Make the most of charity photography

Find and use stock photos

High quality, relevant and carefully planned photography can transform a website from a seemingly dull collection of text to a visual feast able to attract attention and direct behaviour.

Photos can tell stories, illustrate points, explain abstract concepts, invoke emotion and create connection with people. In short, the usefulness of photos on your website is not to be underestimated.

Sourcing professional photography for your website can be a daunting and challenging task, especially on a budget. One of the first decisions to make is whether to commission a photographer or to buy stock photos. These are both legitimate solutions and each has its pros and cons. The main benefit of stock libraries is the large choice and low financial commitment.

Assuming you’ve already decided to use stock photography, here are seven tips we’ve pulled together from our own experience sourcing images for our clients.

1. Define Your Image Criteria

One of the big challenges with searching for stock photography is knowing what to look for. Defining your search criteria is almost always best done before you look at a single image.

Remind yourself of the concept you want to convey, talk with other people in your team and think laterally to open up different angles. Have a few options ready and start searching. A search engine is very unlikely to be able to connect tangential concepts so if you don't prepare yourself you will get stuck in a rut looking at lots of the same type of image.

For one of our recent clients we needed an image to represent ‘Labour Market Transitions’, a complex subject involving unemployment, school-to-work transitions, women returning from maternity and retirement.


We shortlisted the following search terms before we started looking:

  • Interview

  • Women at work

  • Apprentice

  • Intern

  • Retirement

  • Young people

  • (Un)employment

  • Agreement

This image was to be part of a set including 17 others so we also needed to factor in the characteristics of the other images. We soon discovered that the concept of ‘employment’ or ‘work’ were common to many of the categories so we needed to focus in on other specific angles to make this image different. The focus on young people at interview returned the best results.

2. Know Where To Look

It can be helpful to search Google for your image criteria first in order to gain fresh ideas. Just make sure you don't get carried away because, chances are, you won't actually be able to use anything you find on Google due to copyright restrictions.

There are plenty of stock libraries out there and most offer pay as you go options so there are low barriers to entry with no big subscriptions fees required. Check out our list of the best places to find charity pictures and photos.  

A favourite of ours is Flickr, a photo sharing site for enthusiasts and semi-pro photographers. It's quite easy to contact the copyright owner and as a charity, they may give you editorial use without having to pay anything.

Be advised that the search functions for Flickr will not be as comprehensive as dedicated stock sites but it can be helpful to follow photographers whose style you like and strike up a relationship with them. You could consider this a halfway house between commissions and stock images.

We found this image on Flickr. The owner simply asked for a donation to the Houston Maritime Museum. The combination of dark tones, the horizon, container ship and space for copy were all important criteria for us, and we found our preferred stock sites did not yield any useful results. We’ve now started following this photographer on Flickr as a go to source for the future.



3. Make use of Powerful Search Criteria

Always search by price if you can. It's the most frustrating feeling to find an image you like after hours of searching only to discover it's too expensive.

Stock photos range a lot in price and if your requirements are straightforward, there's no need to pay over the odds. I always start with the cheapest brackets and work up if necessary.

If your image is destined for print, search on size. As with price it can be frustrating to discover your favourite is not of a high enough quality. Moreover, you may not discover this until you have already downloaded it. Get size criteria from whoever is designing your material and limit your search to everything at least that size.

You should also search by orientation (portrait vs. landscape) you will have an idea of which you need and the other will almost certainly be useless.

Some stock libraries even offer the opportunity to specify 'copy space', the area of an image where you intend to add copy. This can be very useful but be warned that not all image have this metadata built in. Only use this if you already have a wealth of options for your chosen image.

4. Get the Right License and the Right Size

Stock images are not bought, they are licensed. This means you don't have indefinite rights and there will be a limit to what you can do.

Check the licensing options and make sure you're not paying for what you don't need. As a charity you may benefit from the cheaper rates associated with editorial use rather than commercial - make sure to make the most of this!


Stock photos also come in a variety of sizes. This enables you to pay less if you're just using it to accompany a blog post and charges more for those wishing to print them in large scale advertising. Always be careful when purchasing stock as they can default to larger sizes. Work out what size you need in advance.

5. Don’t Settle for Images That Don’t Work

Time is precious but don't settle for the first set of results. If you have planned your criteria properly you should have a few different means of approaching the search try them all and consult with others on your results. Don't be afraid to search again. You won’t regret it!

Alternatively, you might want to consider finding a cheap charity photographer and doing a shoot yourself!

6. Use Lightboxes

A lightbox is a short list of images that you can save on the stock website itself. As you browse you can save images to your lightbox (like a shopping cart) for review later.

You will often need to create an account to do this but it's worth the setup time to ensure you're logging your findings properly. Don't be tempted just to drag random sample images to your desktop to try out. Murphy's law will make it doubly hard to find that image again on the stock library in order to purchase the full version.Searching-Images

7. Edit Your Image

If you have even a little design skill or a copy of Photoshop you may want to consider a quick edit to your images. By keeping it simple you can make the most of these advantages through editing photos:

  • You can create additional space for copy by stretching the canvas
  • You can darken the image to make text easier to read
  • You can apply a colour tint to all images to help them feel like they go together as a set

If this is daunting, take a look at my recent blog post on how to buy the Adobe creative suite for charities virtually for free, and use it well.

Here are two examples of images we edited: Stock_Photography-2Stock-Photography-with-edit

By following these 7 tips, sourcing stock photography for your charity should become a lot easier and more efficient, and hopefully you will find some great images as a result! 

Get in touch to find out more about our branding and design services for charities

18 January 2014
Owen Roseblade