Just typing a subject into Google Images and grabbing something appropriate is one way of getting images for your projects, but it's not the best idea if what you want to avoid a lawsuit.
Artists and image repositories are getting savvier about protecting their property these days, and one picture on your blog can easily turn into a great big bill through the post. Is this likely to happen? Probably not, but here's the thing: it could.
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It's a far better idea to bite the bullet and buy an image from one of the many fine microstock sites available. Microstock means cheap stock photography. You typically buy credit rather than individual images, and use this to pick up whatever you want in the size you need – the bigger the image, the more you pay.
Vector art and videos are also often on sale, but the majority of items offered are photos, usually taken by professional photographers (although anyone with a camera can register to sell on most of the bigger sites).
The safety of stock
Of course, nothing's ever so simple. Most sites do have some restrictions on what you can do with images you buy. As you'd expect, you can't resell them or claim one as your own, although you can use them as part of larger works. A more subtle restriction is that there's often a limit to how many copies you can make.
This isn't a problem for your website – you won't face a big bill if your blog hits the front page of Digg or similar – but there's usually a limit to how many copies you can send out as, say, a book jacket. In practice, there's little chance of either the artist or stock image repository even trying to keep count, but it's always better to be safe than sorry where rights are concerned.
Bizarrely, most of the big stock sites have been very lax about safeguarding buyers' rights in the past. None of the main names have historically offered any form of warranty to protect you in the event that something went wrong, like one of their members uploading an image that wasn't theirs.
Few have provided essential tools like being able to check a photograph's model release forms to make sure that the subject is willing to let the photo be used. These are very important issues if you need a picture of a person, especially in a commercial context.
An image may be from an obviously professional shoot, but without the piece of paper, that doesn't matter – and you never know if you're dealing with somebody who doesn't realise the implications of turning friends into internet stars without their permission.
Even now, many microstock sites don't offer any form of warranty (covering you up to a set amount if you get sued for using one of their images), although a few do, including Vivozoom and iStockphoto. It's worth checking before you buy.
Free sites exist, but offer no guarantee of legitimacy. At best, you can mail the original uploader and ask questions; at worst, you take your chances.
When you buy stock, you can usually download it for the next few hours, but not after that. It's up to you to keep backups. The majority come in JPEG format, some with cut-out information, some without. Browsing the archive is a matter of typing in keywords and browsing through a catalogue.
The more specific a photo you need, the less likely it is that you'll find something perfect – 'newspaper' should be fine, while something like 'newspaper paper airplane' probably won't be. One very useful keyword is 'isolated', which helps you to find subjects on a plain colour (usually white) for easy cutting out.
Selling your photos online
If you want to get into selling images yourself, it's an easy process. You'll need a good camera – typically a DSLR – so that you can take pictures at good enough quality, and most of the big microstock sites have a vetting process, but in general there are no specific prerequisites.
For the biggest, iStockphoto, the process involves signing up, completing a quick quiz and submitting samples of your work. Even if you have no plans to sell pictures, amateur photographers can get some good tips on general photographic technique here, with the online guide here covering lots of rookie mistakes and how to avoid them. It's well worth flicking through.
You'll need a lot of pictures to stand much chance of pulling decent money – you only get a percentage of the sale price, which is typically a handful of dollars at most. iStockphoto offers 20 per cent of the sale price, and 40 per cent to 'Exclusive' contributors, but this varies.
Images can be rejected for lots of reasons, from not being high enough quality to being yet another tedious picture of a flower. You can make money, but it's likely to be modest.
Cases of a particular stock image – like the original drawing of Twitter's 'fail whale' – becoming an internet sensation and sparking a T-shirt empire have roughly the same sort of odds as a first-time lottery winner hitting the jackpot – it happens, but don't order the Ferrari just yet.
The downside of the credits system on stock sites is that if you only need one or two pictures, you're likely to end up with a surplus. Still, if you've got a list of images that you need, microstock is a great way to get them all in one go – and on the cheap.