How to choose stock images: Is it art or science?

Stock photos are very powerful when you know how to pick them. We explain.

By Matic Broz, the editor-in-chief with 10+ years of experience with design, stock media and licensing, and photography.

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How to choose stock images

Imagine you’re browsing the internet, and you come across two blog posts on the same topic. One is filled with captivating, high-quality images that instantly draw your attention, while the other has plain text with no visuals. Which one are you more likely to read? The answer is clear: visuals play a crucial role in engaging readers and enhancing the overall appeal of your content.

Here’s how you can leverage your new-found knowledge.

» More: Photutorial’s best stock photo sites

1. Identify the purpose of your stock images

Before you search for stock images, it’s essential to identify their purpose in your content. This will help you choose images that look great, effectively convey your message, and align with your brand identity.

When selecting stock images, consider what you want to achieve with each visual. Here are some common goals to consider:

  • Illustrate a point: Images can help explain complex ideas or concepts simply. Look for images that directly relate to the topic of your content and provide added value for your readers.
  • Set the mood or tone: Stock images can create a specific atmosphere or evoke emotions that resonate with your audience. Consider the mood you want to convey in your content, and select images that reflect that feeling.
  • Provide visual relief: Lengthy articles or technical content can be taxing to read. Well-chosen images can break up the text, making it easier to digest and more engaging for your readers.

2. Pick “excellent” photos

Although it’s obvious that a photo must look great, the abundance of websites using low-quality photos still blows my mind. Here are the four cornerstones of an “excellent” stock photo:

  • Contextual: A stock photo should complement your content and not merely be an attractive visual filler.
  • Well-lit and high-quality: Good lighting doesn’t only make an image attractive; it adds depth and dimension.
  • Relevant and modern: Ensuring that your chosen images are both relevant and modern is crucial in maintaining your audience’s engagement and trust. Your audience is savvy—they will pick up on outdated imagery, which can undercut your message and make your content seem out of touch.
  • Editing: If the image you picked doesn’t fit perfectly, don’t be afraid to crop it or add text, shapes, and filters. But remember: less is more.

3. Avoid overused and cliché images

In the bustling marketplace of stock photography, some images, due to their universal appeal, have been used so often that they’ve lost their spark. They’ve become visual clichés, diluting your content’s uniqueness rather than enhancing it. So, how do you sidestep this common pitfall?

Overused images

Use a free online tool like Tineye or Google reverse image search to check how many times an image has been used across the internet. Simply upload the stock photo you’re considering, and it will show you where and how often this image has been used on the web.

Apart from reverse image search, another simple way to check the popularity of an image is to look at the download count on the stock image website. Here’s an example from Shutterstock:

Shutterstock popular image notification
Shutterstock even promotes popular images (Credit: Shutterstock)

Cliché images

We’ve all seen them: the perfectly staged office shots, the overly enthusiastic thumbs-up, the ubiquitous handshakes. These images, while they might seem professional, are tired and overused.

Opt instead for less conventional images. If you need a business-themed photo, consider a candid shot of a workspace, an abstract representation of teamwork, or perhaps an interesting close-up of work tools.

Avoid photos that:

  • People shaking hands: This image has become synonymous with business deals and partnerships, but it’s so overused that it lacks impact.
  • Staged office scenes: You’ve seen them before—smiling employees in a perfectly arranged office, with not a single stray paper in sight. These images can feel artificial and fail to resonate with readers.
  • Generic cityscapes: While cityscape images can be visually appealing, they often lack a unique perspective or connection to your content.

Go for photos that:

  • Capture real-life situations: Instead of a staged office scene, choose an image of coworkers collaborating in a more natural setting or a lively brainstorming session. This will make your content feel more relatable and authentic.
  • Showcase genuine emotions: An image of a person genuinely laughing, for instance, can be far more engaging than a posed, emotionless smile. Genuine emotions help create a connection with your audience, much like a warm, heartfelt conversation with a friend.
  • Explore different perspectives: Rather than using a generic cityscape, look for images that showcase a unique angle or an interesting detail. This will add visual interest and intrigue to your content, like discovering a hidden gem in a bustling city.

4. Add a human element

We’re innately drawn to images of other people. Data even suggests that pictures with faces get up to 38% more engagement on Instagram. So, given a chance, try to use more stock photos that include people or social activities. Follow these three tips when choosing stock photos with people:

  • Avoid staged photos
  • Look for images capturing genuine emotions, natural interactions, and authentic scenarios
  • Lean towards candid photos

Below is an example of an amazing stock photo depicting friends (or a couple) hanging out while laughing. The image is spontaneous and doesn’t look posed.

Example of a candid stock photo
An example of a candid stock photo (Credit: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash)

You can also use images strategically to guide your viewer’s gaze toward important elements on your page, like a Call-to-Action (CTA). How? The secret lies in the direction the person in your photo is looking or pointing. Our eyes naturally follow the gaze or gesture of others, so having the person in your stock photo looking at or pointing toward your CTA can subtly draw more attention to it.

5. Match your branding

Images should reflect your branding. Is it corporate or friendly? Eco-friendly or techy?

Visuals play a critical role in the crowded marketplace, acting as a cornerstone of brand distinction. Imagine your brand as a person with a unique personality—perhaps vibrant and quirky or serious and authoritative. This distinct persona should be your guiding compass in the process of image selection.

Consider a brand that radiates a jovial and friendly vibe. Corporate-looking stock images with a stiff, cold aura would be a mismatch. Instead, such a brand would benefit from visuals that exude warmth, joy, and a friendly demeanor, truly mirroring the brand’s voice.

Example of a corporate stock photo
An example of a corporate photograph (Credit: Smartworks Coworking/Unsplash)

However, creating a credible brand image is more than reflecting your brand’s personality—it should resonate with your audience’s characteristics too. A deep connection with your audience cultivates trust and relatability. Therefore, let your demographic data, user personas, and customer feedback be your guiding light toward the perfect image.

Consider a brand aimed at young entrepreneurs buzzing with innovation and ambition. Images reflecting the vibrant startup culture—such as coworking spaces or brainstorming sessions—would be more appropriate than visuals of old-school, traditional corporate settings.

6. Nail your message

Just as each piece of your content serves a unique purpose, the accompanying images should be equally purpose-driven. An image’s success isn’t measured solely by its aesthetics—it lies in its ability to support and amplify your message.

  • Purpose: The type of content you’re crafting significantly influences your image selection. Are you writing a blog post or designing a landing page? Maybe you’re crafting an e-newsletter? For blog posts, you might need images that add visual breaks and support the topic, while a landing page may call for a compelling hero image that quickly communicates your product’s value.
  • Overlay: If you intend to overlay text on your image, you need to select a ‘text-friendly’ image. These are images with ample negative space where you can comfortably place your text without obstructing the image’s main focus or making the text hard to read.

Let’s consider two examples. If you’re writing a how-to blog post, your images should include step-by-step photos or illustrative diagrams that help readers understand your instructions. On the other hand, if you’re creating a landing page for a software product, images could include screenshots of your product in action or a high-impact hero image that succinctly communicates your product’s benefit.

7. Consider diverse representation

Considering diverse representation in your stock images is like creating a vibrant, inclusive mosaic that showcases the beauty of our diverse world. By weaving inclusivity into your visual narrative, you not only enrich your content but also make it more relatable and appealing to a wider audience.

  • Inclusivity in imagery: Think of your content as a colorful quilt, where each patch represents a unique perspective, culture, or background. By ensuring your stock images feature a diverse range of people, you create a quilt that tells a more inclusive story. This can lead to a more engaging and meaningful connection with your audience, as they see themselves reflected in your content.
  • Aligning with your target audience: Imagine you’re a chef preparing a feast for a group of guests. You’d want to ensure the dishes you create cater to their tastes, dietary preferences, and cultural backgrounds. Similarly, when selecting stock images, keep your target audience in mind, and choose visuals that resonate with their interests, lifestyles, and experiences. This tailored approach will make your content feel more genuine and personal, like a carefully crafted meal that leaves your audience feeling satisfied and engaged.

By embracing diverse representation and aligning your visuals with your target audience, your content becomes a vibrant tapestry that celebrates the rich spectrum of human experiences. These thoughtful considerations will not only make your content more visually appealing but also create a more authentic and engaging experience for your audience.

Where to find the right stock images?

Shutterstock interface
Shutterstock interface (Credit: Shutterstock)

Now that you know the purpose of your stock images, it’s time to find the perfect source for them. With countless stock image websites available, choosing one that offers high-quality images, suits your budget, and provides the appropriate licensing for your needs is essential.

Paid vs. free stock image websites

  • Pros and cons: Paid stock image websites typically offer a vast selection of high-quality images and advanced search features. However, they can be expensive, especially for small businesses or individual bloggers. Free stock image websites offer a cost-effective alternative but may have a smaller collection and varying image quality.
  • Examples of popular sites: Some well-known paid stock image websites include Shutterstock, iStock, and Adobe Stock. Popular free stock image websites are Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay.

Licensing and usage rights

Understanding the licensing and usage rights associated with stock images is crucial to avoid legal issues and ensure proper usage.

  • Understanding different licenses: Stock image licenses can vary, with some allowing for unlimited use, while others may have restrictions on commercial use, alterations, or the number of times an image can be used. Common licenses include Royalty-Free, Rights Managed, and Creative Commons.
  • Ensuring proper usage: Always read the licensing terms and conditions before using a stock image. Make sure you have the necessary rights for your intended use and follow any attribution or crediting requirements.

By carefully selecting the right stock image website and understanding the associated licensing, you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect visuals for your content.

Use search filters

Filtering stock photos at Shutterstock
Using filter at Shutterstock to narrow-down the search (Credit: Shutterstock)

Utilizing search filters effectively is like having a treasure map that leads you to the perfect stock image. These filters can save you time and make the process of finding relevant images more efficient.

By utilizing search filters like keywords and phrases, image orientation and size, and color palette, you’ll be able to navigate the vast world of stock images with ease. These filters are the compass that guides you to the perfect visual treasure, making your content consistent with your brand identity.

  • Keywords and phrases. Imagine you’re at a carnival, and you’re trying to find your favorite ride, the Ferris wheel. You ask for directions, but instead of saying “Ferris wheel,” you say “a fun ride.” Chances are, you’ll receive vague and unhelpful answers. The same principle applies when searching for stock images. Use specific and descriptive keywords or phrases that capture the essence of the image you’re looking for. This will help you navigate the vast carnival of stock images and quickly find the Ferris wheel you’ve been searching for.
  • Image orientation and size. Think of orientation and size filters as the frame for your masterpiece. By specifying the desired dimensions or orientation (portrait, landscape, or square), you ensure that your chosen stock image will fit perfectly within your content’s design. It’s like finding the perfect puzzle piece that seamlessly fits into your content, creating a harmonious visual experience for your audience.
  • Color palette. Searching by color is like having your very own stylist who handpicks images that match your brand’s color scheme. Many stock image websites allow you to search by color, helping you maintain a consistent color scheme across your content. This feature is a game-changer for those looking to create a cohesive brand image. For example, if your brand uses a cool, ocean-inspired color palette, searching by color can help you find images with shades of blue that evoke the serene feeling of a beachside escape.

Depending on the stock image site, there are also numerous other filters, such as the number of people, their ethnicity (see the image above), their age, and much more. The better stock image sites also offer reverse image search, similar to Google’s.

Frequently asked questions

What are the key factors to consider when choosing stock images?

When choosing stock images, consider factors such as relevance to your content, image quality, authenticity, and diverse representation. Also, ensure that the images align with your brand identity and target audience. Make sure to review the licensing terms to avoid legal issues and comply with any attribution requirements.

How can I find unique and high-quality stock images?

To find unique and high-quality stock images, use specific and descriptive keywords or phrases when searching on stock image websites. Utilize search filters, such as orientation, size, and color, to refine your search further. Focus on selecting images that look authentic, capture real-life situations, and avoid clichés or overused visuals.

Can I edit or modify stock images to fit my content better?

Yes, you can edit or modify stock images as long as the licensing terms allow it. Common modifications include cropping, resizing, adjusting colors, and adding text or brand elements. You can also combine multiple images to create unique compositions, collages, or mood boards, giving the images a more personalized touch.

How should I organize and manage my stock image library?

Organize your stock image library using cloud storage services like Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive, and create a logical folder structure with descriptive file names. This approach will make it easier to locate specific images, prevent clutter, and allow access from anywhere. Don’t forget to credit the source or photographer when required by the licensing terms.

Is it better to use paid or free stock image websites?

The choice between paid or free stock image websites depends on your needs, budget, and the quality and variety of images you require. Paid websites generally offer a broader selection of high-quality images and advanced search features, while free websites provide a cost-effective alternative with a smaller collection and varying image quality.


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