10 Tips for Using (Not Abusing) Stock Photography

It’s 2013 and, for some unknown reason, some people still find the need to use the worst possible stock photography on the internet. In a time when the internet has endless options and there’s amazing affordable photography out there, there is no longer any excuse to use awful and weird images.

Here at Marstudio, we do photo searches for our clients on a very regular basis. More often than not, we spend hours looking for just one image because we know how impactful it can be if it’s chosen carefully and is perfect for that particular instance. In our searches, we come across countless bizarre, super awkward, and completely unusable images on stock sites. Then we proceed to pass them around the office and everyone gets a good chuckle. (We particularly enjoy sites likes this: AwkwardStockPhotos.com).

Using great, content-appropriate photos for your website or printed collateral can make all the difference in the quality of your brand and how reputable it seems. Learning how to search for, choose, and edit stock photos is a skill that is really valuable, and not hard to do. However, it can be really discouraging to be poking around online trying to find a great image to use for a project, and finding unusable or even horrible results. But have no fear! We have listed some tips and tricks below to help rid the world of bad stock photography.

To make things easier on you, we have pooled our experience and expertise here at Marstudio to create this guide for choosing and using stock photography so that it looks awesome, is appropriate for the application, appears genuine, and works for the target audience.

1. Weed out the total trash.

There is SO much bad stock photography on the internet these days that sometimes photo searching can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. Don’t settle for a bad photo, and don’t be afraid to put in the time needed to find exactly the right image for your project. Using bad photos won’t help your business or your cause, so it’s worth finding one you’ll truly be happy with–especially because you’re paying for it. Ignore all of the horrible, unnatural photos that don’t seem genuine or real and choose the ones you use carefully.

2. Crop it likes it’s hot.

You may only need a portion of an image. If you find an image that’s perfect, but it’s not zoomed in or it has content on one side of it that you’d like to take out, crop it! Cropping is easy in Photoshop or in Pixlr (which is free online).

3. Size matters.

Splurge for the high-res version of your image. More often than not, the higher resolution image is not much more expensive than the medium resolution. Perhaps you’re only using the photo for web but there’s a possibility that down the line you’ll use it for a poster design. Buying the higher quality image from the get go will save you from having to buy it twice at two different resolutions.

4. Avoid cliches like the plague.

There are so many cliches in stock photography and they’re a dime a dozen: young businesswoman with a phone headset (which no one uses anymore), a laughing woman eating salad (who even does that?), a group of racially diverse colleagues huddling near a laptop. These cliches are everywhere and the general public has become immune to them. Choose photos that look as if they could have been taken specifically for your company with natural expressions and body language and realistic composition. This will help your project come across as real and respectable instead of cheesy and unoriginal. If you MUST use a cliche, find one that looks more natural with good lighting, composition, and color.

When searching for the ever-popular “Mature Happy Couple doing recreational activities”, we strongly advise that you don’t (under any circumstances) use this:


Use this instead:

stock photo

5. Search Terms

Be creative. Think out of the box with the words you stick in the search box. If you’re looking for a “happy client” consider what demographic you’re looking for, what gender, what age etc. If you’re not finding what you’re looking for, mix it up a bit and try “smiling mature businessman” or “content man with arms crossed.” If you’re looking for photos of the audience at a sporting event, exhaust all of the possible terms you can think of: stadium, sports, football, basketball, audience, fans, jerseys, tailgaters etc.

Please, please don’t use this:


Use this:stock-photo-20323015-if-you-re-seeking-business-advice-he-s-the-man-to-call

6. What?

Choose photos that are relevant. We have had clients in the past come to us all the time who need a new website, for example, and we take a look at their current site. There are photos used that have little to nothing to do with the content of that particular page. A great photo can help enhance your website and support the content rather than work against it. Search for photos that really capture the feel, mood, or tone of what the content says.

7. Consistency is key.
If you’re looking for multiple photos, look for ones that have a similar vibe, and are consistent with the brand of your company and overall style of your website. It can be jarring for the viewer to see photos that don’t “match” the piece stylistically and this creates a huge disconnect, leaving the whole project looking disjointed. Try to find images that all fall within the same vein and that will work well together.

8. Show Photoshop some respect.

If using Photoshop to change your image in any way, make sure you abide by the rules of the site you’ve purchased it from. Some photographers or sites forbid editing and request that the image stays exactly as is. Otherwise, if you’re cropping, changing, stamping, cloning, resizing, expanding, color correcting or masking an image, do it carefully and with patience. If you hit a snag, there are all kinds of tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere to help you find the tools you need to properly edit the photo and make it look as professional and crisp as possible.

9. Make it your own.

It’s a good idea to customize or edit the photos you’ve purchased. If there are no editing restrictions on the photo you bought, feel free to stylize it to make it your own. Add a tint to it, make it high contrast, layer filters or make it black and white to create a custom effect that will match the look and feel of your project.

10. Shoot yourself.

When all else fails, grab a camera! Even built-in phone cameras take great pictures nowadays. If you find yourself searching for photos on a regular basis, it may be worth it to buy your own camera and lighting set up. While that can get expensive, it will ensure that your photos are taken at the right angles, the right distance, and in the exact right way you imagine them. Our current culture encourages the DIY or Do It Yourself mentality, which cultivates creativity and makes us more invested in the projects we work on. Can’t afford photo equipment or don’t want to spend the time? Consider hiring a photographer to take them for you.

Good luck! We hope these quick tips help you in your future image searches and make the process a wee bit easier. Have fun in the wonderful world of stock photography!


(PS the photo above is awful, don’t use it. There is never, ever an appropriate occasion to use photos like these unless you’re trying to be funny. Like right now.)

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