  • The license

For example, let’s say you wanted to include the following image in a blog post:

Best Use Image Example

In order to give proper attribution for the image you would use the following:

“Dogs” by Kristine Paulus is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Note that the attribution includes a link to the page where the image resides, a link to the user’s Flickr page, and a link to the Creative Commons license. If you have trouble remembering all that, keep this wiki bookmarked and refer to it when you need it.

Other best practices for images:

  • Use the highest resolution of an image you can find
  • If you find images through Flickr, read the photo descriptions and user profiles. Some users will require other steps to using the image (contacting beforehand, stating where the image will be used, etc.)
  • When in doubt, provide attribution. It’s better to be safe than sorry. When in doubt about whether it is legal for you to use the image, don’t.
  • If possible, link the author of the photo to the finished piece of content. It’s a nice gesture and can potentially lead to a new resource for you and new opportunities for the image creator.

Good luck with your image gathering! If you have any other resources or tips for using images, sound off in the comments.


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