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The Difference Between Commercial and Editorial Use

Digital Marketing

In our previous post about imagery in the past called, Best Practices for Blog Imagery, we learned about successfully using imagery to convey a message in your blogs and where to find such photos. Now we’ll quickly go over the basics behind licensed stock photos that are categorized as either commercial or editorial use only.

Understanding the difference between the two when you come across these terms can protect you from misusing licences and respect the art being published and shared by photographers. Images labeled as “editorial use only” have more specific rules and regulations associated with using them.

What is the difference between an image labelled as commercial and editorial use?

Commercial Use

Images can be used for promotional and advertising purposes and generally have less restrictions. This means that these images will be involved in a profit potentially being made by the user. These photos will have model releases and are typically staged, meaning the model in the photo has given consent and signed an agreement.

Editorial Use

Photo on shutterstock labelled as editorial use only
An example of a photo on shutterstock labeled as editorial use only.

Images marked as editorial use only involve documentation of a newsworthy story or event, and can be used for education. An editorial image is limited to non-commercial uses meaning they cannot be used 
to advertise or promote a product or service. They can contain logos, business names and recognizable people without model releases.

How to properly use editorial images

1. Remain truthful

Excessive creative edits or filters are strictly prohibited. This will protect the authenticity and credibility behind what is being photographed. Slight changes such as lighting adjustments are permitted.

2. Editorial caption

This includes using the correct keywords that reference what is being presented in the photo. Have a proper editorial caption including location, date, and a factual description of the event, preferably in this format: CITY, COUNTRY – DATE: Description of scene.

The integrity behind these photos is important; they must be accurately described with direct references to subjects and places in the photo rather than vague captions.

3. Where editorial images can be used

  • Illustrate news, commentary, or opinion in newspaper or magazine articles
  • Blog or website posts (educational and descriptive purposes)
  • Non-commercial multimedia presentations, such as film
  • Textbooks
  • Documentaries

Final Comparison

Commercial Use Photos

The difference between commercial and editorial use. An example of an image from shutterstuck labelled as free for commercial use with a shutterstock license
  • Have model release forms
  • Typically staged setting
  • Do not refer to a specific event and date
  • Images can be used for promotional and advertising purposes

Editorial Use

The difference between commercial and editorial use. Here is an example of an editorial use only image by Darren Brode.
DETROIT – JANUARY 15 : Spokesmodels unveil the new Acura NSX Concept II at The North American International Auto Show January 15, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan.
  • Not to be used for commercial use and marketing profit
  • Do not have model signed release forms
  • Spontaneous; not staged
  • Include places, events, trademarks, or people that have not given consent
  • Include notable events

So the next time you’re choosing photos for a campaign or post, consider your usage rights and keep in mind the difference between commercial and editorial uses.

12 Replies to “The Difference Between Commercial and Editorial Use”

    1. Hi Angel, Editorial images still fall under copyright so depending on the context that the image will be used, it is possible for a company to use a particular photo. Best to check the usage rights of the image you are looking to use. Hope that helps!

  1. This is a great post. I was wondering as a model can I use copyright photos in my E-book to show the type of modeling I have done? I plan to see the E-book but I will not use those photos as part of advertising the book.

    Thank you

    1. Hi Sabrina!

      It sounds like you are looking to use photos for your modeling portfolio. Best to check with the photographer for usage rights or policy from your modeling agency.

  2. Aloha! Great information. Can you please help me with this question. Can I take a editorial picture and teach home cooks how to cook the persons favorite food mentioning the persons name? Would that be considered educational? No commercials or product promotions of any kind. Just cooking that persons favorite food. I truly appreciate your time and this article.

    1. Hi Luis,
      It sounds like editorial photos might be a good fit for your use, given that proper photo credits are attributed. It is best to check the rights of any particular editorial photo to ensure your content falls within the rights.

  3. Thank you for your post. Wondering if you could help me with this question: Am I able to use a photo that I took of a front page newspaper article (mainly the headline) in my educational documentary?

    1. Hi Olga,
      Depending on what country your film will be produced in, educational uses might fall under fair use. From the sound of your situation, if the photo of the newspaper is clearly a photo and not a scan, it should not be of issue to use in your documentary.
      Hope that helps!

  4. If I was to use the free Adobe Creative images as a cover image for a journal, notepad etc. is this commercial or editorial?

  5. Thanks for the post. If I took a selfie with a celebrity, is it ok to use the photo inside of a book I’m self publishing?

    1. Hi Johnny, great question! Since you are the individual that took the photo, you own it so you have the rights to it. It will then be safe to use in the book you are self-publishing. Hope this helps!


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