How to Choose Effective Stock Photos

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With the plethora of stock photos available for use, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the thousands of choices. Image resources that were meant to be quick, convenient ways to fill design needs can quickly turn into a tedious task of sorting, comparing, and vetting various stock photo options. Many of these photos tend to have an almost “sanitized” look to them, and although a lot of these images are meant for all-purpose use, many fall short of their purpose and lack genuine emotional appeal.

This can be a serious issue, especially if the chosen stock photos are meant to embody and represent your company and be used for branding and marketing purposes. Let’s not forgot to mention that by using accessible stock photos, you run the risk of using an image that a competing company may have already utilized. So, what solutions do you have for such dilemmas? The first and best course of action is to employ useful, effective methods to select stock photos for your company, and the second is to find a viable alternatives to using any stock photos.

Emphasize Good Image Quality and Size

The first and most important considerations are size and quality. Size should be determined by the site or project layout, not the image itself. Having said that, the original size of your image should be as large as you can get it. You never know when you’ll be asked to make it larger or repurpose it for a derivative design, and you’ll want the largest size and sharpest quality for the purpose.

Chances are that you have at one point in your life taken a small image and tried to increase its dimensions with disastrous results. The image was more than likely pixelated or, depending on how large you made it, the image may have not even been discernible. Luckily, most stock photos offer various sizes for download, but just in case they only offer one size, make sure you save the file in its largest, sharpest form.

Be Sensitive to Cultural Appropriateness

Sometimes, nascent businesses and designers can make the mistake of not realizing that certain imagery choices — no matter how minor — can lead to a turn-off or even worse, the wrong idea altogether. When choosing your stock photos, one thing you should ask yourself is “is this image culturally appropriate for what I want to use it for?” Culturally appropriate images can be a culmination of many different considerations, so it is up to you to carefully determine what will and won’t work.

Depending on your company’s demographic and target audience, certain images, whether it is of an object or a person, may work better than others for very subtle reasons. For example, companies that cater to international clientele do best by providing stock photos on their websites that include imagery and cultural references from all client companies. Otherwise, they run the risk of appearing to be a strange, foreign company that’s unintended for the audiences that aren’t referenced and included in the imagery.

Conversely, a local business that primarily caters to a local audience will more than likely use images that reflect their customers’ likeness. Successful companies often use these types of practices as a marketing tactic, as it makes customers and clients feel included and welcomed. If you are unsure of whether or not your stock images will be culturally appropriate, consider asking for the opinions of others or even running a test or survey to see how people will react.

Foster Emotional Connections

Never simply use a stock image because you consider it pretty. Using pretty-but-purposeless stock imagery is exactly that, purposeless. Stock images should be chosen to evoke emotion and not to just be filler content for your designs. Try to choose images that not only contain an emotional connection, but also a purpose that aligns with the greater purpose of your design. With your projects, you will need to decide what you are trying to say and what will be the best image to articulate this, and choosing the right imagery is far harder — and far more important — than simply identifying “pretty” pictures.

An imagery choice that’s not carefully deliberated will not only leave you with a generic and “sanitized” image, it can leave the viewer void of emotion and little to no interest in your products or services. If your product or service is meant to create a sense of well-being and happiness, then make sure you include imagery of smiling, positivity, and happy individuals and groups.

Consider Illustrations and Non-Human Entities

It’s often forgotten and overlooked, but there are always options besides using stock photos for your projects. Budget constraints, licensing issues, or corporate branding guidelines could prevent you from using an image. Should any of these limitations face you, you can always turn to using illustrations and vector graphics.

Going this route will generally make it easier for you to create the look and feel that you are going for. You are granted more creative freedom, especially if you are creating the illustrations yourself. You will however want to make sure that your images are still of good quality and size, culturally appropriate, and able to foster immediate emotional connections.


As you can see, choosing the right stock photos for your work is more than just picking a pretty photograph. In fact, the selection process makes the difference between an ideal and a poorly-chosen image. Certain criteria should be considered in order to make the best choice for your work: consider size and quality objectively, pick purposeful culturally-appropriate images, foster emotional connections, and remember that you’re not limited to the “sanitized” photography found in common stock repositories.

Gabrielle GoshaGabrielle Gosha
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Gabrielle is a creative type who specializes in graphic design, animation and photography.

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