The hidden danger of free photos

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The undeniable influence of social media and the desire to tap into the demographics of younger voters will make finding and using compelling and authentic images more important during this cycle. But creating custom photo libraries can be expensive and time-consuming to produce for campaigns. Also, relying on archival photographs can be problematic.

We’ve already seen a goof through the use of stock footage this cycle. In April, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) kicked off his presidential campaign with an online map of America showing the faces of people who allegedly supported him. Unfortunately, the photos turned out to be stock photos featuring German models.

In the context of broader campaign concerns, this may be a small distraction, but it still hurts the candidate’s credibility, and mistakes like these have the potential to blow up on social media.

To add confusion to the mix, a number of companies are now offering free images. But beware: the photos are intellectual property and the licenses provided to you confer specific rights and uses, even when they are free.

It’s also important to note that photos used to support your marketing communications should be consistent with your brand identity and look. There’s no value in using a free image of a random group of people if they aren’t your constituents or don’t fit the style of your campaign. A photo editor or design director can help you maintain visual consistency throughout your communication stack.

Keep in mind that many companies offering free stock images use it as a marketing tool. Often an email address is required to upload the images and this becomes the basis for upselling other products and services. For the most part, images and licenses are legitimate, but there can be a wide range of quality and style. Compared to their paid counterparts, image collections tend to be smaller, sites have limited (if any) search capabilities, and they tend to lack the basic consistency of larger companies.

If you decide to go the free sites route, an important aspect to consider is the license itself. For example, some companies simply collect images that fall under the Creative Commons license, which gives you extremely broad rights. Still, you can probably find images like this online without having to give out your email address.

Additionally, you must ensure that model releases have been secured (i.e. the people in the images have approved the use of their likeness). Many free stock image sites don’t specify this or use legal language that makes it very difficult to understand general licensing requirements.

Here are some additional tips to keep in mind when using stock photos:

  • Almost all stock images (especially those with people) have usage restrictions (eg no use for controversial topics often common in campaign materials). Be sure to read the fine print in the license information.
  • If you’re using photos that contain people, make sure the vendor has model releases on file. Although rare, there have been instances where models have sued the photographer and end user for using their image without their consent.
  • Be sure to use a reverse image search to see how the image has already been used elsewhere online. This same image may already be used by competing causes or in other potentially embarrassing and divisive campaigns.
  • Make sure the image you select matches your brand guidelines and visual aesthetic. There is little value in using a visually incongruous image. A professional photo editor or communications manager with a keen eye can help you with this task.
  • Hiring a photographer can be more profitable than you think. Many talented photographers and photojournalists can create compelling visual content for your campaign.
  • Manage your digital assets: Keep your images organized and archived so your team can easily access approved images across communication opportunities, so you know what image was used, when and where.

Andrew Fingerman is the CEO of PhotoShelter.

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