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The undeniable influence of social media and the desire to tap into younger voting demographics will make finding and using compelling, authentic images more important this cycle. But creating custom photo libraries can be costly and time-consuming to produce for campaigns. Moreover, relying on stock photography can be problematic.  

We’ve already seen one gaffe through the use of stock imagery this cycle. In April, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) launched his presidential campaign with an online map of America featuring the faces of people who allegedly had endorsed him. Unfortunately, the photos turned out to be stock photos featuring German models.

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

To add confusion to the mix, a number of companies now offer free stock images. But caveat emptor: Photos are pieces of intellectual property, and the licenses that are provided to you convey specific rights and usages – even when they’re free.

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

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

Should you decide to go the route of free sites, an important aspect to scrutinize is the license itself. For example, some companies are simply collecting images that fall within the Creative Commons license, which gives you extremely broad rights. Still, you can likely find images like this online without having to give up your email address.

Additionally, you should make sure that model releases have been secured (i.e. that the people in the images have signed off on the use of their likeness). Many of the free stock image sites either don’t make this clear or have legal language that make it very difficult to even get a grasp on the overall license requirements.  

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

  • Almost all stock images (particularly those with people) have usage restrictions (e.g. no use for controversial topics often common in campaign materials). Make sure you read the fine print in the licensing information.
  • If you’re using photos containing people, make sure that the provider has model releases on file. Although it’s uncommon, there have been instances where models sue the photographer and the end-user for using their likeness without consent.
  • Make sure to use a reverse image search to see how the image has already been used elsewhere online. That same image may already be used by competing causes or in other potentially embarrassing, conflicting campaigns.
  • Make sure the image you select matches your brand guidelines and visual aesthetic. There’s little value in using a visually incongruent image. A professional photo editor or communications director with a strong eye can help with this task.
  • Hiring a photographer might prove to be more cost-effective than you might think. There are plenty of talented photographers and photojournalists who can create compelling visual content for your campaign.
  • Manage your digital assets—keep your images organized and archived so that your team can readily access approved images across communications opportunities, and so you’ll know what image was used, when, and where.  

Andrew Fingerman is the CEO of PhotoShelter.