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A Designer’s Guide to Stock Photos

Don't make images an afterthought. Follow this guide to selecting the best stock photography for your design project.

Portrait for Envato By Envato
Posted 26 Jul 2016

When I say “stock photography” does it conjure up images in your mind of stark white corporate boardrooms, and women laughing while holding a bowl of salad? Perhaps that’s what stock photography used to be, but these days it’s a lot less cheesy and can be an incredibly useful tool in the design process.

Using Stock Photography

For many projects it’s often cheaper and easier to find photos on a stock website – such as Envato Elements or Twenty20 – than it is to go through the process of hiring a photographer or even setting up a shot and taking the photos yourself. And in the fast-moving tech world time is of the essence.

If you’re smart with how you use it, stock photography can speed up your process. It won’t be the solution for every project, because sometimes originality is key (and with a stock photo your competitor could quite rightly use the exact same image), but used in the right scenarios it can free up your time to focus more on those unique situations and tougher design problems.

Stock photography is really useful for “quick win” tasks. Perhaps you need an image for a blog post, or to post on social media. As it’s just a small task that needs to be done quickly, and if it isn’t part of a wider campaign, there’s no time or budget to arrange a special shoot. This is where stock photography sites become your go-to tool. Just search for a keyword that relates to your topic and you’ll find hundreds of options to choose from, all without having to pick up a camera.

Rather than being the focus of a piece though, stock photography should be used to supplement your design. Over on Tradecraft, a monthly publication that I work on, I use my iPad and Apple pencil to draw over top of stock imagery to give it a more unique look.

Drawing on the iPad

While you don’t have to get quite so artsy, it is a good idea to use graphics along with your stock photos to personalize them. It could be as simple as adding text, an icon or even a filter; something to make the image look like it fits with your brand.

For my podcast, Design Life, we use a stock photo as a texture behind our logo and brand color to get across the theme for the episode without having the image front-and-center.

Design Life podcast
A feature image for our episode on the pros and cons of “procrastiworking”.

Stock imagery can get repetitive, so making it less of a focus means less chance your reader will be thinking “I’ve seen this image before on another site” and more time spent consuming the actual content the image is supporting.

Choosing The Right Images

Stock photography is only cheesy if you choose a cheesy image! While the classic “handshake with a white background” images do exist, that doesn’t mean you have to use them. There are many beautiful photos available on stock image sites that wouldn’t look out of place on an Instagram account. Those are the high-quality photos you should be looking for if you need an image to feature.

Where stock imagery strays into cheesy territory is usual when we are being too literal with our choices. If you want to get across the concept of a romantic holiday for example, you don’t have to use a photo of the word ‘love’ written on the beach.

The word 'Love' written in the sand
love written on the beach at the sunset

Instead you could choose a nicely framed photo of a couple, or get even more abstract and use a gorgeous photo of a sunset.

Couple sitting closely together on the beach
Young couple in love sitting on the beach at the seaside enjoying romantic evening and watching sunset. Family have a rest on the beach in summer.

This gives warm, happy feelings without being too obvious or cheesy. Remember that imagery is meant to invoke a mood, and I think the gorgeous purple tones of the sunset do this better than the cheesy writing in the sand, don’t you?

Beautiful sunset in Maspalomas in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain
Beautiful sunset in Maspalomas in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain

Even though you haven’t created them yourself, the stock imagery you decide to use becomes a part of your brand, so you should give it just as much consideration as you do when choosing the right font and color to use. And just like with fonts and colors, you want to have some sort of cohesion in the imagery you use.

If you want to get across the concept of a romantic holiday for example, you don’t have to use a photo of the word ‘love’ written on the beach.

Charli Marie

I suggest putting together a mood board to figure out what kind of imagery you want to be associated with your brand, and use it as a guide for choosing stock photos. At ConvertKit we aim for a outdoorsy, Instagram-chic, aesthetic with our images and I compare every new photo I choose to what we have used previously to make sure it looks like it could be part of the same set. And the great thing about many stock image sites is that when you find an image you like that suits the look you’re going for, you can easily see others taken by that same photographer. Instant photo-set!

Don’t Make Images An Afterthought

Knowing when and where to use stock imagery and how to choose the right photos will hopefully mean you can now be more purposeful with your images. Too often stock photo sites are used to quickly grab a generic image to accompany a blog post, but with more planning and careful selection stock photos can instead be an inspiration, and become an integral part of your brand. Be picky, be smart, and don’t be cheesy!

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