Choosing Stock Photos 101: A Complete Guide for the Inexperienced
Choosing Stock Photos 101: A Complete Guide for the Inexperienced
November 10, 2018 / Sarah Pritzker
Choosing Stock Photos 101: A Complete Guide for the Inexperienced
November 10, 2018 / Sarah Pritzker

Stock photo libraries are a wonderful creation. These services offer quality, royalty-free images in an almost endless array of designs and topics. Adding the right image to your presentation can change the entire look, feel, and effect of the project. With the right image, you can draw in your audience, sell your product, and transform someone’s views.

Yes, using the right stock images can make all the difference. But the keyword here is “right”. A common mistake that rookie marketers and designers make is slapping any stock photo onto a website design, ad campaign, or other digital media with catastrophic results. The message is wrong, the impact is lost, and the job is tanked. All because of a misplaced image.

Designers, advertisers, and even people tweaking projects for personal use need to learn the art of choosing the right stock photos to make their presentation pop. Here’s the ultimate guide to selecting just the right images for winning designs every time.

Tip #1: Planning makes perfect (so plan!)

The first trick to finding the right stock photos is to consider all the W’s of the photo, the who’s, what’s, where’s. Where will this stock image be used? Who is the audience? What tone are you trying to convey? What message? A massive header image serves a different purpose than a small background image, and your royalty-free photo should be chosen accordingly to fit the purpose, audience, and genre it’s being selected for.

Other things to take into consideration include the other elements involved in the overall picture. Will there be text or other graphics on top of or around this stock photo? Will there be areas of shading, blurring, or contrast? These elements need to be accounted for in the initial planning stages because the last thing you want is to choose the perfect stock image for your project and then realize you need to sprawl text across the most prominent part of the image.

Tip #2: Stick to the topic

A common mistake made by even professional designers is letting a design run away with you. You get caught up in a creative streak, but you end up lost in a labyrinth of design hoops that most viewers will not be able to make heads or tails of. When selecting royalty-free images, make sure they’re on target. The photos should speak to the point of the content, elicit emotion, drive home a message. What’s more, choose stock photos that are consistent with your brand’s image. A photo can be artistic or beautiful, but if it clashes with your brand image, it does nothing to enhance your presentation.

Also, nix any out-dated stock photos, ones with poor lighting, or poor quality photos. While good stock photo services will usually weed these out for you, periodically, a dud comes to the surface. You certainly don't want stale content representing your brand.

Tip #3: Skip the standard

Another mistake newbie designs make when choosing stock photography is being too generic. How many times have you visited a low-grade website and seen the same photo of a woman smiling, a guy on a computer, or a team with their arms raised in a cheer? All these stock photos tell you about the site is that the product or service is too cheap to get their own images (and remember, first impressions are lasting ones).

Obviously, if you are using royalty-free stock images from a stock photo library, you run into the chance of having the same image appear on someone else’s website. But with a little discernment, you can select photos that are less generic than most. Skip the standard style of photos that have the same message over and over again (we get it, your customer service team likes blazers). Avoid photos that are obviously staged, set against a solid color background (there’s too much color contrast and, who are you kidding, it’s totally unnatural), and images that have poor lighting.

Tip #4: Face the music

The goal of this campaign is to get the viewer to relate to your message. People naturally connect to faces, both animal and human faces. So, if you want customers to connect to your content, stick a mug into the mix. Faces can be smiling, crying, or eliciting other emotions. Either way, onlookers will likely relate to and be drawn to these images (and indirectly, these ads) more naturally. And as we already mentioned, make sure the face, clothing, and style of the subject are in line with your messaging.

When choosing people's images, though, there are some important rules to follow so that you don't fall into the trap of generic photography that we already discussed. Pick stock photos that:

  • Focus on subjects looking away from the camera
  • Show the back of the head or the face at an angle
  • Contain shadows or silhouettes
  • Incorporate partial body shots (hands, arms, legs, etc.)

You don’t need a stock photo to have all of these elements. For example, if you want a front-facing view of a person, make sure there is a shadow. This gives enough contrast to keep the picture looking authentic and not generic or staged.

Also, if you want to use a neat trick, have the person’s eyes looking towards your call to action. People naturally follow the direction of the stare. So, viewers will be automatically drawn towards your CTA button this way.

Tip #5: Understand (the importance of) colors

Colors are pretty darn important when it comes to marketing. Millions of dollars are spent researching the effects of various colors on an audience. Brands choose their logo colors carefully to elicit the proper responses and emotions from their customers. Yes, colors really make a difference.

So, when selecting a stock photo for your presentation, make sure you understand how colors work. Choose an image that conveys your message (in content and in color) and is consistent with your branding. When using overlay, text, or other effects, make sure colors contrast properly. And select images with attention-grabbing colors to get onlookers to react.

Tip #6: Play with positioning

Choosing between landscape and portrait view can make a huge difference in the impact an image has on your audience. So, make sure to keep this in mind when designing your project and selecting a stock photo. Also, remember that the device or format where the images are being viewed will make a big difference. Be sure to plan for screen size, shape, and resolution differences, as well as differences that come about from various media outlets (the same image will look different on a billboard ad and a Facebook post).

Here’s a good rule of thumb for various channels:

  • Facebook – 1,200 x 628 (use square images)
  • Twitter – 16:9 (for example: 1024×576, 1152×648, 1280×720, 1366×768, 1600×900, 1920×1080) (use wider images)
  • LinkedIn – 700 x 400
  • Google+ – 800 x 1,200 (use taller images)
  • Pinterest – 735 x 1,102 (use taller images)
  • Instagram – 1,080 x 1,080 (use square images)

Tip #7: Quality counts, so choose HD

There's just no comparing a good photo with a poor quality one. High quality, high-resolution images give your brand a professional appearance. And the opposite is also true. So, you want to avoid choosing lower quality images because this connotation can be detrimental to your brand.

You can make sure that your stock photos are all top quality by searching exclusively through reputable stock photo websites and libraries. Sites like iStock, Shutterstock, and Dreamstime are all well-known stock photo agencies that offer top-quality royalty-free images. There are also smaller sites like Pond5 and Envato that have more specialized content if you're looking for something more unique.

Tip #8: For the love of licensing, keep it legal

And most importantly, be sure you know all the do's and don'ts of what you are legally allowed to do with your royalty-free stock images. There are many restrictions and rules regarding the use of creative works (including stock footage, images, and vector graphics that you find on these stock photo libraries). So, make sure that you are doing your due diligence in terms of legal requirements. Otherwise, your business can be sued for staggering sums, and your brand's reputation shot completely.

The Best Stock Photos for All Your Projects

Using stock photos in your presentations or marketing campaigns can make all the difference between a successful project and one that’s just a cough in the wind. Grab your audience’s attention, drive your message home, and get the response you’re looking for with a well-placed and well-chosen royalty-free stock image.

By Sarah Pritzker
Sarah Pritzker is a professional writer who loves scouring the web looking for the coolest products and services at the best prices. Sarah writes for Sarah has lived and traveled all over the world, but has finally settled down with her family in the Middle East - and yes, she misses winter!