Photo by Adrian on Unsplash

Photo by Adrian on

The Digital Charity Lab 5 Minute Guides are intended to give you the basics on a particular digital platform or project. They are collaborative documents and we welcome your feedback and further suggestions in the comments.

The Importance of Photography

I doubt many of us would question how important strong photography is in communicating the messages of causes and charities.  Social media is overwhelmingly visual now. People connect with images of other people. And for many non-profits where privacy of beneficiaries is paramount, appropriate photography needs to be found that can stand in, to effectively communicate need and impact.

A Note About Hiring (& Paying) Photographers

I’ve often heard non-profits rule out hiring photographers on the grounds of budget, but you should really consider whether it’s a false economy.

Photography is a hugely valuable skill, particularly in terms of photographing people – it’s not at all easy to get people to relax when they have a camera pointed at them.  If you build a relationship with a good photographer, they will develop a deep understanding of your brand and messaging, and help to build a bank of photos that your organisation can use for a long time.

Photography is a skill that is increasingly undervalued, as everyone thinks (wrongly) that they can do it themselves with Instagram filters. A talented photographer will take interesting photos that represent your work well, edit and retouch them where necessary, provide versions that you can use, add all the metadata that is needed for sending them to media, and sometimes deal with the media as well.  Paying a professional photographer is a good use of budget.

It won’t be appropriate to use photographers for every project that you need a visual for, however, so that’s where you need to start searching online for images.

Just in Case – You Know You Can’t Just Take Photos from Google Images, Right?

You’d be surprised how many people don’t know this. Just because pictures are on the internet, it doesn’t mean that anyone has permission to reuse them. Use reputable image sources, and make sure that you always follow the terms set by the image owner (i.e., credit the photographer as a minimum).

Using Stock Imagery

There are lots of excellent free and cheap stock images available on the internet, but using stock imagery comes with a few risks:


Stock images of people are often mocked, and rightly so, for being cheesy, cliched and contrived. Some are so staged and polished that the people in them only vaguely resemble real humans.  They may work if you’re selling aspirational cruise holidays, but are rarely appropriate for non-profits.


Copyright is not consistent across or even within stock sites; there are some pictures that you can use in perpetuity for a fee, others will have strict restrictions on how they can be used and may set a time limit. Ensure you always check the permissions for each individual image you download or buy, and if you have designers working for you check that they have done so too. If you breach copyright, the photo that you’ve crafted a campaign identity around could get yanked. You could also get sued.


Using stock photos means the face of your campaign or event is very likely to show up as the face of a competitor. There is one particular stock model who is so overexposed that she has become a meme.  So have women laughing alone with salad.

I’ve learned in my time working as a designer for non-profits that stock images are great for certain requirements, but hopeless for others.  Because the main market for stock photos is commercial businesses, it’s quite challenging to find good quality images that portray poverty and need.  Professional stock photographers use professional models, so the free image sites are not as good for finding pictures of people.

With a bit of patience and careful searching through some of the better sites, however, it’s possible to find compelling pictures for a lot of your non-profit projects.

Recommended Free Stock Sites

Site NameProsCons
  • Beautiful professional images
  • Great for landscapes and interiors
  • Their models tend to look like affluent hipsters
Death to Stock
  • Sends out free monthly photo packs
  • Similar to Unsplash – lots of beautiful landscape shots
  • Good pictures of objects
  • Free site is not searchable
Flickr Creative Commons – Flickr photographers who have chosen to share their work
  • Great for gritty pictures
  • Good for authentic people and real interiors
  • Quality is hugely varied – lots of terrible photos
  • Permissions need to be carefully checked
  • Free site with large selection
  • A lot of clip art and weird manipulated photos – can take a while to find the right results
  • Similar to Pixabay
  • A lot of random low-quality snaps
Age-positive image library from the Centre for Ageing Better
  • Free library of positive and realistic images of people aged 50 and over

Recommended Paid Stock Sites

Site NameProsCons
  • New-ish stock site that uses a less cliched approach than many others – some really interesting photos available
  • Run on a co-op model so artists get paid properly
  • Good value
  • Quite a hipster/luxe aesthetic in many of the photos, which isn’t going to work for most non-profits
  • One of the big ones – incorporates the Getty Images collection so huge choice available
  • Photos of people tend to look excessively posed and polished
  • Annoying ‘credit’ system for purchasing photos which means sometimes spending more than you need to
  • Similar to iStock – huge site with massive selection
  • As with iStock, photos can look excessively staged

These are just the sites that I’ve used the most – there are of course many more out there.

Do you have a favourite stock site? Share it in the comments below…


  1. Andy

    I use quite a lot. It’s quite reasonably priced and has a wide variety of images.


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