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Make Your Visuals Stand Out Without Spending a Fortune

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Guest Post: Louie Herr

How do you make your communications stand out visually without spending a fortune? There have never been more options for finding free photos online or ones you can license for a modest fee. Using some of the tools below, the perfect image to help drive your message home could be only a few clicks away.

Creative Commons Images The proliferation of Creative-Commons-licensed photography — images that owners of copyrighted artwork make available for others to use in return for credit — opens a world of opportunity to find high quality photos. Flickr announced in October 2011 that it was then home to more than 200 million CC-licensed photographs. Now more than a year later, that number has surely grown by tens of millions.

You can find CC-licensed images by searching Flickr directly — different libraries are available for different types of licensing restrictions — or by using the excellent CCSearch tool from CCSearch acts as a front-end for searching Flickr and a variety of other sites. This provides access to CC-licensed music, video, clip art, and photos from sites other than Flickr. If you do use CC-licensed media, you must comply with the licensing requirements, including how you attribute the copyright holders.

Creative Commons has posted a set of best practices for citing CC-licensed media. Sometimes meeting the requirements of the licenseholder — such as how the work is attributed — can require a few extra steps. But it is a small price for the right to use high quality media at no charge. It is also important to review each license — especially to make sure you are not violating any terms of use or are aware of special restrictions.

iStockphoto and Shutterstock
Though there are some really great Creative-Commons-licensed images available online, sometimes it can be difficult to find exactly what you need. If your needs are specific, or if you are simply looking for a level of polish beyond that which Flickr provides, you will need to turn to stock photography sites. Two of the more prominent services are iStockphoto and Shutterstock. At a glance, the services appear quite similar.

Shutterstock is home to more than 22 million photos, whereas iStockphoto advertises “millions.” iStockphoto does, however, make audio and video available for licensing. Shutterstock does not. Regardless, it would be extremely difficult to identify either service based solely on the results provided for a common search term like “burger” — compare iStockphoto’s results to those for Shutterstock. The services differ in their pricing and the nature of their licensing.

Though Shutterstock does have pay-as-you-go plans, it is a subscription service at heart. Shutterstock’s most popular plan provides 25 images per day for $249 per month or $2,559 per year. Conversely, while iStockPhoto has several bulk purchase options, its photos are instead licensed for varying numbers of credits. iStockphoto’s images can cost just one credit (equivalent to about $3) or hundreds of credits (equivalent to more than $250 in some cases). iStockphoto sets these prices based on the image’s “size, complexity, and the collection it belongs to” (borrowing iStockphoto’s own language).

There is fine print to consider. For example, if you plan to use one of their licensed images online, Shutterstock limits the resolution you are allowed to use to 800×600. iStockphoto limits that resolution to 1200×800. There are also limits to the number of copies of the media that can be reproduced. If you plan to use photos from either service, it is a good idea to review the approved uses in that service’s licensing agreements. iStockphoto describes their licensing policies here. Those for Shutterstock can be found here.

The stock photography space certainly doesn’t end with iStockphoto and Shutterstock. Rather, they are but two entrants in an increasingly crowded space that also includes more traditional heavyweights like Getty Images and The Associated Press. Some services will provide better access to certain types of images than others. Prices and licensing agreements will also vary, so be sure to do your homework before you select a service. No matter where you find your images, you have to make choices that best support your messages. With so many options to choose from on today’s web, though, it should almost always be possible to find an image to help you make your point.

Other Resources

Has your foundation or nonprofit had significant success using images to increase image impact? If so, I’d love to talk to you! Please contact me at

Louie Herr has consulted for organizations like Lumina Foundation for more than six years. He also writes, runs and records audio. He is based in Portland, Oregon.

*Editor’s note:  In an earlier post, “When Photos Do What Words Alone Can’t,” we featured a program of the Magnum Foundation to make images from Magnum Photos’ extensive documentary collection available for free or at reduced rates to qualifying nonprofits.  You can read more about the  BE SEEN initiative on the foundation’s website.

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