What makes a usable stock image?

One of the greatest challenges of photo manipulated covers is that they rely on stock photography. Rather infamously, stock photography has a serious diversity problem, and it can be challenging or sometimes impossible to find a model that matches your protagonist.

Adding to the confusion, not all images (even from stock photo sites) work as stock photos for book covers, particularly when models are involved. For example, the Gender Spectrum Collection is a great resource for trans and nonbinary models, but it can’t be used for book covers (I will elaborate on why further down).

These are the three main reasons a photo may not be usable:

  1. Lacks suitable quality (low-definition or grainy, for instance)
  2. Lack of model release form/consent
  3. Lack of proper license

Low-quality images

For this, I’m going to use a stock photograph I took as an example (so don’t worry, I’m not insulting anyone else).

The image is of a small size, low resolution. It’s grainy. The colors are grey. It’s not going to work for taking center-stage on a book cover. It’s best suited as a reference image for an illustration.

Lack of model consent

If you’re going to use a model’s face on the cover of your book, then that model needs to have consented. For professional stock photography sites, this is done through a model release form. Here’s photographer Jen Kiaba on what a model release form is.

“At its core, a model release is a contract that allows a photographer to use a photograph of a person and it outlines the ways in which a photographer can use the model’s likeness from the photoshoot.

These contracts are absolutely necessary if you are interested in using the images for a commercial purpose at any time down the road, and licensing stock photography is absolutely a commercial use!”

If I am looking for stock photography of a model, I will only use stock photography sites that vet images for model release forms. The only exceptions would be if the photographer and the model are the same person (such as with fae-stock on DeviantArt) or if you yourself want to create and provide stock photographs for me to use in a custom cover. However, I would still suggest that in the process of enlisting friends and family to pose for you, you get them to sign a release form.

The key here is “stock photography sites that vet images for model release forms.” Many of the popular free stock photo sites don’t vet for model release forms.

woman in red and yellow sari dress sitting on floor

Above is a beautiful image from Unsplash, a free stock photography site. I love Unsplash and I often use it for backgrounds, textures, and inanimate objects. However, I won’t use it for models. Unsplash’s photos are all user-submitted and the site doesn’t vet it’s content. The image I shared here looks like it was taken at a professional dance performance. Odds are that the models didn’t sign a consent form and have no idea that they’ve wound up on a stock photo site. Not only would using the image for a book cover be unethical, it could potentially get you into legal trouble.

As a general rule, I avoid free stock photo sites like Unsplash and Pexels when looking for a photo of a model.

Lack of Proper License

Not all stock photos are provided under a license appropriate for book covers. Whenever you find a stock photo, you should check the license. In the beginning of the post, I mentioned the Gender Spectrum Collection. Here’s what they say about their license under their usage guidelines:

“Per the terms of the Creative Commons license, you may not create derivative work from the images or use the images for commercial purposes. Beyond these basic license stipulations, it is vital for anyone using this resource to make appropriate contextual decisions.”

“No derivative works” and “no commercial purposes” both rule out book covers, so we can’t use the photos from the Gender Spectrum Collection.

So let’s say that you find a photo with a license that allows derivative works and commercial use. Next question — is that license royalty-free?

Here’s Stockphotoguidelines.com on the definition of a “Royalty-Free” license.

 “The “Free” in Royalty Free means you don’t have to pay extra royalties to either the agency nor the image owner, other than the initial license fee.

RF is a one-time, flat-rate license fee. The image provider sets up the price for the license, and you pay for that price once. That entitles you to use the image multiple times, in a wide range of permitted uses, and forever, without ever paying extra royalties. Pay once, use forever. Simple as that.”

Essentially, you want to make sure that the provider of the stock image isn’t asking for a fee each time you use the image.

Often licenses will specify how many print copies you can sell until you’d need to purchase a more expensive “extended license.” However, the ceilings for extended licenses are so high, you don’t really need to worry about hitting it. In the book world, 250,000 copies is a blockbuster and vanishingly few authors reach that sales figure. Congratulations if you do reach it, but I wouldn’t worry about extended licenses until then.

Hopefully, this article cleared up some of the confusion around what does/does not work as a stock photo. I’ll be back later with another post on where to find usable stock photos of models and resources for diversity in stock photos.