Shutterstock and other Stock Photo Collections

Background image licensed through

Background image licensed through You may not reuse, share, or download this image to your computer. If you wish to use this image, visit Shutterstock and license the image through them. 🙂


If you design book covers, or even if you need images for the interior of the book, you either need to:

  • make your own images (illustrations or photographs)
  • find stock images to use
  • hire an artist to make images for you

If you make your own images, you can potentially customize your cover exactly as you want it… with the limitation of your ability to draw illustrations, take photographs, and use image-editing software. There is an art to photography, e.g. eliminating red-eye, getting the lighting and shadows just right, capturing the right facial expression, etc. It’s not as simple as it might seem.

If you hire an artist, you still need to question where the images come from. If the artist is using stock photos, for example, you want to know that they are properly licensed.

If you find your own stock images, here is what this entails:

  • other books may be using the same images (some very popular images appear on many self-published covers)
  • you still need to be able to incorporate them into a good design (it shouldn’t look like a simple cut-and-paste or a bulletin board layout, beware that filters may do more harm than good, multiple images must work well together, you have to find the ‘right’ image, and the font is important, too)
  • take time to search thoroughly; try various keywords and keyword phrases to help filter the results
  • a large image may work well by simply adding text, but then another cover that uses the same image will look very similar to yours; combining multiple images gives you a better chance for a unique design (even if the image is used on another book, the layout may be different), but it’s more challenging to combine separate images well
  • you need to read the licensing agreement thoroughly and carefully so that you understand the restrictions (you need stock photos that may be used for commercial purposes, specifically for e-books or print-on-demand books if you self-publish)
  • check the DPI of the image (300 DPI is desired; 96 or 72 DPI is likely to appear noticeably blurry and pixelated); also check the overall pixel dimensions for an e-book (and compare with your target screen size) and the size in inches for a print book (if you must enlarge the image for your intended use, that will greatly lower the resolution)
  • if you need just the central image, life will be simpler if the background is plain white; you need some photo-editing skills to remove an image from a background, especially a complicated background (well, all you really need to do is Google how to do this in PhotoShop and follow the instructions)

Don’t just use any image that you find on the internet; it’s probably protected by image use guidelines. Also, most of what you find on websites has very limited resolution (under 100 DPI).

What you really want is to find a collection of stock photos, which clearly spells out the licensing agreement so that you know if you can (or can’t) use the image for your intended purpose.

There are free stock photo collections, but you may be more likely to find quality images that fit your needs well with high enough resolution from low-cost stock image providers.

A couple of popular sites include Shutterstock and iStockphoto, but you can find more via Google.

Here are a few examples of relevant notes in licensing agreements. The numbers below correspond to Shutterstock’s licensing agreement (but you should read the actual and complete terms on any stock image provider’s website before using their images):

  • 2.b. In e-books and print-on-demand books. (Though if it’s primarily a photo book consisting of stock photos, one of the restrictions may apply.)
  • 2.b. Up to 250,000 reproductions. (If you’re planning to sell more books, you can consider the extended license, or maybe you can afford a custom cover from a top designer.)
  • You can use images on a website according to 2.a., but the use appears to be restricted in 6, 7, 8, and 10. For example, if you simply put the image as-is on your website, others would be able to download and use the image without paying for it (and you can be sure the company wants to prevent this possibility).

Most of the stock photo companies wish to prevent cover designers from displaying pre-made covers using their stock photos. Their fear is that some designers may then sell the same covers to multiple authors. Read the restrictions carefully. It may also be wise to contact the company for a written decision on the matter.

Be sure to read all of the restrictions to see if any apply to you. (I’m not an attorney and I can’t offer legal advice. If you wish to seek legal advice, consult with an attorney.)

I’ve been using ShutterStock recently. The images I’ve been browsing through are amazing. They often have 50 to 200 pages of the images that I’m searching for, and all of the images are impressive. Still, it takes careful and thorough searching to find the right image to meet your needs.

At ShutterStock, for example, you can either buy images on demand or sign up for a subscription. Buying 5 images for $49 works out to a reasonable cost (about $10 per image). You have 365 days to download all 5 images (note that you also need to use the image within 1 year of downloading it). Thus, it’s very easy to design a cover for under $100; it can be as little as $9.80 if you only need one image. Choose your images wisely. (And make sure that you don’t have the brand of the stock photo supplier on your image; if so, you either didn’t pay for the standard license for that image or you didn’t download the image properly.)


If you plan to use stock photos, the following article has some very handy tips, like how to find out if the same image is available cheaper from another site.

Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
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