How to choose stock imagery that looks great

colour direction

Russ Welch

Lead Creative

Posted on January 11, 2016

Stock imagery is an infamously double-edged sword. On the one hand, the existence of millions of images all available to download with a click – one for every conceivable purpose and idea – offers incredible creative freedom. On the other hand, quantity doesn’t exactly guarantee quality.

The long and short of it is that a lot of stock imagery use is horribly cringe-inducing. Stock photos have a tendency to shout from the page: contrived, poorly-staged representations of whatever idea you’re trying to communicate, full of bad clichés and cheesy models.

So what’s the answer?

We presented the case for an alternative to stock imagery recently, but we still think stock libraries can be a designer’s best friend. The trick is, simply, for all of us to start using them better.

Here’s our guide to using stock photos with discernment and style.

Finding your images

Firstly, go to an image library. For the majority this will seem an obvious first step but we do occasionally get requests to use images found elsewhere on the internet. It’s important to remember that just because an image is on the internet, it doesn’t mean that it’s free, or even legally available to be licensed for the purpose of promoting your business, so do check first.

If you have the budget to buy in Rights Managed photography or good quality Royalty Free images, then make Getty your first choice, as they have this end of the market pretty much sewn up. Otherwise, there are numerous alternatives (iStock, Shutterstock and Dreamstime, to name three) where you can expect to get a lower price, but do bear in mind that the search for quality will become increasingly difficult and eat up far more of your time.

It is also worth noting that, if your requirement is for a commercial project, you should avoid images marked Editorial Use Only as these images are not available for this purpose.

Remember, that you get what you pay for. If a photographer could charge more for their work, then they would. There’s no secret trick to cut corners on price vs. quality.

Image meaning

Writing down keywords to represent the central concepts or messages you’d like your image to communicate is a great start. This will help you begin to narrow down likely images and make more educated searches. The more specific, the better.

Try to consider how the image will be received by a range of different people across your target audience.

Do you want a literal representation of your concepts or a visual metaphor? If you’re going with a metaphor, try to avoid the obvious clichés. What would be more original? Don’t be tempted to go too far the other way, however. If the metaphor is too obscure, people may not make the connection.

Brand consistency

Strong brands make sure every piece of communication is consistent. Consider your image library as a brand library: each image can work hardest when it complements and works with the others. Think about how themes, colours and aesthetic qualities such as the use of black and white, close crops or depth of field could help tie your images together and make the most of every opportunity to communicate your brand’s identity.

And it’s always, always worth double-checking that your image doesn’t contain something inappropriate or anything that might have a negative impact on your brand. It’s amazing what gets missed.

Fitting the space

Stock images are usually there to complement text, so make sure they do! Think about the space you have available. What balance between text and imagery would work best?

Photo orientation – landscape or portrait?

Consider the context. An image in a blog post or email, for example, nearly always works better in a landscape format so you can use a big, impactful picture without users having to scroll down to see it all.


If you’re using the image in small spaces, such as web banners, then the image composition needs to be simple; detail will not work well at smaller sizes. That interesting image on your stock photo library viewer may look great when viewed full size, but is it going to turn into a vague blur of colour once it’s scaled down?


Could you crop the image to fit the space better? If you’re using the image in more than one place to help link different content formats or platforms, are there different sized spaces, and can the image be cropped well for all of them? Take your time to get the crop right. Lazy or desperate cropping can ruin a great photo – we want it to look good, not just fit.

Clear space

If you need to overlay some type, is there a large enough area of flat colour or free space to accommodate this, and will the typeface be legible once you’ve added it?

File type, resolution and compression

Finally, make sure you’re buying an image in the resolution and format that best matches the image’s purpose. We’ve published a simple guide to photo file formats on our blog that should help cut down on any confusion when it comes to making that final purchase.