Perfect pictures: Sourcing photographs for your book

As a professional ghostwriter I am, quite naturally, pretty keen on the word side of things. But, I do have to (perhaps grudgingly) admit a picture is indeed worth 1000 words. Photographs inside a work of non fiction add interest and clarity to what you’ve written, while a powerful image on the cover can boost sales considerably.

However, if you are thinking about self publishing your book, I would advise you to think long and hard about the pictures you use. It is very easy to come unstuck. When it comes to copyright and licensing, photograph use can be a bit of a minefield.

You may feel like the easiest solution is to use something from your own collection. After all, the thinking may go, you are pretty skilled with a camera and your own pictures are certainly unique and personal to you. However, you’ll need to use a decent camera to achieve the right resolution for use on a book cover, or indeed for any pictures used inside. A quick snap on a smart phone is fine for Facebook, but isn’t really suitable for a printed book.

More importantly though, you have to make sure you have been allowed to take (and use) a photo if you are going to use the image for commercial purposes. There are rules about photographing particular buildings, people or places and on what you do with the picture afterwards. The Eiffel Tower, for example, is copyright protected, so you can’t include a moody picture of it at night. Every human subject in your pictures needs to sign a ‘model release’ permitting you to use their image. Think carefully about the permissions you’ll need before scrolling through your collection of snaps.

There are also restrictions on using images you find on the internet. To put it bluntly, you can’t just lift something from Google and put it on your book. There are strong copyright rules around this and people who publish pictures online are quite rightly not afraid to enforce their rights. To clarify: anyone who takes a photo and posts it on the internet has the right to be acknowledged as the creator of that image and can legally decide how and where it is used. Just because an image doesn’t have a watermark, or has no obvious warning, doesn’t mean it is safe to use.

A quick scroll through the ‘advanced image search’ function on Google Images will reveal many photos that are in the public domain and registered as ‘free to use and share’. Be aware though, it is highly likely many other people will have already used these images too. Finding out you have used an identical image to that on another book cover would surely be many times worse than turning up to a party in the same outfit as a mate. All that hard work to create a unique, compelling book will be wasted.

Another option is to use stock photos, which is where a photographer takes a series of generic photos which are designed to appeal to numerous users. There are plenty of stock photography websites, such as Getty Images and Shutterstock, who act like an ‘agent’ for photographers and will sell you a license to use a particular picture. While a stock image does guarantee a decent, professionally taken photo, it doesn’t mean you won’t fall into the same trap as above. Many clients can license the same photo. If you are pubishing a book about, say, vampires, it is not unlikely that other writers in the blood-sucking genre will come across the same image. Before you know it, there’ll be a clutch of vampire clones on the shelves. Not a great outcome for any writer. If you do use a stock image, the best advice is to chose carefully and work closely with your cover designer who will be able to manipulate the image slightly so it is truly unique.

It is also worth knowing that if you or your story has been covered in the media in some way, the newspaper in question may license the image to you. Most newspapers have commercial departments that are set up to do this. The price will vary, depending on where the picture will appear and how many books you intend to print, but it can be a useful way of acquiring a professionally taken photo.

Overall, my inclination would be to work with a professional photographer who will take original pictures, or at least to help you through the potential minefield of sourcing photos you can legally use.

As a rule of thumb when using photos, if you are not sure whether it is OK, it probably isn’t. Don’t take risks that will end up marring what could be the fantastic experience of finally seeing your book in print.