The web is overflown with info about the many ways you can use royalty-free images: from marketing and materials to social media and blogging and everything in between. But does that mean stock photos are good for literally everything?
No, it does not. While stock photography is very flexible and versatile, there are a few no-nos in how you can use them that is important to know and avoid, be it in commercial projects or for editorial purposes.
Today we’ll talk about what NOT to do with stock photos under a standard use license, what the “sensitive use” clause entails, and what are the legal risks of ignoring it, to help you understand why some uses are out of the question and make sure you’re not getting yourself in hot waters license-wise.
As a bonus, we will also tell you where can you buy commercial use licenses that let you use stock images in ways other agencies don’t permit, so don’t miss it!
But to find images that you can use even in sensitive-topic content, go to:
You can use these safely because they are, well, not real people, and so you're not hurting anyone's sensitivity by using their likeness.
Right now, you can get lifetime access to Generated Photos for a small fraction of the regular price, so there's no better time than now to try it out!
Sensitive Use: Respecting Author’s Work and Models’ Likeness
When you read a stock photo agency’s Standard Royalty Free license agreement –such as the Shutterstock License that we explained in detail here but also the licenses from iStock or Adobe Stock, or even the Canva Pro license we broke down here--, you’ll find a “Sensitive Use Clause” somewhere in the contract. What does this mean?
Who Are Protected by Sensitive Use Restrictions
The main reason for Sensitive Use terms is to prevent legal risks. While fair use –which a reasonable person with common sense should recognise– is expected, stock photo sites cannot leave room for any of the participants in a stock photograph to feel insulted or negatively affected by how their work is used, because that could result in a visit to court. And who are these participants?
This translates into several topics that due to their negative or morally questionable nature, are completely forbidden with a commercial license (and mostly apply to editorial images too), and some others that require express approval by the author and/or agency.
It goes without saying knowing what these specific not-accepted topics are is mandatory to ensure you’re using stock photos the right way and staying as far away from legal woes as possible.
So, let’s go over them together.
Consumption of Alcohol and Tobacco
While moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages is socially acceptable for the most part, there are several communities and individuals worldwide that disapprove, frown upon or even condemn drinking alcohol. More importantly, topics like underage drinking, alcoholism and other health issues derivated from consuming alcohol are all very sensitive, socially speaking.
Smoking tobacco is legal, but just like with alcohol it is mostly rejected socially due to the well-known negative effects on health not only for the smoker but for those around them. Making it another sensitive subject.
As it’s impossible to know if models and photographers would agree with their work being linked to a beer fest flyer or a new cigarette brand ad, agencies tend to ban these themes.
Illegal Drugs and Addictions
The abuse of drugs and its harrowing effects on the consumer and their close circle are as serious as sensitive for many. While most visual content on this subject tends to be about creating awareness and condemning drug use, it’s still murky waters for stock photography.
The risk of offending or hurting people’s sensibility, be them the audience, models or photographers, is there. Many models won't want to be associated with these matters even if it's just for illustrative purpose in an awareness campaign. That’s why most companies prefer to avoid this use altogether.
Crime, Violence and Illegal Activities
Stock photo agencies do not want to be linked to anything illegal. Endorsement or encouragement of violence, crime and any other illegal activities is out of the question, and just like with the immediately above point, even content of editorial use that seeks to repudiate these actions is best avoided.
This restriction includes all kind of hate speeches like racism and discrimination, too. Stock content cannot be used in connection with any of these subjects.
Sexual and Adult Content
As everyone’s moral compass regarding this subject can have different calibration, it’s considered sensitive use per se. A large majority of models posing for stock photography are not interested in ever being involved in the adult industry, and in fact, consider such involvement would hurt any prospects of career progression. A lot of models are very concerned with forbidding the use of their likeness in adult-related visuals when they sign model releases, so it’s almost impossible to find stock photos that are ok to use this way.
Severe Medical Conditions
Medical stock images are a thing, and even disability images is a category in its own right. But when it comes to certain medical conditions, some of the topics might fall under the sensitive use spectrum.
We are talking about STDs, mental health issues and other diseases that have a social perception component and that some might not want to be related. To use images from a stock photo site like any from that list this could be a problem sometimes.
Religion and Politics
These topics are considered sensitive use because there are pretty much as many opinions and stands on the matter as there are people in the world, and it’s such a personal and close-to-heart that sensibilities can easily be touched and the models, photographers and agencies can easily get associated to the ideas represented in visuals using their photos, and that's a problem.
See, a model who hates the colour green might find her image used in an ad that sells green as the season's trendiest colour, and she'll find it “meh”, maybe even funny. But if she's a passionate left-winger and discovers her face in a leaflet endorsing a right-wing candidate, she might have some stronger feelings and even be motivated to pursue legal compensation.
For this, many stock photo providers consider it a no-go.
Photos for Sensitive Use: Do They Exist? Where Do I Find Them?
So, what if you happen to need stock photos for precisely one of the themes we listed above? Well, Extended License is still governed by sensitive use restrictions so… Are you doomed? Is custom photography your only hope? No! Of course not! Stock photography has many solutions available for nearly every problem and this isn’t the exception.
You can actually find agencies that have an option to license images for sensitive use, albeit at a higher price point or with some little extra work. Here are the ones we recommend!
Photocase: 3 Ways for Sensitive Use Approved Images
Photocase is a German stock photo agency that excels for over a decade in the now-trendy niche of artsy, unique stock photography. The standard license agreement is very complete for commercial purposes, yet it limits sensitive use like most other companies. But there are different ways around this, provided by the company:
#1. Sensitive Use Filter
The advanced Photocase search engine includes a series of filters to trim down your image results, and one of them is a Sensitive Use filter, an unfolding menu with options for sensitive topics you can select, to find images that have been cleared to use that way, without further authorization required.
#2. Sensitive Use Enabled by the Photographer
In Photocase, all contributors can define which use permissions to grant for their images. And all buyers can easily see this information in the “details” tab included on every image page. So you can simply click on this tab to see which topics the artist has approved before you download.
#3. Sensitive Use Upon Request
Finally, if the image you like doesn't have sensitive use approval information, you can request approval by contacting the agency directly. All you have to do is write an email including the image ID number and/or link, and a short and precise description of the sensitive use you have in mind, and send it to [email protected]
Find out more about their collections in our Photocase Review!
And don’t hesitate to use our cool Photocase Coupon Code for 5 free credits and 10% off your first purchase!
Shutterstock: Shutterstock Premier License
Shutterstock is one of the largest and most popular stock photo agencies in the world. While their Standard license is very flexible and convenient, it does include Sensitive Use clauses. However, they also have Shutterstock Premier service, a tailored solution for businesses that includes multi-seat access, batch downloading, personalized search and, most importantly, the Shutterstock Premier custom license that boosts up the standard agreement by enabling sensitive use and increasing indemnification for images in-use, among other additions!
You can learn it all in our Shutterstock Premier cover article!
Use Stock Photos Safely! Get the Proper License for your Needs
We hope to have cleared up what are the cases where you cannot use stock photos and to help you understand why it is so.
Knowing more about sensitive use and the reasons behind is very useful for visual content creation using stock media. Because now you can always go back to these principles whenever in doubt about whether a Standard License will cover you or not.
Equally important you now have two great, premium resources to download stock images that you can use in sensitive-use projects!
Did you know about the sensitive use of stock photos? We’ll love to hear it from you!