Using Stock Photos in Client Work: A Comprehensive Guide

As a graphic designer or creative, you often get hired by clients to create a design for them. Royalty Free images for commercial use are a great resource for compelling and visually powerful designs.

  • But if you use stock photos in work that you create for a client, who owns the image?
  • Are you transferring the image's license to your client?
  • Can your client further use the image in other projects?

These are questions that often arise when you want to use stock photos in commissioned work, and sometimes stock photo agency's legal terms are not so straightforward about this.

If you are interested in finding a manual for the legal and ethical correct use of stock photos, our brand new guide to rules for using stock photos might be a great help for you.

Here we cover all details about image licensing and its uses in client work. If you have any doubts, find them explained next:

Can I Use Stock Photos in Designs I will Sell to a Client?


Yes, you can. Each stock agency has its own terms, but in general lines Royalty Free stock photography allows you to use images in designs for a third party or client. But there are some considerations:

  • The image must be part of a design – Royalty Free images can be used in content that will be then sold to a client (who must be the end-user), as long as you make them part of your design, be it cropping or resizing them, correcting or modifying colors or elements, overlaying text, etc. And then deliver the design containing them to the end user. 
    But you may NEVER sell, redistribute or gift the plain image, just as it was downloaded from the source to anyone. This is specifically forbidden, and doing it would be major copyright and licensing infringement.
  • The design must be for one end customer – Standard license lets you use the image in design for one end customer. If you want to use the photo in serial-produced content you will then put up for sale, you need an Extended license.
  • Always check the specific license agreement of the stock agency where you got the image from. If you are not sure about it, ask the stock agency!

You can buy the high quality and cheap stock photos in various agencies. We recommend you to choose from our Top 7 Cheapest Stock Photo Subscriptions in 2016. 

Do I Own the License to the Photo, or my Client Does?


Depends: who bought the image? Royalty Free license grants usage rights to the person who purchased the license, and only to that person. Most agencies coincide at this point.

If you made the purchase, then you own the photo. As said above, you can still use it in a design for a paying client. The client might own the specific design they paid for, but they do not own the image in it.

Learn more about Royalty Free license and images here.

Do you work as part of a design team? If so, individual stock photo accounts won't cut it for you, but you can find all you need to know about the team accounts, including legal details and best offers, in our Multi-user stock photo subscriptions breakdown.

Can I Transfer the Image to my Client?

No, you cannot. At least at most stock photo agencies, Royalty Free images are untransferable. This means the license stays always with whom acquired it. You cannot in any way transfer the ownership of the license. 

If you are the one who licensed the image, it's yours to use forever (under Royalty Free terms), but only by you. Only the license owner can access, view and work with the images as they are downloaded. When you use a stock photo you own in a design for a client, what they might own — depending on your contract terms — is the copyright or the usage rights to the design, but not to the image itself.

What if my Client Wants to Own the Image?


Here the easiest way would be for your client to buy the image and forward it to you to work with it. At most agencies, this is possible, as long as you delete the image once the work is done, and of course, you are not allowed to use it ever again (as you don't own the license).

But other agencies do not allow to give any third party access to the downloaded image as is (nevertheless a lot of people do it that way). This means your client cannot forward you the image they bought just as it is.

There are two solutions for when a client wants to own the license to an image used in a design for them, and the agency doesn't let you work with it if you don't have a license too:

  1. The two of you buy a license. You can suggest your client that both of you buy a license to the same image. That way, they'll also own the right to use it. Royalty Free images are very cheap, so although this implies an extra expense, it's still a very affordable solution. This is particularly recommended when designing book or ebook covers, or any other work where the client sees value in retaining usage rights over the image, for future re-use.
  2. Acquire a multi-seat license. This is useful if your clients want to be able to view the licensed images before and during the designing process, or if you work with a designers team. Multi-seat is a type of Extended license, comes at a higher price. It essentially lets you grant access to more users to the same agency account, enabling them to browse and download images. If your client's budget allows it, they can buy a multi-seat license and grant you access to the photos. That way they'll own them, and you'll be able to work with them. Multi-seat license is available at some agencies, but not in all of them. 

What if I Want to Use an Image in Designs I'll Resell on Demand?


This kind of usage is generally restricted in Standard Royalty Free. You can use stock photos in a design you've been hired to create, or in many different designs, you will then offer to end customers.

But if you want to sell many duplicates of the same design, like t-shirts, posters, web templates, etc, you usually need an Extended license.

For a higher price, Extended license gives you the right to use the image in products for resale such as photo calender, mugs, T-Shirt or website templates. Some let you use it in an unlimited number of units, and some restrict the volume of copies. But this is the most common type of Extended license, and it's available at most agencies.

Why is Important to Know Who Owns the Image?


In stock photo licensing, who owns the image is entitled to the usage rights, and equally important, is held responsible for that usage.

When using stock photos in client work, knowing who owns the image will help you clarify relevant issues like:

  • How can your client use the image? If they don't own a license to the image, they can only use it within the design you've created for them and for which they paid. They cannot use the image itself in any other design unless they commission it from you, or they acquire a new license to the image.
  • Who's is responsible for misuses. If you own the photo, you must be sure you're using it in the right way, but you must make sure your client know the restrictions applied to them.

Always mindfully read the particular License Agreement, paying attention to the fine print and making sure you understand all the terms. It's this what will help you rest assured that you and your client are using the images in a legal and accepted way.

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Amos Struck

Amos Struck

I am a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. I focus on providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry. I am the founder and editor of Stock Photo Press, one of the largest networks of online magazines in the industry. I am the founder of Microstock Expo, the only conference dedicated to the microstock segment. I created several software solutions in stock photography like WordPress plugins. Plus I am a recurrent speaker at Photokina Official Stage, and an industry consultant at StockPhotoInsight. I am passionate about technology, marketing and visual imagery.

  1. Hi – how do you prove to a client that the image is properly licensed?

    • By sharing the license agreement of the stock agency you bought it at and maybe also show your proof of purchase. I hope that helps. Also make sure that your client understand how he can use the image or design you have created for him based on the stock photo.

  2. Your articles are great! So glad I found some comprehensive information on this topic.

    So, in a case where I design a book cover for a client that includes a stock image that is licensed to me, would they be able to then print off however many copies of that design? I realize I’d have to read the agreement that is particular to the company I’m going through. But, is there anything in particular I should look for in terms of type of license for this scenario?

    Thanks very much!

    • Hi Amy, I can only answer this for my own stock agency. Yes your client would be able to print it if you supply a final design and not just the “raw” stock photo to him. Of course the licesee agreement of the stock agency where you bought the photo applies here i.e. 500.000 print run (copies) for most stock agencies. Otherwise you would need an extended license. I hope that helps. Always check with the agency you have bought from.

  3. Hi, I am a website developer and my clients sometimes find a photo on Google or Pinterest they want to use on their website (e.g in an article). I have subscriptions on some stock photo sites. Can I license these images and use them on the client’s site? How can I prove that these are licensed photos and not just downloaded from Google? What is the proper way of attribution in case of paid and licensed stock photos? How can I prove that I paid for a stock photo after I cancel my subscription? Can intro images of articles be considered part of the design?

    • So you got a lot of questions and concerns. Let me try to help you and keep in mind our answers are not legally binding nor can I answer in the name of any stock agency. Also keep in mind some license terms of stock agencies might not include all of what I recommend. Here are my answers:

      Can I license these images and use them on the client’s site? With most stock agencies you can use the downloaded images in your account for client work. Usually they require that the client knows that he do not own the license himself and can only used the image in the design you have provided. You can not just download and give him the original image to be used everywhere without question.

      How can I prove that these are licensed photos and not just downloaded from Google?
      Simply keep the records from the stock agency where and when you have downloaded what image. Some stock agencies also give you a license certificate. Same like if you buy in a shop, keep the bill to proof that you have not shoplifted.

      What is the proper way of attribution in the case of paid and licensed stock photos?
      Check the license agreement where you downloaded images from. Usually, for commercial work (i.e. ads, flyers, etc.) no contribution is needed. On editorial work i.e. websites, blogs, managzines, books most agencies require some mentioning of the image source. The requirements are different here.

      How can I prove that I paid for a stock photo after I cancel my subscription? Simply keep a record of the images downloaded from the stock agency (make a screenshot if you need additional proof).

      Can intro images of articles be considered part of the design? What type of articles? You can not just use any article images from any brank and incorporate this into your design.

      I also recommend to know answers to all these questions before you start your own design studio. It can get you into trouble later if you don’t do them correct from the start on.

  4. Can I use a stock photo for which I have a standard license to design for multiple independent clients?

    • Hi there, thank you for your question. This all depends on the license of the image and where you have bought the license from. Some stock agencies like Adobe Stock are requesting to license the image again for every client. Here is a quote from their license agreement: “You must purchase additional licenses for the same Work if you intend to use the same Work for the benefit of other clients”. Keep in mind that my comment is not a legal advice – always check with a lawyer and with your stock photo supplier. This also might apply only to some stock agency suppliers. Some other stock agencies might allow the usage of the same licensed image for different clients.

  5. Amos,
    Great post… super helpful. Followup Question for ya:

    You mention to other commenters that they should keep screenshots of the license agreements, etc., but…. do you have or know of a good system for managing these “receipts” something more in the way of a master manifest of stock images/licenses?

    Thinking more of an agency that designs, builds, and maintains hundreds of sites.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Mac, thank you for your question. I honestly wouldn’t put too many thoughts into this. Yes, you can create a screenshot of their license agreement at the time of your download. Or simply create a PDF from it. But honestly what would be the benefits of it compared to the additional work it creates? The stock agency will have a record of your download (and usually also keep it) and can always tell you exactly the license (version) you have got with your download.

      What are your concerns or why do you think you should store it additionally? What are you worried about?

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