7 Ways to Use Stock Photos In Your Ads

By Matic Broz, editor-in-chief of Photutorial covering stock media, Adobe, and design. He founded Photutorial while finishing his PhD in computational biosciences.

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Stock photos are one of the best ways to add a visual touch to your ads. They are cost-effective, readily available, and present in numerous categories to efficiently fill the void your ads may have without illustrations. 

You see, marketers are busy people. In today’s digital boom, they have a lot on their plate and many marketing strategies to comprehend. And since many of them have just passed a growth stagnant due to the pandemic, hiring a professional photographer may not be a cost-effective option. 

This is where stock photos come to the rescue. Boasting a library of thousands of pictures with everyday generic subjects, stock photo agencies are a lifesaver for marketers. 

However, there are unspoken rules of using stock photographs that users should follow. When you stick to them, your ads – print and digital, will do wonderfully. Here let’s take a look at the tips:

1. Keep a Budget for Photos

Every successful marketing plan starts with a budget. And having a separate budget for the visuals is a great way to keep the factor in check. 

Stock photos are available by both – free and paid services. As a general human instinct, most people lean towards a free option. However, it’s better to aside a small budget to shop at affordable stock photo sites. Doing this would give you access to more unique visuals as pictures on the free photo sites are often common and overused.  

This will also improve your chances of using a stock picture that is already not used by your competitor company. Moreover, paid stock photo agencies employ professionals to ensure all images are from the copyright holders.

2. Check the License

While this may seem unnecessary, we can’t seem to emphasize its importance. And you definitely won’t believe it when we tell you how many people have been sued for using a stock picture unlawfully.

Before downloading a stock photo, make sure to check the license details present on the website. Generally, you will come across two main types of licenses that are:


A royalty-free license is the most common type of license you will come across when shopping around. With this type of license, you will be granted unlimited use of the picture after paying a one-time, flat fee. 

This license is pretty affordable. However, the only drawback of the royalty-free license is that images backed by them are easily reachable by everyone. And thus, tend to be more common than other pictures. 

Rights Managed

The rights managed license allows users to utilize the picture one time or as specified by the license. Compared to the royalty-free license, the rights-managed one is pretty exclusive as it only lets you use the image under pre-specified terms. 

These pictures may be expensive but will also save you from many embarrassing ‘wearing the same dress’ moments with your competitors.

An extended license is the third type of license that is popular on stock photo sites. However, this type of license is only applicable for use in products that will be ‘resold’. It is not advised for commercial projects such as advertisements and other marketing materials. 

Outside stock photos, you will also come across pictures that fall under the Public Domain category. These photographs exist without copyright limitations and are free from any type of license. They are free to use in both – commercial and personal projects. Plus, you can use them without any attribution. 

3. Go for Relevancy

This should go without saying, but we will say it anyway: Go for relevant pictures rather than just attractive ones. 

Just imagine you are scrolling your Instagram feed and you come across a picture of a cat with a party hat on. At a first look, you will assume this ad is for something related to animals or parties. However, a closer inspection tells you that this ad is for a brokerage company. Confusing, right?

Ignoring relevancy in pictures and not correctly conveying the message to your audience through visuals will confuse them regarding the motive of your brand. They will also hesitate to further their partnership with your company and take their business elsewhere. 

Let’s take an example from the Facebook ad displayed by the Parallel Employment Group. Their latest ad calls for resumes from assemblers. And they have used a relevant stock image to properly convey the employment opportunity.

4. Avoid ‘Stocky’ Photos

If you do a comprehensive search of a stock photo site, you will come across many very cheesy pictures and cliches. Just take a look at the below images for examples:

There is nothing candid about these pictures and often fail to resonate with the audience. In fact, if you look closely, these ads are probably overdoing the emotion they are supposed to portray and will fail to leave an impact on your audience. 

When searching for pictures for your ad campaign, we suggest going for photos that are able to reflect real human emotion. Rather than going for over-posed and animated feelings in pictures, choose the ones that are candid and have the least amount of cheesiness. 

Another factor to consider at the time of choosing stock photos is the quality of pictures. According to MDG Advertising, 67% of online shoppers rate the quality of images as very ‘important.’

Since stock photo sites get a lot of submissions each day, there is a good chance that some low-quality pictures might make it to their library. The key is to thoroughly look at the photos and select the ones that not only portray your brand but also do not hinder the overall quality of your ad. 

5. Avoid Busy Pictures

Marketers are often tempted to use pictures with fluorescent colouring, and lots of subjects – 

assuming that this may attract more attention. However, in the busy world of social media, people crave simplicity. While busy pictures may be suitable for some brands, we suggest keeping the layout of your ads crisp, clean and simple. 

Through the ad, your aim remains to capture the audience with your message. But creating mayhem in the ad will only add to their confusion. Ultimately, you will fail to deliver the message you are trying to convey – leading to the downfall of your ad. 

Take a look at the Facebook ad by Star 941. They use a simple background to display 2 runners walking towards better health with their tagline prominently displayed on the left. The image enhances a calm and relaxed feeling which every person wants to accomplish. And the makers successfully evoke the feeling with this non-cluttered and visually pleasing ad. 

Before choosing stock photos for your display ads, analyze the type of emotion you are trying to convey with the attempt. Is it the feeling of happiness or joy? Or do you want the audience to feel a type of fear? Whatever the emotion you settle on, make sure the ad correctly portrays the same with simplicity and efficiency. 

6. Un-Stock the Stock

One of the best things about using a stock photo is that you are allowed to modify the images as per the requirements of your brand. Of course, you need to read the fine prints on the license to ensure you are allowed to do so, but generally speaking, most stock photo sites do allow editing like:

  • Add overlays
  • Add text
  • Add your logo and CTA
  • Crop some parts of the image
  • Change the background
  • Incorporate your own graphics to the picture

Check the below Ad by Little Spoon. See how they have edited a stock photo to convey their message.

Similarly, you are allowed to do just about anything to your picture – as long as you stay within the licensing terms and conditions. 

7. A/B Test Your Ads

As we all know, a stock image library is endless. In fact, there are so many pictures to choose from that most marketers are left confused with the selection. Well, the good thing is that you don’t have to rely on only one picture for your advertisement. You may even be more successful with running two or even three versions of your ad.

If you are a marketer, you probably have heard about the term A/B testing. If you are not familiar, it’s a way of running two ads at the same time to a similar audience but switching out some elements of the ad to configure which one gets the most views, engagement, and conversion opportunities. 

To A/B test a stock photo, we recommend using different pictures in both ads. However, keep the elements such as text copy and CTAs the same. This way, you will be able to tell which image resonates with the audience more and use it for further campaigns. 

Final Words

As you already know, stock photos are a great help for marketers who are looking for an easy route to fill in the visual gap. And you can further enhance the functionality by using them in the right way possible.

Follow the above tips and open up the infinite possibilities offered by stock photos for your ad. Good luck!


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