Think and think again about how you use stock imagery

The use of stock photography is a fact of life for everyone involved in design and marketing.

In an ideal world we would have our own photography library for every conceivable use and the budget for a custom shoot any time we needed a new set of photos.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world and therefore most of the time we have to compromise and search the hundreds of millions of photos that make up online stock photo libraries.

There’s a certain art to getting stock photography right and it’s really easy to get wrong.

Below are some tips and real-world examples to help you make the right choices when it comes to using stock photography.

Would the above scenario in a dental surgery actually ever take place in the real world?

Think outside the box when using image search terms

One of the most common problems people find is that they end up settling for an inadequate picture because they can’t find what they are looking for when searching. 

Our top tip: try searching for phrases that could bring back something similar, be creative and think outside the box.

Real-world example:

We were recently trying to find imagery for a section of a client’s website devoted to interactive training sessions/workshops with small groups.

It was difficult to try and find anything that fit the brief because the majority of images were classroom based and looked too much like a student seminar or lecture.

We got creative with our search terms and tried ‘group therapy.’ We ended up with an abundance of images that fit the bill perfectly.

Above was the common type of image found when using terms like ‘Training’ and ‘Group Learning’

Above was an example for a result from searching for ‘Group therapy’

Don't try to be too literal

Some of the worst uses of stock photography are found when you try to be too literal. You end up with imagery that gives of a cheesy, cheap and cheerful vibe. (Not something most brands want to go for.)

Our top tip: try thinking about the wider theme behind the message in the copy. You’ll find a much more appropriate selection.

Real-world example:

We recently needed to use stock imagery to sit next to a product benefit titled ‘motivated workforce’.

Literal searches produced a range of cheesy images of people in workspaces giving a thumbs up etc. (Do people in the real world ever act like this?)

Whilst being ‘literally’ what we were looking for, the images were awkwardly posed and obviously fake. A better search was for somebody doing their job but with a natural smile on their face.

The motivation theme was implied with out being overly explicit

Clearly a ‘motivated worker’ in a literal sense but also obviously completely staged

The high-quality image implies motivation without feeling staged- the idea of motivation is subtly implied

Use a consistent photographic style/filter

Stock photos tend to have a certain filter or style. Some can look rustic and heavily filtered. Others can be really clean and clear.

It’s important to get the right style for your brand. You don’t want something to look out of place, even if the content of the picture is perfect.

Our top tip: find the right style for your brand and then stick to it, discount photos that may have nice content but jar with your style.

Real-world example: 

We recently worked with a client who wanted to showcase the breadth of sectors they worked across.

To do this we visually showed images of each of the several sectors they serviced. The image searching task took alot longer than usual because not only did we have to find the right imagery, we also had to ensure that they worked together as a whole set of eight.

This meant that photo searching took additional time and we had to use multiple stock photo libraries; however the final set of images complimented each other at the end.

We chose an image style with part in focus and the rest blurred

This grocery image style matches the chosen theme for the family

Here, it doesn’t match as its all 100% in focus, despite being a decent image

Always look at the background details

After you’ve scrolled through hundreds of images you might have found the right one. In haste, it gets loaded and put live. It soon becomes clear though that not all is right- in the background is something not appropriate for your brand.

Our top tip: look at your final picture again and again and get someone to sense check. If there’s something awry in the background but the image is ideal- you can always photoshop it out.

Real-world example:

We recently worked with a client in the UK transport sector. We found a large large group of photos set inside and around a terminal.

In the background on a few of the images were signs with Cyrillic writing. It was clearly not in the UK (and our client was only operating in the UK.)

We photoshopped it out and as if by magic, the photo once again could have been anywhere. We were able to use the whole set.

The man expects his flight at the airport

The high quality image set in an airport looked ideal for a website we worked on in the transport sector

Screenshot 2020-10-07 at 18.12.07

The Cyrillic lettering in the background detail though clearly places it outside the UK and therefore we had to do some retouching


You don't have to pay a premium

There are many online stock photo libraries out there. The most expensive are without doubt the best- but images can cost anything from £40 to £400 per JPEG. A price simply out of budget for most small and medium size businesses and organisations.

Don’t be put off though, there are many sites out there that for an annual fee let you download unlimited images. Most of the time you can find the perfect picture (you just have to look a bit harder and be creative with your search terms.)

We recommend reasonably priced sites such as Freepik and Envato Elements as well as free stock image libraries like as Pexels which have a fabulous variety and unlimited downloads.

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