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6 Creative Ways You Need to be Using Stock Photos

Producing a family history book is a big deal. It’s the culmination of years of research, interviews and photo gathering. Consequently, it’s something unique and personal that’s made for family. Your family. Therefore, it’s probably the last place you’d expect to find stock photos, but it’s the perfect situation to use them.

What are stock photos?

The name pretty much says it all. Stock photos are existing images that are available for license to use either one time or repeatedly. These licenses aren’t exclusive-use, so that others may be using them as well. Generally, you’ll find these images in online libraries grouped into one three licensing categories:

  • Rights Managed
    Premium images made available for one use only, generally a specific project (e.g. advertising campaigns). You’ll need to pay another fee if using the same picture for other purposes.
  • Royalty Free
    A one-time payment applies, then there is no limit to using the images in multiple projects.
  • Public Domain / Commercial Commons
    Images where the creator allows free use or the copyright has expired. Licensing usually allows use for either commercial or personal purposes without limitation.

The above descriptions are a general overview only. Be sure always to read the license agreement for any image before you purchase or download it for use.

Why use stock photos?

Photos, like music, are time machines that give us a sneak peek into another era. They have the power to take us to our past as well as give us a preview into someone else’s.

Today we have cameras in our smartphones, which makes it easy to take dozens of photos of everything we do. However, this wasn’t the case for our ancestors. Generally, cameras weren’t as commonplace for them, and photos were expensive to produce. That’s why having a single picture of our ancestors is a treasure, even when it’s blurry and out of focus.

Using stock photos in addition to the family photos you have, adds visual impact to your storytelling. You want to do this because the images connect your reader to the words.

  • Firstly, the images will grab the readers attention.
  • Secondly, the reader connects with the content of the photo.
  • Finally, intrigued by the imagery, the reader commits to learning more of the content.

Another thing to keep in mind is that stock photo libraries are continually popping up online. Many include vintage images, and there are also a couple dedicated to sharing photos from the past.

Creative ways to include stock photos

As well as being eye-catching, pictures also help to break up large blocks of text. In turn, this enables you to create a better reading experience for your audience.

Including stock photos is easy, and there are several ways they can add value to your storytelling. You can include them as page backgrounds as well as to highlight experiences such as:

  • what they wore
  • how they lived
  • jobs they held
  • landmarks and events they witnessed
  • how they travelled

1. Images in the background

An easy way to make your family history stand out is to add full page background images. These are attention-grabbing so pick images that will reproduce well. With this in mind, be creative when it comes to cropping the pictures. For example, zoom in to showcase a specific element or to cut one out.

The first thing to remember is to use contrasting colours, so the text and other elements are easy to see. Then get creative and make adjustments until you are happy with the results.

Wall background by Kelli Tungay from stock photos
Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash
Section Divider example using background image by Kelli Tungay from
Example using the Unsplash image as a background to introduce a chapter
example of a general spread using background image by Karolina Grabowska from Kamboompics
Example using the Kamboompics image as a background for a feature story
Wall background by Raw Pixel from stocks photos
Photo by from Pexels
General family history layout using background image by Raw Pixel from stocks photos
Example using the Pexels image as background image for every page

2. Showcasing fashion then

Fashion is always changing; therefore, it tells us a lot about our ancestors and how they lived. With this in mind, it’s often easy to pick the era of a photo by the clothes people wore. For example, look at pictures from the 1960s, 70s to see how fashion represented those decades.

The good news is that people have long held a fascination with fashion, so stock photos are plentiful. In particular, you can find uniforms, clothing store advertisements or sewing patterns.

Vintage stock photos of three women walking past a newsstand
Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash
Vintage stock photos showing female using factory machine during wartime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Preferably you have photos of your ancestor, but showing examples of what they wore is the next best thing. Uniforms are a great place to start because many jobs and activities have required one.

Some uniform ideas to begin with:

  • Military
  • First Responder (Police, Fire, Ambulance)
  • Nurses
  • School
  • Maids
  • Hotel employees
  • Cinema employees
  • Sporting teams

I’ve also included photos of sewing patterns and fabric to add visual interest to my ancestors’ stories.

3. Notable equipment and tools

Another big difference between our forebears and us is the tools and equipment used in our daily lives. During the past 150 years, things have changed a lot. Some changes have been gradual, but others have taken effect in a shorter timeframe.

Vintage stock photos of kitchen and appliances from USA
Retro kitchen photo from Vintage Stock Photos
Vintage Red Ford convertible being driven on highway
Photo by fotografierende from Pexels

Items such as microwave ovens, mobile phones and every family having a car are now commonplace. But not so for our ancestors only a generation or two back. My Uncle tells a story about growing up and how many families had either a car or land, but not both. That more than a few families relied on a horse and cart to get around.

For this reason, include images of items you are describing. After all, future generations may have no idea what that item is or how to use it.

4. Where they spent their time

Not only is it great to put faces to our ancestors’, but also the places where they spent their time. Sites such as their home, school, and where they worked. As well as transport hubs they used and venues they frequented for social activities (e.g. dance halls, milk bars etc.)

Dome gas service station, Takoma Park, Maryland, USA
Photo from Library of Congress digital collection

In the event that you don’t have photos of all of these in your collection, then stock photos are a great solution. Even if you can’t find a specific location, then a similar image will still illustrate your ancestor’s experience.

5. Memorable local landmarks

Another way to create an impression of your ancestors’ life is by showing the landmarks they witnessed regularly. And they may have seen some the construction of some, or been a participant in that happening. Check out your ancestor’s hometown to find out when the construction of the significant landmarks took place.

Photo from Library of Congress digital collection
Big Ben and Elizabeth's Tower in London, UK
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

With government archives creating online libraries of their photo collections, you’ll have access to more than just the most famous landmarks. For local photos, you may need to go offline and contact the library, newspaper office or historical societies.

6. Maps

In addition to photos, many sites also include a collection of historical maps. When completing Mum’s memory book, I found great resources on the local history site for the area where she grew up. And it’s always worth sending a note to libraries or museums in the region to see what resources they can suggest.

Maps can be used either to support your story or as background images for specific layouts. As an example, if your ancestor moved regularly, then plans can be a great addition to chapter dividers to document their travels.

Adding value to your family history book

As shown above, not having an extensive library of family photos equal a text-only family history. With the increasing number of free stock photo libraries and public domain images, it’s never been easier to add value with pictures.

You will need to invest some time searching through libraries to find the best images, but it’s worth the effort. Be sure when using stock photos always:

  • Check the copyright license and snag a copy (e.g. screenshot or download) for your records.
  • Be clear in the caption what the photo is (e.g. Canning equipment similar to what Grandma B would have used) 
  • Credit all photography. It can be via a caption on the photo or use footnotes to add it to the end of the page or book. Even if the license doesn’t require it, it’s still a good thing to do.

Finally, don’t forget to include offline resources in your searches as well.

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