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Finding good photographic imagery to use in your designs for print, web and video projects is one of the most common and important tasks for graphic designers and art directors. It can also be challenging and sometimes frustrating. There are several things to consider when you’re sourcing photography, including where to get the photos, image file quality and specifications, licensing and usage terms, and cost.

Starting out, you have two basic options: buy pre-existing images (referred to as “stock” photography) or hire a photographer to shoot custom work just for you. In this article we’ll look at both scenarios.

Online Stock Sources

Using the Web is by far the most common way to find and purchase photography. When you’re looking for the perfect image for your new design, start with the online stock agencies. Even if you later decide to contract a photographer to shoot assignment work (discussed below), reviewing a wide selection of images can really get your creative juices flowing. With this in mind, I recommend that you don’t skimp on the time you spend doing photo research for a project. Knowing all your options is key to channeling your creative energy in the right direction.

When looking for photos online, you have a couple of choices. First are the stock agencies, who contract with photographers to market and license their images for a commission. Usually, photos you find with most agencies are exclusive, meaning they aren’t available from other sources.

A Google search for the phrase “stock photography” yields over 312 million results. So where should you start? When looking for stock sites, start with the big ones. Getty Images and Corbis are two of the largest stock agencies offering high quality images you can license and download immediately, but they’re not the least expensive options. Smaller stock agencies like Trunk and Glasshouse can have very unique images and may offer higher quality than the larger agencies but also come with higher prices.

On the other end of the spectrum, iStockphoto has one of the largest libraries of microstock (low cost) photography on the Web, and with its powerful search capabilities, finding lots of affordable images is very easy. Thinkstock aggregates content from multiple stock agencies including Getty, Jupiter Images and iStockphoto.

TIP: Searching and Lightboxes – All good stock sites provide powerful search capabilities to help you find images quickly. Another very useful feature is that you can save images to a “lightbox” (a place to store your favorites). Make lightboxes for different clients, projects and subject matter. You can then purchase and download the final files directly from the lightboxes.

Photo Sharing Sites

Your next options for sourcing photos online are photo sharing/photo hosting sites like Flickr and Photobucket. These sites are user-driven — all the photos have been uploaded by members of the site. If you find an image you want to use on one of these sites, you need to contact the photographer and negotiate directly. This can often work to your advantage, as most photographers welcome the opportunity to be paid anything for the use of their images.

Photoshelter offers a unique, hybrid model that offers both stock agency services and photo hosting for photographers. When you perform a search on Photoshelter, the results come from all the photographer’s galleries who have publicly searchable images. One of the best features of Photoshelter is the e-commerce pricing engine, based on the widely-used fotoQuote software. The galleries on my web site are powered by Photoshelter.

TIP: Ask your colleagues for suggestions! Don’t try to re-invent the wheel: you can benefit from the collective knowledge of your peers. Actively participate in design forums and blogs, and when it’s time for you to find some new images, ask for suggestions. You’ll save loads of time by first checking out what other people have found to be successful.

Hiring a Photographer

If you can’t find stock to meet your needs, you can hire a photographer to produce the images for you. Local search pages can be a good place to start, but again, your best bet is to ask for referrals and references from your friends and business associates. You shouldn’t do business with people you can’t trust, and that goes for photographers, too, especially since many “professional” photographers simply bought their first DSLR and hung out their shingle. For obvious reasons you should avoid working with a photographer who lacks experience and credentials.

Negotiate with photographers using the same methods and ethics you follow for your contract design work. Always make sure the scope of work is clearly defined, the timetable and deadlines agreed upon and the costs and payment terms thoroughly understood. And make sure everything is in writing! Don’t take any shortcuts evaluating proposals and putting together an agreement with your photographer.

TIP: Photography trade organizations are great for finding reliable, professional photographers. Check the Web sites for the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) for directories of well-respected professional photographers.

DIY? Not

Some graphic designers choose to shoot their own photography for their designs, but this is rarely an ideal solution unless you’re a skilled and experienced photographer. It’s like a typical business owner deciding they can build their own Web site, or design their own logo! Just as you want your customers to leave the professional graphic design to you, so should you leave the photography to a professional.

File Specifications and Quality

All image files are not created equal. You’ll find a vast range of quality coming from stock agencies, photo hosting services and even working photographers. It’s outside the scope of this article — and I will cover it in a future post — but you really need to brush up on your technical knowledge of image file formats and quality considerations. Here are the main points when evaluating image files:

File format: most often you’ll be dealing with TIFF and/or JPEG. In all cases, if you have the choice, get a TIFF file, which is either uncompressed or compressed with no loss of quality. If JPEG is your only option, try to ensure that the file was saved at the highest quality level.

Resolution: one of the most misunderstood aspects of digital imaging, resolution quite simply refers to the number of pixels contained in the image. A high-resolution file has lots of detail; a low-res file has comparatively less detail. If you need to reproduce the image as large sizes or in very high quality, make sure to get the largest file available. You can always downsample (reduce resolution) if you need to, but there are significant limitations on how much you can enlarge a low-resolution file.

Noise, blemishes and other artifacts: low quality imagery (especially cheap microstock) can be plagued with a host of technical defects. Digital noise manifests itself as grainy speckles or colored blobs in a photo. Lots of photos made with digital SLRs have dust spots. Cleaning up lousy photos can waste your time and eat into your profits. Try to purchase images that are clean, spot-free and processed to professional standards.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to image quality; stay tuned to this site for lots more information on digital imaging and file specifications. Also, there’s a great online resource for current best practices in digital photography/imaging and preparation of electronic files at DPbestflow.

Licensing Options

When you’re ready to purchase stock images, or when establishing specifications for commissioned photography, you need to thoroughly understand and agree to the specifics of the licensing terms.

When a photographer makes a photograph, under U.S. law they own the copyright to that photo automatically and immediately. A photo (or any other creative work) does not have to be registered with the copyright office to be under copyright! Some photographs and other visual media are in the Public Domain, which means that anyone can freely use them, but this is not the case with stock or assignment photography. You should always assume that the photographer retains all copyrights to the images, unless those rights have been specifically and legally transferred to another entity.

In order for you to use someone else’s photo in your graphic designs, you must license the rights. Image licensing comes in many flavors, but for graphic designers using stock and commissioned photography, there are two main types of licenses:

Rights-managed: this type of license authorizes the buyer to use the imagery at a specific size, for a specific purpose, in a specific market and for a specific period of time. It is the most expensive kind of licensing, but the highest quality photographs are almost always offered under a rights-managed license.

Royalty-free: with this kind of license, once you’ve paid the fee you can use the photo however you like, as many times as you want.

TIP: Be sure you know the type of license you have purchased and never go beyond that agreement — it’s a recipe for a lawsuit. And NEVER use someone else’s photograph or other artwork without explicit permission!


The cost of licensing photography and fees for commissioned work can vary dramatically and is based on a wide range of variables. Microstock licensing can be $1 or less, while a rights-managed license for a high-visibility reproduction can run several thousand dollars. But on average, a range of $50 to several hundred dollars is probably reasonable for good quality imagery. Custom-commissioned work will be based on the photographer’s day rate, plus expenses, and applicable licensing fees for the final deliverables. Make sure to budget for licensing or photographer’s fees when preparing project proposals and client estimates!

One Project at a Time

Finding and acquiring the rights to eye-catching, high-quality photography can be time consuming and challenging, especially for graphic designers doing work on projects with unique requirements. For each project that needs photography, spend some time researching the available options online, and if you don’t find the images you need, consider hiring a professional photographer. The care you take in sourcing photography for your designs will go a long way toward the success of the project. In future articles we’ll look in-depth at all aspects related to finding and using photography in your graphic design.