A picture editor’s guide to finding unique photographs
Little-known image libraries are the secret to finding fresh and original shots, some of which have never been published before

Brands are producing digital magazines to connect with their audiences, stand out online and differentiate themselves from the competition. Great photography is crucial but commissioning a photographer for every story is not usually practical or affordable. Consequently there is soaring demand for good stock images with the result that many are already over-used.

Stock photos are existing images that can be licensed for a fee or are free. Some are so staged they have become a joke: models in business suits gathered round a laptop looking a bit too happy. Every picture editor loathes these shots because they are generic but how to find original pictures that will grab people and draw them in?

Lotte is a Picture Editor who has worked at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard and The Age in Australia.

Photos: Banner Image: Kristina Flour on Unsplash; Kodachrome Transparencies: Jason Leung on Unsplash

Big Stock Agencies

The obvious places to start are the big mainstream picture agencies – Getty, Alamy, Rex, Shutterstock and Camera Press. For editorial use, picture editors usually opt for royalty free licenses because they are affordable (a one-use fee). Prices vary depending on circulation, distribution, size of image and the agency but it is usually possible find a good shot for around £150.

Smaller Stock Agencies

Picture editors also use smaller, specialist stock agencies, such as Gap Photos for garden and plant photography, Robert Harding World Imagery for travel and nature, Lickerish and Loupe Images for lifestyle, Millennium Images for contemporary photography, Science Photo Library for science and medicine, Stock Food for food photography, Trevellion for creative images and Stocktrek Images for astronomy, dinosaurs, medical, military, ocean life and sci-fi(!)

Free Stock Agencies

Alternatively, the newer free stock libraries, such as Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay and Skitterphoto can be a good bet but photographers share their photos on these platforms for free to get visibility for their work so remember to credit them.

However, the real secret to finding unique photos is to avoid stock agencies altogether. Stock can lack spontaneity and emotion, which are vital if you want your readers to connect with the story (and your brand). Here are my go-to libraries for eye-catching and original shots:

Historical Libraries

Historical picture libraries are great especially if you want to root out images that have not been been published before – you can ask archivists to look through prints and negatives and scan them for you.

Mary Evans: A brilliant collection of historical images covering a wide range of topics. It also has a huge and noteworthy cinema stills collection.

Ullstein Bild: One of the most significant contemporary photography collections in Europe. The collection covers a vast expanse of German history.

Sputnik: A vast bank of current and archive Russian images.

Bridgeman: A leading collection of art, culture and history images

Eyevine: A varied collection covering premium celebrity portraits, news, features and entertainment. They also cover some stock and have an extensive collection of historic film stills.

Lebrecht: A comprehensive collection of historical musical performance, artists and cultural activity. The collection is big and the curators are extremely knowledgeable about the collection.

The world’s first selfie: taken in 1839 by Robert Cornelius, an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast from Philadelphia. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS via THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW)

Public Domain

There are also some picture libraries dedicated to historical public domain photos. The British Library released one million images into the public domain in 2013. Scanned from the pages of books from the 17th, 18th and 19th century, the collection is hosted on Flickr. The Public Domain Review is a curated selection of public domain photos, illustrations, art, audio, films and texts. It’s particularly good for weird and quirky old images. Viintage has thousands of creative public domain images from the past, including art posters and adverts and Old Book Illustrations is a collection of public domain illustrations scanned from old books.

When using a free public domain image it’s important to double-check the terms of the license to ensure it is free to use in the country you are in (the laws regarding public domain images can be different in different countries) and that the license covers the usage you are planning. If in doubt, call and talk to one of the agents at the library. Every case is unique, things can go wrong and you don’t want to be caught out.

Press Archives

Press archives can be a fantastic resource. The TopFoto archive is made up of millions of original negatives and hardcopy prints from a number of thriving 20th century historic British press agencies from the glory days of Fleet Street (c. 1905 – 1969). They cover a vast range of topics and are usually willing to digitise images. Mirrorpix is one of the largest intact historical and contemporary British photographic press collections. A vast amount of images have not been scanned digitally so it is always worth asking the archivists to look through their prints and negatives. The BBC also has an amazing image library as does The New York Times.

News Agencies

The Press Association, Associated Press, Reuters and the European Press Photo Agency are a great bet for editorial and breaking news shots.

Museums and Galleries

There are many other organisations with extensive collections of photos. The Imperial War Museum archive is particularly well regarded as are the National Army Museum, Natural History Museum, V&A and National Maritime Museum image libraries. However, it does take time and patience to research and order images. The National Trust and Historic England also have great collections.

Reverse Image Searches

Sometimes people find images on Google that they want to use. You can click on the image but the place it is published may well not be its licensable home and it can be a minefield trying to work out where it originated from. The reverse image search engine Tin-Eye is helpful in these instances.

Remember you may need to use different pictures for the thumbnail and main banner image at the top of the piece because a lot of images just don’t work when they are very small. The thumbnail image is really important: it’s the shot that will entice people to click and read the story. Simple and grabby usually works best.

There are millions of images out there. It seems simple at first but you can be bamboozled by so much choice and it takes practice to find the right images.