What Not to Do with Stock Photos – Sensitive Use Stock Photos Explained

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! 

No time to read? Then straight to the point! There are several subjects that royalty free stock photo licenses do not cover due to being sensitive topics with the potential to be defamatory for artists and agencies. You must verify before using a licensed image, that your intended use isn't listed in the licensing agreement as sensitive use and thus banned.

But to find images that you can use even in sensitive-topic content, go to:

Generated Photos is another great way to get photos that you can use safely, even on sensitive topics. What they do is provide licensed, AI-generated photos of people, or what is the same, realistic yet fake people photos. You can choose age, gender, ethnicity, and other specifics for the people you want to “create”, too.
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!
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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? 

Sensitive Use clauses prevent you from using a stock image in a defamatory way that puts author, models or the agency under a bad light. This restriction aims at protecting the integrity of the photographer or artist’s work as well as that of the people depicted in the images and ultimately also of the agency itself. 

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?

When you license a copyrighted image, there is a lot more than just the image author's intellectual property rights involved. Model releases and property releases (signed by the models that appear in the photograph and owners of private property portrayed, respectively) are needed too. But due to the nature of stock imagery, none of the three actors knows how the photos will be used in the end. It's them who Sensitive Use clauses protect.

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. 

And what about free stock photos? Well, licenses for free use tend to be more relaxed, especially the uber-flexible ones like Creative Commons Zero or directly the Public Domain. But that is no guarantee the same conflicts about usage won't arise, all the more if you're using said imagery for commercial purpose.

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

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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

photocase sensitive use filter > What Not to Do with Stock Photos - Sensitive Use Stock Photos Explained

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

photocase sensitive use info > What Not to Do with Stock Photos - Sensitive Use Stock Photos Explained

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 info@photocase.com

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 logo new offer > What Not to Do with Stock Photos - Sensitive Use Stock Photos Explained

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! 

And sign up for Shutterstock Premier membership right here!

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!

Ivanna Attié
Ivanna Attié

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in StockPhotoSecrets.com and Stock Photo Press and its many stock media-oriented publications. I am a passionate communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Lucky enough to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, I am happy to share my research, insights, and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers, and the stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

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