Photo copyrights can be a tricky thing, and as a general rule, you want to make sure that images you will be using have been obtained lawfully.

This typically means you want to go through reputable vendors and if you are in doubt, consider finding another photo or doing quite a bit of research to make sure that you can use what you have found.

One distinction you need to be aware of is the differences between an Editorial Stock photo and a Commercial use photo and why you can’t use editorial stock photos for commercial use.

Let’s talk about their differences, how they are appropriately used, and why you want to avoid improper usage.

Disclosure: I’m not a copyright attorney, and the following is not legal advice. Seek out an attorney for any and all legal questions and matters.

What is the difference between Editorial and Commercial use photos?

The most significant difference, of course, is in the rules of use. Editorial use photos cannot be used to promote a service or a product, but they can be used for things like journalism or educational purposes.

These photos may have celebrities in them or company logos, and these are big no-nos to begin with. Using them in something like a movie poster would definitely get you sued.

Commercial use photos, by contrast, tend to be more generalized. A specific shot of the ocean or sunset might be considered a commercial use photo that could be used to create an advertisement or to provide a little background in a poster.

Another topic very similar to Editorial use is Copyright, and we go really deep on that topic with these articles, which we highly recommend.

  1. This Is How To Sell Fan Art Legally & Illegally
  2. Is NFT Art Protected by Copyright law?

If people are in the photos, then these folks have generally signed releases so that these photos may be bought and reused in different ways.

Let’s break down some of the differences in a little more detail just to be sure we are clear on this. Understanding the fundamental differences of these photo types is paramount so let’s expand the definitions of each type just a bit more with examples.

Happy Family
Example of a non-editorial commercial use stock photo from

Commercial use photo properties and examples of their proper use

One of the traits you’ll notice about commercial use photos is that they look staged. You might see emotions such as surprise or sadness, but everything in the photo just seems to be perfectly arranged.

These photos won’t be reflecting a specific date and event, with the exception of recreations of famous events in some cases.

Simply put, no surprised-looking celebrities, no company logos, and the people you see might seem familiar, but only because they’ve modeled for a lot of photos like this. Commercial use photos of this sort are offered by sites such as Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, or Getty Images. 

An example of proper usage in a movie poster might be in initially creating its look. An artist might have a time crunch, and so they use a commercial sea photo showing a shark fin with an unmarked boat nearby as a means of conveying an idea conceptually before the final design.

Then if the marketing team likes the “shark fin in the water” idea, the rights to the photos or a license are purchased and can now be used commercially.

If you are into art and design with an emphasis on movie posters, you will want to check out our YouTube channel here.

Editorial use photo properties and examples of their proper use

Editorial use photos are quite different. They might depict tragedies, such as a car crash, or simply be pictures of public figures like celebrities or politicians. You might see someone drinking Coca-Cola (and you can bet that Coca-Cola has a say in where their logo is displayed).

These are definitely not for use in advertising or editing into another scene.

Properly used Editorial use photos don’t make it into things like posters, but you see them in newspapers and on news websites, or in education tomes all the time.

Usually, they are going to have captions indicating the date that they were taken and a description of where and when the photo you are viewing took place.  

Example of a non-editorial commercial use stock photo from

What happens if you use an Editorial stock photo and how to avoid it

If you use an Editorial-licensed photo, even if it comes highly edited or you’ve made a number of changes to it yourself, then you risk not only your reputation but also the kind of lawsuits that can land you in the poorhouse quickly.

In general, a good rule is that if you are not 100% certain that an image is commercial use, then do NOT use it.

Some stock photo providers allow you to filter Editorial photos from your searches, and if you have that option, we highly recommend that you use it.

Don’t worry; with practice, you’ll be able to spot them at a glance, but you want to be very careful getting there. If you don’t trust the provider, then don’t risk your good name (and good bank account, either!).

Some last words on the subject

Now that you know the main differences between Editorial stock photos and Commercial use photos, you should have a better idea of how to take advantage of the photos whose licensing you may purchase.

Just get in the habit of reading that fine print because even those commercial photos can have limitations on usage that you might not have been aware of.

Check your sources, and if the photo comes from a website that you don’t trust, then don’t incorporate it into your work.

Some of the standard commercial stock photography and editorial photography websites used in the movie poster business are:

  1. Shutterstock
  2. Getty Images
  3. Adobe Stock

My recommended stock photography website for personal projects and when working on non-movie poster commercial projects is Envato because they have a yearly subscription at one low price.

Either way, be sure you have commercially licensed photography and assets when working on commercial projects. It’s not worth it to rip off or use improper assets!