Dos and Don’ts of Stock Imagery

As a creative marketing agency, we encounter certain issues more often than others. Questions and concerns about how and when to use stock imagery – photos, graphics, etc. – are some of the most common.

After all, we live in a highly visual world. This makes it super important to update the photos found on our websites, sales collateral, social media accounts, and other forms of marketing regularly. By refreshing our imagery, we stay relevant and build ongoing credibility with our target audiences.

But along with the pressure to keep things updated comes the unintentional crossing of lines. Being thoughtful about marketing imagery doesn’t always come naturally – especially when it’s free. You may not think twice about it.

At Signalfire, we realize it can be tempting to just snag a quick photo from Google, but trust us…the cost of this simple act isn’t worth the potential consequences.

Google Images


We recently spoke with one of our clients who, unfortunately, fell prey to the common misconception that the majority of images on the internet are up for grabs.

As the owner of a family-run retail store, our client wanted to write a blog post on a terrific lifestyle topic for her brand. There’s nothing wrong with that!

Next, she performed a simple image search for “hands washing dishes,” and – BOOM – she had the perfect photo to go along with her article. But here’s the kicker…

“In August, we posted the blog on our website. In November, I received a letter from the image manager charging us $262 for the use of the image without their permission. I was mistakenly under the assumption that if an image did not include a watermark of the photographer or photo manager’s name, I could use it.  I have since found out that this isn’t correct.”

This is a common misconception. To be very clear, no image is available for commercial use, unless:

a) it is your own, original photography

b) you have paid for the image or received explicit permission from the image owner, or

c) the photo is clearly labeled (for commercial use)

Commercial use images


Unfortunately, this also isn’t the first time we’ve encountered a situation like this. The truth is, anyone who owns the rights to a photo, video, or audio file can request royalties for unauthorized use, and it is legally binding. Your best bet is to avoid using someone else’s photo, whenever possible.

Don’t run the risk. Instead, keep the following best practices in mind to ensure you stay on the right side of the law:

DO: Invest in your own imagery. Today’s consumers value transparency and authenticity over clichés. Showcasing your facilities, employees, and company culture in your marketing images helps build trust and promote brand advocacy.

DON’T: Use stock photography to promote a brand experience that doesn’t communicate who you really are. Far too often, we see businesses going all in on stock imagery to “present themselves better,” but in reality, this can be harmful. Stock imagery is naturally non-specific, and this creates distance between you and your customers, rather than drawing them closer to your brand.

DO: Utilize royalty-free stock imagery sites. Image databases like Unsplash, Pexels, or Pixabay are trustworthy resources for high-quality, professional photos – at no cost. Google also has a “labeled for re-use” filter on their image search results, but this is far from fool proof. It’s best to stick with a site that’s free from uncertainty.

DON’T: Assume no one will know or care that you used an image. The internet is an ever-flowing riptide of information. All it takes is one person to come across the image and blow the whistle on your business.

DO: Ask for authorization to use any visual asset that doesn’t express a royalty-free designation. If you’re not positive you can use it, then don’t. It’s better to be overly cautious and use a different photo than it is to pay the price of a violation.

DON’T: Grab images straight off of competitor’s websites, Google, or social media channels without consulting the owner of the photo. In nearly all cases, this will have negative results for your business – even if it’s years down the road.

Professional photography


Rather than using primarily stock photography across all of your marketing channels, consider scheduling a photoshoot with a professional. This way, you can get a variety of images for the aspects of your business/organization that you’d most like to promote.

Utilizing your own professional photos first, you can then begin to supplement more general or supporting content with stock imagery.

Keep in mind that your competitors have the same access to stock photos as you do. If you truly want to differentiate your company from your competition, it makes sense to put your unique sales proposition on display in a relatable manner for your audience.


In our client’s case, she contacted her legal team to research her options but had no choice but to pay the penalty that was requested. Remember, she had no ill intent. She simply wasn’t aware that she couldn’t use the photo.

Imagine having repeated this mistake over and over for years. That’s a hefty price tag.

In order to prevent these situations, be sure to educate yourself on how and when to use stock photography. If you’re reading this article, then you’re already doing that. It’s safe to say that you won’t be using unauthorized imagery anytime soon.

If you could use some help finding the right professionals for a photoshoot of your own, don’t hesitate to contact Signalfire today! We have a network of fantastic photographers and videographers who would love to help you out.


Royalty-Free Imagery Sites: