I’d just taken some pictures of a client for her new website. She’s starting a health and lifestyle business. She told me she needed other website images too, but had seen some shots on Google Images she quite liked. I was curious about how she’d clear the copyright and surprised at her answer, “I don’t have to if they’re on Google Images. Do I?” I explained that the images belonged to someone who would probably expect some kind of payment, but I’m not sure she was convinced. With so much free stuff online, you can come to expect everything to be free. I use Google mail, calendar, contacts and of course, search. It’s staggering just how much Google gives for free, and perhaps understandable to think that Google images are free too. Well Google image search is free, but the images it finds aren’t. Actually Google isn’t really free, they collect a vast amount of data about my likes, dislikes, interests, whereabouts and goodness knows what else. I’ve always considered it to be a fair exchange, but I’m beginning to feel uneasy about it.
So how do you know whether or not you can safely use an image that pops up in a search result? Well that’s easy, if you don’t have the specific permission of the copyright holder to use it, you can’t use it. So, you might be thinking ‘isn’t the internet an unpoliced jungle? If I do use it, who’ll know?’ Well, even if the photographer is on the other side of the world, it’s easy for them to search online for unlicensed use of their photographs. Using Google Image search of course. Just as a word or a sentence is a string of letters, a digital image is just a long string of 0s and 1s – the digits! This sequence is as near to being unique as the image you see. So it’s easy for a computer to compare your image’s string of 0s and 1s to the strings of every other image on the internet. Google Images has a facility to look for a specific picture by examining its digital footprint, Tineye Reverse Image Search is another free image search ap. So if the copyright owner chooses to look, eventually they will find. Under English law the copyright of an image resides with the photographer unless they sign it over to someone else. This means that if you use an image on a commercial website you owe someone some cash. A thank you would be nice too.
The good news is that are of lots of free website images available, some web hosts offer a library of free ‘stock’ website images. Web designers often hold large collections too. Whether they’ll have one that suits your exact needs is another very good question. For a relatively small fee you can buy royalty-free images from so-called microstock sites. That means you can pay pennies for a website image and owe nothing else. It’s the ‘pile high, sell cheap’ side of the stock photography industry. The fact that the pile is so high means that it is more difficult to find the right image for your purposes. If you’ve got bored with looking for that needle in a haystack, (there’s a stock photograph idea) you might decide to increase your budget and go to one of the big picture agencies like Corbis, iStock or Getty. They have picture researchers to do the donkey-work for you. (oo, another stock photography idea) There are many specialist image libraries too.
Here are two radical solutions –
1) take it yourself
2) commission a photographer
You don’t need an expensive camera for option 1) but you do need a little patience. That’s a whole other blog post. For option 2) you just need to do research. Look at some online portfolios and then be precise about your requirements and the limits of your budget. It’s up to the photographer to decide if the job’s worth taking on.
Obviously I think it’s essential to get good photography for a business website, it’s the best way to connect and engage, to tell your story. By good, I mean the right images that say the right thing about the business, the service and the ethos. Everything you put in front of a potential client should support the values and the message you are trying to convey. If it doesn’t support it, it’s doing damage. In a picture-rich environment like ours we learn to ‘read’ imagery very quickly – an obvious, ‘make-do’ stock shot says ‘can’t be bothered’ or ‘don’t care what you think’.
Remember, every picture tells a story, but make sure it’s the right story!