Stock Photo Issues for Self-Published Cookbooks and How-To Books

Updated on May 15, 2020
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert and advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.


I had a great question from one of my blog readers. He or she (it was an anonymous Q&A question) asked about using stock food photography in a cookbook. The reasoning was that this or that recipe looks pretty much the same from one making of it to another. So why not use a stock photo instead of going through the hassle of making the recipe and taking one’s own photos for use in the cookbook?

Indeed, why not?

While the discussion below applies to this cookbook question, the same principles apply to other how-to and nonfiction, too. Another good example would be gardening books where the author would use stock photos of plants that didn’t show the results of their gardening advice or efforts.

Show Your Work

When you self-publish a book, whether it’s a cookbook or not, we want something that’s you and that’s unique to you. We also want the truth.

Though this might be far-fetched, let’s say that some of your readers try a recipe in your cookbook where you’ve used a beautiful stock photo of the end result instead of a photo of your own. Depending on their skill level, there’s a strong chance that their making of the recipe won’t look like the photo. (There’s also a strong chance that your making of the recipe doesn’t either.) This might be especially the case for more artistic creations (cakes, cookies, etc.).

Now let’s also say that the reader contacts you, telling you that their results don’t bear any resemblance to what’s in “your” photo. How would you explain that? Would you be willing to own up to your cover up and say, “Well, mine doesn’t look like that either. That’s just a stock photo.” It’s a huge integrity gap.

It’s kind of the same situation as with food packaging. Have you ever noticed the delectable photos of the product on a package, and in small letters it says, “Serving Suggestion?” They do that to tell buyers that what’s inside may not be or look like what you’ll get. And often, what’s inside doesn’t. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s noticed this.) If you use stock shots for your cookbook, you may need to include some sort of disclaimer about it not being an actual photo of your recipe results. Ask your attorney for advice on that.

Stock Photos Show the Ideal, Not the Real

Food photography is specialty photography. There are photographers who specialize in it for food companies, advertisements, and publishers. So their stock shots of food can be impressive with just the right lighting, angles, and other pro tricks to make it look absolutely irresistible. So it’s easy to understand why some cookbook authors might want to use stock photos instead of their own.

True, your own food photography might not compare with the pros. But it will be a realistic depiction of your culinary creation. If you’re serious about self-publishing your cookbooks or food blogs, maybe you need to learn how to take your own food photos. I know a couple of chefs who do a great job with their food photos, but I don’t think they’d consider photography one of their professional talents.

Hoping for a Traditional Book Deal? Another Reason to Keep Your Photos Real

Again, talking about big “what ifs” here, let’s say that your self-published book in which you’ve used stock photos is a hit. It's rare to get a traditional book deal after self publishing, but let's say you're the exception. Now you have to tell them that the photos aren’t yours.

The traditional publisher will probably be less interested in doing a book deal with you because:

  1. If you’re not showing what’s real, the integrity of the rest of the work could come into question, too.
  2. If they’re still interested, they would have to research and re-license all the images. That takes time and money. So you’re already a liability and this deal’s likelihood is getting as cold as refrigerated day-old recipe leftovers.

A traditional publisher is buying a package from you. And if the package isn’t all yours, what are you selling?

Granted, they may not think your own personal photos are that great and want to re-shoot the pictures for the republication of this book. But at least you're showing them the genuine results of your efforts.

How Even Your Photos May Be a Problem

As I’ve talked about before in other posts, you may need to get property and model releases for subjects in your own photos when you self-publish books. Review any rights and release requirements with your attorney.

In the context of this post's discussion, an example of where this might be an issue would be if you're writing a gardening book and you take photos of someone else's garden.

Remember that self-publishing and selling your books is a commercial venture which can make these issues important ones to consider.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 Heidi Thorne


Submit a Comment
  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Linda, even if the photos aren't perfect, I want to see what the author experienced. We have too many posers online and on social media. So authenticity wins. Thanks for chiming in and have a great day!

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    You've shared some excellent advice, Heidi. I think that showing the writer's own photos is important for authenticity in recipe articles and in self-published cookbooks.

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Pamela! Glad you agree. I certainly can't make anything that looks close to the yummy stuff in cookbooks. :) Thanks for stopping by and have a terrific day!

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 years ago from Sunny Florida

    I agree that using your own photos is the best advice. I have made various dishes through the years that don't turn out like the pictures in the cookbook. Great advice in this article,

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Flourish, mine NEVER looks like the photos for the obvious reason that I'm a horrible cook. ;) Glad to see I have company. Thanks for chiming in and have a great day!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Donna, so true that this goes for both books and blogs! The stock shots are so beautiful. But I can tell when it's real and when it's fantasy. Thanks so much for reading and chiming in! Have a terrific day!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    2 years ago from USA

    What a terrific question and very thorough answer. Mine never looks like the photos and there are lots of reasons why.

  • purl3agony profile image

    Donna Herron 

    2 years ago from USA

    Hi Heidi - This is a very timely hub. I know there is a lot of honest confusion andl issues with the use of stock photos in recipes on cooking blogs and here on Hubpages. Thanks for offering some great advice for self-publishing cookbooks. I think your advice is great for blogs, too!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Bill! I, too, just use stock photos I've officially licensed, my own pics, or graphics I create. It's definitely the safer route. Thanks for taking time from the farm and farmers market to stop by! Have a great day!

  • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

    Heidi Thorne 

    2 years ago from Chicago Area

    Mary, agreed, the stock photos can be as deliciously tempting! But I'd rather have "what you see is what you get" photos. Thanks for chiming in and have a terrific day!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    2 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Great advice as always, Heidi! Great question by your reader. I always find it to be the best policy to just use my own stuff and not bother with "stock." Saves potential problems down the road.

    Happy Tuesday to you!

  • aesta1 profile image

    Mary Norton 

    2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    This is good advice. I do like to see more realistic pictures when I look at cookbooks. It is tempting especially when you browse other sites and they have very beautiful photos.


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