Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Behind the Books: Finding Photos for Nonfiction Books

In many cases, nonfiction authors are responsible for the photos as well as the words in their books. This means finding the images, securing the rights to use them, and paying any associated fees. Since this process can seem daunting to people doing it for the first time, today I’m turning over my blog to award-winning author Sarah Albee for her best advice on photo research.

Sarah, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.

Hey Melissa! Happy to be back. I love talking about image research!

Authors, it can be a shock to learn that you are responsible for your own image research and rights clearance. And—horrors—that you are expected to pay for the pictures, too.

But don’t despair! Finding great, print-quality images that are free or low-cost has gotten easier in the last few years. Plus copyright holders can be quite understanding if you explain that you’re an author with a limited budget.

For some basic tips about photo research, please read this Q & A post intended to help young writers working on reports. If you’re a professional writer with a book contract in hand, here are a few more things you’ll need to know.

In addition to the public domain photo sources listed on the edtechteacher website, here are some that I use a lot as a history writer.
·         Flickr/The Commons
·         Wikimedia Commons
·         The Wellcome Library
·         National Library of Medicine
·         Library of Congress
·         National Archives
·         New York Public Library

When you’re selecting images for a book, remember that they need to be print-quality, or of a high-enough resolution that they will look good when published.

To determine if an image is print-quality, check the file size. For instance, here are some images of Marie Curie from Wikimedia Commons.
This image is just 15 KB (kilobytes). In print, an image with such a small file size would look pixelated, so it’s not a good choice.

This image is 3.19 megabytes. It’s a much larger file, which means it contains more detail and would probably look just fine on a printed page.

If in doubt, your publisher’s art department can help you figure out if an image is high enough in quality for printing.

What if you find the perfect public domain image, but it’s not print-quality? You may be able to find a high-resolution version through a museum or image house, though you’ll probably have to pay a usage fee (even if the image is in the public domain).

Some image houses, also called stock houses, charge fairly reasonable usage fees. Others are more expensive. The upside is that all stock house images come with the assurance that rights are cleared and the quality will be high.

Most image houses will negotiate with authors once they learn you’re paying for the images yourself. Here are some image houses I’ve used a lot.
·      Shutterstock
·         Granger
·         Mary Evans
·         Bridgeman
·         Getty
Of these, Getty is most expensive, but sometimes you don’t have a lot of flexibility when you need that perfect picture.

Once you know what images you want to order, be prepared to give a stock house this info:
·         Size of the image (ie ¼ page, ½ page, etc.)
·         Black and white or color
·         Print run of your book (you probably have to estimate this)
·         Cover or interior page
·         Language(s) the book be published in
·         Countries where it will be distributed
·         Do you need e-rights?

I recommend clearing all-world, all-languages, e-rights from the get-go. It can be more expensive, but it means you won’t have to go back to all your image sources if your book gets sold in a foreign country. 

Library of Congress
Sometimes you can find your own, original images. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. has a super-cool machine that takes print-quality photos of an open book. (Other big libraries may have this technology, but I love that LOC lets researchers do it themselves!)
Recently, I spent a day in the New York Public Library’s microfilm room, learning to brighten/sharpen images from old newspapers and save them to a thumb drive as PDFs that are of good enough quality to use in a book.

Need a specific image? Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. I’ve written to photographers and requested permission to use their images, and they’ve almost always said yes. A few asked for a small fee. Others requested a copy of the published book.

I know I’ve thrown a lot of information at you, but there’s one more thing that I think it’s important to say: image research is really, really fun. It’s one of my favorite stages of working on a book!

Disclaimer: I am not a copyright attorney. Copyright law is full of ambiguity. The information I’ve shared is what I believe to be correct. Please feel free to comment if you see something that you think is inaccurate.


  1. I had already saved the Q & A to use as a resource for me (a writer). Thank you for all of this information. Excellent!

  2. Sarah, Thanks for this helpful information! One question: you said "Sometimes you can find your own, original images. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. has a super-cool machine that takes print-quality photos of an open book." Could you give an example of when you might do this and how you'd use a photo of an open book? Thanks!

    1. Hi Sara--in this instance, I went through some bound periodicals and found some really cool old advertisements for patent medicines (for my upcoming book about Poison). And for my last book, about fashion, I found some great ads for mourning wear in old Vogues!

    2. I'll bet those really added to the content of your book. Thanks again for sharing!

  3. Thanks for the info, Sarah. Can you comment on the range of prices you've encountered for photo usage?

    1. Hi Ann--I assume you mean from image/stock photo houses? They range from about $75 to as high as $500, but mostly in the $100 - $150 range. The most I ever spent was $800, but it was a REALLY COOL picture and I decided it was worth it...

  4. Awesome info to know. Thank you so much! I'm bookmarking this.

  5. Very helpful information, and perfectly on point, in my experience. Thanks, Sarah and Melissa! 😀

  6. Wonderful post! I have lots of experience finding Marie Curie images/resources, as my book about her just came out last November. :) But, as a first time author the whole process felt overwhelming in the beginning. I just kept telling myself to handle one image at the time--kind of like the 'eat the elephant one bite at a time' deal. I did end up using several of the sources you listed, but some are new to me. The information you've given in this post is SO helpful. I'm pinning the link, so I can refer back to it as I'm writing my current book about Tesla. I still have so much to learn, so this is awesome!

  7. Appreciate your generous sharing--sites and sizes. Very helpful for future research!

  8. Thank you so much...coming late to this party, but your info is ultra helpful!