Many professional graphic designers will tell you that using free images is a no-no, esp if you use a model from those places yet I have seen published books with a model from Pixabay. I agree that unless you don't have expressed permission, it's better not to use free images, but is it okay to make sample covers with them on it? I think so, but according to a group administrator, no.
Recently, I posted an album in a group, in one cover, I used a free image. I specified that it was not for sale and that it was sample work. The admin acted like I had downloaded a computer image and uploaded it to a group. I stopped using computer images long ago because it looks tacky with the logos on the cover and it doesn't look professional, yet according to the admin neither does free images. Whatever. They not only removed my album but they removed me. They extinguished the light in their dark group. Many designers in that group posts dark or very secular covers which is why I say the group is dark.
God is not limited to the groups. They would probably kick him out too. He would probably oppose to the kind of covers people posts. He could send me the clients as he wish. In the past, very few authors had hired me in those groups. Many who had hired me were author friends, or authors from groups I am in or they found my website. I would just cut my losses and press on.
So why do I use free images with people on it, if there are no model releases? First of all, I don't understand why photographers would upload them. I guess its like fonts. Just because a font is free doesn't mean it's free for commercial use. Although they do have fonts that are. Maybe photographers are in it for show only. I have to admit, many of the images are people who are not Americans, but some are great for fantasy. There are a few images of couples that I used for sample work.
Secondly, why make many more investments in paid images when authors still won't come to me? If people insist I use paid images, then my prices will go up. I started out with $50 covers. I wanted to keep my prices low, but it went up because I rent photoshop. If more clients come to me than my prices will go down. That's another thing about that group. I refuse to raise my prices just to stay in the group too. As I said, God is not limited to groups.
My starting price is $60 but that's because I use paid images, but sometimes I reduce it on a cover because I had the premade for so long. I offer discounts to seniors and I am having a sale this weekend! So check out my covers!
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Author of the Second Chance Series and owner of Unique Pen Press.