Marketing & Branding Advice

Understanding Photo Usage Rights

Photo Usage

As a marketer, you know the importance of good photography to help build your brand and engage clients and prospects. However, many very experienced marketing professionals are often confused by photo usage rights, and with good reason. The terms for legally using photography can be complex and convoluted. Here are a few tips to help you navigate:


First and foremost, you will almost never own a photo outright. Even if you pay money for a stock photo, or pay a photographer to take a photo for you, that does not mean you own the photo. The photographer almost always retains the rights to the image. Very rarely will a photographer enter into a “work for hire” agreement, unless the person is an employee of your company.

Stock Photo Usage

If you find the perfect shot on a stock photo site, even if the shot is “royalty-free,” there will still be usage restrictions. Here are the most common:

  • SHARING: If you purchase a stock photo, even if it is royalty-free, you are not allowed to share it with others, they need to purchase it as well. You can purchase it on behalf of your employer or client. And you can, of course, provide it to a printer to run your job, but the printer cannot use the photo for any other purpose.
  • EDITORIAL: Some stock images may be marked “Editorial Use Only” which limits how the photo can be used. You may not use photos marked “editorial use only” for any commercial, promotional, advertising, or marketing purpose. Using an editorial photo as part of a blog article is a bit of a gray area. Generally, if the article is purely educational, newsworthy, and non-promotional, it is considered editorial. Editorial photos are not “model or property released,” meaning they include recognizable people or physical property without license to do so. Therefore, they can only be used to accompany newsworthy, non-promotional articles. For example, if a photographer takes a photo at a protest rally, and the image is used in a newspaper story describing the event, that is an editorial use. However, if a political candidate wants to use the photo in an ad, that would not be allowed unless proper releases were signed and licensing was authorized.
  • RESALE: You are almost never allowed to resell a photo or use it on an item like note cards, calendars, T-shirts, etc., that you sell to others, without an extended license to do so (which comes with added fees.)
  • TRADEMARK: Similarly, you can’t use a photo as part of a trademark or logo, since it is not yours to own.
  • SENSITIVE: Most stock images also restrict “sensitive” use. This applies if the image is being connected with sexually-explicit subject matter, or unflattering or controversial topics, etc.
  • PRINT RUN: If you are using a stock photo in a mailer, for example, and plan to print a very large quantity (like over 500,000), you may need to buy an extended license even for a royalty-free photo. If you are using a stock photo in an ad in a trade journal with a large circulation, you should also check for limitations on print runs.
  • DURATION: If the stock photo is not royalty-free, you will be required to define a time limit (such as a month, year, 3 years, etc.) that you may use the image.

Each stock photo agency will have detailed licensing terms and conditions on their website, so always review them if you have any concerns.

Custom Photo Shoot Usage

If you are hiring a photographer to take shots of your people or projects, it’s important to understand the usage restrictions, as they can vary widely from photographer to photographer. What may look like a very affordable estimate can balloon after the shoot is done, if you are not careful. Here are the most important questions to clarify in writing:

  • QUANTITY: If the photographer spends time at your office and takes lots of shots, is there a limit to the number included in the estimate? With group shots, for example, we often see instances where there are a few versions of a photo that are appealing (different expressions, different people swapped into the group, etc.). It’s nice to have options, especially if someone leaves the company in the future, and you don’t want to Photoshop out their head (we’ve all been there!) Make sure you know how much additional shots will cost, upfront, in the contract.
  • DURATION: How long will you want to use the photo? I always recommend negotiating for twice as long as you think you’ll need it, it’s much better than renegotiating later. For websites, I’d recommend 5 years at a minimum, but ten years is better!
  • PLACEMENT: How will you use the photo? Will it just be on your website, or will you include it on a brochure? Many photographers will stipulate that the images can be used for “non-advertising purposes.” Generally, that means that you can use it on collateral pieces (like brochures, pocket folders, PowerPoints, pitches, and the like), but not in an ad that you place in a publication or website banner, or on a billboard, or a direct mailer. If you have portraits taken of employees at the firm, make sure you include usage for LinkedIn profiles and for PR purposes. If you work at a law firm, mandate usage rights for portraits in trade journal ads as well.

With custom shoots, remember that usage rights are negotiable. It is always best to think about any and all possible ways you may want to use the photos and include them as part of the contract, rather than renegotiating at a later time.

Vanessa’s article also appeared in SMPS Boston’s Outlook, August 17, 2020.

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