How to select photos for projects

Annette Peppis

Getting photos for your project should be easy, there’s so much available on the internet, right? Well, yes and no. There are a few pitfalls you should be aware of, and easy ways of doing your picture research.

The pitfalls

1) Copyright

Many people think that it’s OK to copy pictures from the internet and use them in their work. Generally, it’s not. You will be infringing the copyright of the photographer or image library by using the pic without permission or payment. Will they find out? Probably not, but if they do and they decide to sue you, your reputation and bank account will be dealt a hefty blow.

2) Boring images

How many times have you seen a law firm represented by a pair of scales or a gavel? It doesn’t have to be this way! Instead of typing in search terms like ‘law’, approach this from a different angle; try to think of what the lawyer will do for you, or the peace of mind you will have after you’ve instructed them – this will source a completely different type of image which is still relevant.

3) The budget

Most clients have a small budget for photos. Generally, this is fine, as you can buy royalty-free stock images for under £10 from most low-cost picture libraries. You can also get photos for free (see below) if you follow the right guidelines and give correct attribution. There is a downside, though; you will not have exclusive use of the image. Although the risk is small, a competitor may use exactly the same picture on their book cover / website / app etc.

Ways to research pictures

1) Low-cost picture libraries

My favourites are Shutterstock ( and iStockphoto ( Think carefully about the search terms you use.

Pic 1 When you see a picture you like in the thumbnail results on your screen, add it to a lightbox (Shutterstock) or board (iStockphoto). You can create one or several for each project. That way, you can compare your images easily, and also email your client a link to the lightbox. For copyright reasons, I’ve used a lightbox full of images I’ve legally purchased here.


If you or your client like a particular image but would like to see similar ones, there is a link below to click onto similar images. You might just find the perfect pic.

Pic 3

You can also search by colour on Shutterstock Spectrum ( Move the marker to select the colour you want to match, then type in your keywords to call up a selection of images.

Pic 4

2) Pinterest

Pinterest is a great place to find the type of the picture you’d like to use, but you cannot just copy images from Pinterest due to copyright infringement. What you can do though is to download the picture to your desktop (or take a screenshot) and then do a reverse search. One way of doing this is in Google Images. Click on the camera icon and a box will pop up where you can upload the Pinterest image. Google will tell you where that image appears on the web, and with luck you will be able to find out where to purchase it. By the way, this is how people are often rumbled if they illegally use a pic.

Pic 5 Pic 6

Image libraries also have this reverse search facility.

Pic 7 Pic 8

3) Free images from Flickr

Search for the image you’d like and a number of thumbnails will show in the browser. To ensure you are allowed to use the picture, click on the ‘Any License’ drop-down tab and select ‘All creative commons’. Further select ‘Commercial use allowed’ if that is appropriate. This will limit your selection but there should still be some good pictures available. Clicking on the chosen image will open it in a new window, and you’ll see a link saying ‘Some rights reserved’. Click this and it will tell you what you can and can’t do with the image and who to credit.

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You have the option of refining your search by colour, depth of field, pattern etc, but if you are looking for free pictures there probably won’t be that many to choose from.

Finding a professional

A professional picture researcher will save you time, money and headaches, and know of picture libraries that specialise in a particular subject. For example, historical specialist Mary Evans Picture Library in Blackheath have a wide range of historical pictures in their archives. Employee Luci Gosling describes libraries such as Mary Evans as ‘specialist boutiques, rather than supermarkets like Shutterstock’. There are other smaller picture libraries specialising in nature, sport, music and much more. Their employees have a deep knowledge of their archives and their subject. 

I have a particular picture researcher I like to work with; she gets the brief straightaway and knows exactly what I like. They can also help you negotiate fees if you decide you’d like to buy exclusive rights to an image. If you do have the budget to employ a professional picture researcher, it’s well worth it.

Annette Peppis is an enthusiastic early member of BookMachine. Annette helps publishers attract more readers by creating a professional look that builds their business and reflects their values, and offers smart and stylish solutions. You can read Annette’s blog about about graphic design here.

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