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How to Choose Book Cover Photos

Ria Fritz is a graphic designer who has designed covers for over 40 novels and novellas, including many science fiction and fantasy novels.

Whether you're writing a novel or a self-help book, your cover is what drives readers to your work. The text of the cover is important, but there's only so much your text can convey.

A good cover design must include compelling images. While this doesn't necessarily include photos or illustrations of your characters, it does need to communicate the tone and genre of your story.

Legal issues can arise if you just grab images from websites without permission. Here's your playbook for sourcing images responsibly and creating a cover that will stand out from the crowd.

Use Multiple Images

First and foremost, plan on using multiple images together in your cover. Using just one image dramatically increases the chances that another author will unintentionally end up with a nearly identical cover.

In fact, websites that sell pre-designed book covers almost always require a combination of two images to be used in a cover, unless original art or photography is used. This is to make sure that authors are actually purchasing a one-of-a-kind cover and not just paying for a resized free image.

Keep in mind that the images you use don't have to just be stacked on top of each other. It's easy to use free software to blend two images together with subtle gradient effects, or to use frames or banners to separate the two images.

Choose a Strong Central Visual

While you can have multiple visual elements in your cover, you'll want to choose which one takes center stage. Focus on something that shows your character or a key item that intrigues the reader and establishes the genre.

Detective stories often use crime scene tape or a gun to show the theme of the story. Sci-fi covers often show planets, aliens, a spaceship, or some kind of scientific gadgets. Romance covers tend to show the main couple, but will sometimes show more subtle symbols like roses or a love letter.

You can choose multiple characters and items to highlight on your cover, but remember that your space is limited. When you try to cram too much into one cover, it tends to look crowded and overwhelming for the viewer. Remember, you're not designing a superhero movie poster—you're trying to create a cover that will jump out at the reader when seen at thumbnail size.

Both of these covers I designed use strong central visuals instead of shoving together an assortment of items and characters.

Both of these covers I designed use strong central visuals instead of shoving together an assortment of items and characters.

Finding Free Photos

There are plenty of free-to-use images out there, but not every image that looks free can actually be used on book covers. Even websites that purport to have "free" images sometimes have fine print that prohibits commercial use.

The best three websites for free images are Pixabay, Pexels, and Unsplash. Pexels and Unsplash specialize in photography, but Pixabay has thousands of transparent PNGs, vector graphics, and illustrations in addition to photos.

The quality of the images varies, and some look outright unprofessional. However, the vast majority are excellent candidates for inclusion in covers. Every single image submitted to these sites is technically free to use on commercial book covers.

Keep in mind that using free stock photos, especially candid shots, opens up potential legal issues with property and model releases. As a general rule, legal issues only arise if the model is recognizable, but just because their face isn’t visible doesn’t mean they can’t be recognized. Free stock websites are perfect for finding photos of items, textures, and generic buildings, though.

Creative Commons and More

Some websites specifically allow artists to dictate the terms by which others may use their art and photography. Most use easy-to-understand Creative Commons licenses, which dictate terms including whether or not:

  • the image can be modified
  • the image can be used for commercial purposes
  • credit must be given

Any image that is not allowed to be modified generally won't be appropriate for use as a book cover, since book covers at least require text to be added. However, images that allow commercial use may be fine for inclusion in your cover.

If an artist or photographer requires that credit be given, make sure to include an appropriate credit line in the front matter of your book. Failing to do so is unfair to the artist and could draw public criticism.

Creative Commons images also may have the same problem with missing model releases. Like with free images, Creative Commons images of people should be avoided in book covers unless only a small, nondescript part of the body is used.

Buying Stock Photos

Major stock image websites include Adobe, Shutterstock, Megapixl, Dreamstime, Depositphoto, and Bigstock. Of these websites, Adobe generally has the largest and highest-quality collection, but all of them have a variety of photography styles and subjects. Most sites' photos are authorized for use on up to 500,000 "copies" of a book cover, which is more that enough for most indie authors.

Many stock sites require users to sign up for monthly subscriptions, with larger packages costing less per photo. The cost per photo could work out from anywhere from $0.30 to $3.00 each, depending on site and subscription size. Adobe and Shutterstock tend to be more expensive on average, but as of August 2022, both offer free trials for new users.

With the exception of Bigstock, each of the major stock photo websites consistently require model releases for images with people. However, make sure the image you choose isn't an editorial photo, which is the exception to the model release rule and is only allowed to be used for non-commercial use like blogs.

This often includes photos of celebrities and famous buildings, but may include crowd and candid shots at events.

These covers I designed use a paid stock photo on the top half and a free image on the bottom half.

These covers I designed use a paid stock photo on the top half and a free image on the bottom half.

3D Illustrations and Original Photography

3D model illustrating software has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, and some of the free and paid stock art made with this software is nearly indistinguishable from a real person. However, some of this art looks unprofessional and lifeless. Even if the clothing and pose are very lifelike, the eyes and face are usually a dead giveaway that the person isn’t real.

Unless you have access to excellent 3D character software and substantial experience in using it, don’t try to generate a character’s face with it. You might be able to create a character model that looks convincing when viewed from behind, though.

Taking your own photos makes your cover more unique, but just like with 3D modeling, don’t try to force it to work. Inaccurate costumes and poor lighting can actually make your cover look worse. If in doubt about your own skills, stick with professional stock photos combined to create a unique cover.


Liz Westwood from UK on May 21, 2020:

In the past year I have been tasked with editing two books, but thankfully not the covers. Although I did make suggestions. I wish I had read your articles first.

Maxwell Kamlongera on May 21, 2020:

Hi Ria, thanks for the article!

I'm curious to know: if a person wants to design a cover for an ebook, is there a universal size that can be utilized across all ebook formats or the size of the cover changes according to the ebook (Amazon; pdf; epub; etc.)(I hope I'm making sense, here)?