6 ways to make stock images work for your project

Stock images aren’t just people with weird smiles on a white backdrop. Here’s how to find gems in a stock image library — and make them truly reflect your brand.

With the right eye and a few savvy search skills, a good library image can be a valuable asset for your business. And it can save you and your clients a lot of money if the alternative is hiring a photographer.

Whether you’re working directly from a stock image site or using select images provided by a client, we’ve got tips to help you make stock images look natural, professional and unique, while avoiding a few common mistakes.




1. look out for the competition



Step into your client’s shoes when browsing potential images and give it a quick once-over to make sure it doesn’t portray any competitor products or services. Look out for brand colors (even if the branding’s blurred) and distinctive product shapes or designs. Yes, we’re talking about a certain iconic brand with a silvery-colored fruit-themed laptop…




2. keep it local



Stock images come from all around the world, which is one reason they’re so numerous and varied. When you’re selecting images for a client, make sure the content is in line with your client’s unique taste and brand guidelines.

Currency is an obvious one — you wouldn’t give a US client an image of people at a restaurant where the prices are in Euros. Weather is another factor to watch out for. Skip the sun-drenched Californian snaps when working with a client based in snowy Sweden.

Finally, if there are vehicles or road markings in the picture, check which side of the road cars are driving on and whether they’re left-hand or right-hand drive. For most of the world cars keep to the right and drivers are on the left of the car, but in India, Australia, the UK and a few other places, these rules get reversed.


Quick Tip: Sometimes you can crop a single image in different ways to give you a set of pictures while complementing color and theme. This is great for maintaining consistency within a small project.




3. be brand-savvy



Many companies have brand guidelines related to imagery, and hopefully you’ve had the chance to check these out along with examples from their website and print material. Having brand guidelines on-hand can minimize the process for you and your client.

But sometimes, there are unwritten rules too, based on individual preferences or strategic priorities within their business. If possible, see if you can grab a chat with a friendly in-house designer or brand executive to get a deeper sense of what look and feel they prefer. Getting a second opinion can go a long way to finding quality stock images for your client.

Some stock images go through a process to have a heavily stylized, filtered look. Whether you use these is an area worth checking with your client before you start your selection process. On one hand, they’re in keeping with modern trends. (Hi, Instagram!) On the other, they may not be a fit for your client’s brand, and if they are, there’s probably a rule about things like vignetting, color temperature, and saturation. Be sure to double-check with your client when it comes to filters and quality of images.




4. keep the stock cliches at bay



You probably don’t need us telling you that overly posed images aren’t going to look good. For most clients, it’s best to avoid people looking directly at the camera or sporting a facial expression that has no relationship to what they’re doing — such as the infamous ‘woman laughing alone with salad’.

The same applies to symbolic cliches. Those staged images help illustrate an abstract concept, but are best approached with caution too. For example, the crossroads sign to indicate making choices, the piggy bank as a shorthand for savings, or the businessman with a megaphone to represent communication issues in the workplace.




5. work those keywords



There’s a special art to finding quality images from a diverse stock library. The search terms you use can really make the difference between hours of scouring and a quick decision-making process. Using a ‘long tailed’ search, with multiple keywords, will help you narrow down a search quickly. You can also choose to exclude certain keywords, which can be as important as keywords you leave in.

Finally, make full use of the stock image site’s filters when you start a search. On larger sites, the filtering tools can be impressively detailed. They’ll cover everything from image orientation, to aspect ratio, country of origin or number of people featured. Shutterstock is well-known for its filtering tools. You can even fine-tune your search down to ethnicity, age, and gender!



6. use all your senses to find content that pops



Texture and sensory cues can be powerful in stock images. Whether you’re designing an event flyer, an email graphic, a webpage or a business card. A snuggly-looking blanket, a vase of fresh flowers or a luscious-looking cheesecake will generate positive associations. On the flipside, photos taken in dated or cheap-looking interiors, or posed with unappealing props can make an image that’s otherwise right feel wrong for your clients.


Quick Tip: Always choose the highest resolution available within your budget. This will give you a lot of options for zooming and cropping your images. It will also make sure you avoid the dreaded pixelated look.


For more tips on branding, try our guide on rebranding!

About the author

Luis Marrero

I have built and sold several eCom and B2C businesses over the past five years which was a stepping stone into creating a full-service SEO agency servicing medium to large sized companies, including multiple Fortune 500s and government agencies. In my spare time, you can find me rebuilding 6.2L V8 NA engines by Mercedes-AMG.

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