5 Minute Read

Design 101: How to Use Stock Photography Effectively

As a graphic designer, we’re familiar with stock photography. We’re even more familiar with the terrible stock photography; for example, your typical posed person in a suit, smiling and waving at the camera. So how do you use stock photography without it being obvious? Here I’ll share some tips on how to improve your stock photography integration with your designs.


Start with a Good Source

Nothing is worse than having a limited selection of low or mediocre quality photos. Luckily, I’ve had the experience of using great stock photography websites that offer reasonable pricing plans.

Here are my top suggestions:

If you’re sharing an account with your team I’d personally recommend Shutterstock, since you can get plans that offer from 350 or 750 images a month. If you’re working on personal projects, I’d suggest Bigstock since you can get a plan that offers 5 images a day.


So how do you use stock photography without it being obvious and reducing credibility? Find out: Click To Tweet


How to Discern a Great Stock Photo

First, try to never use stock photos of posed people directly looking in the camera lens. These are cheesy and I feel that these photos can decrease your client’s credibility. Here’s a quick example below that represents a “young professional working” (what I typed in the search bar of Shutterstock). Which one stands out to you?



You probably picked the one on the right… but why? The model is captured at a unique angle in a natural environment, un-posed with a variety of colors and contrast. Here are some tips on how to fine-tune your stock photography eye:


  •    Try not to ever use posed photography
  •    Avoid “Stock Image Clichés!” (typical “business” handshakes, words spelled out on keyboard keys, things not seen ordinarily like a “person running through a field in a suit”)
  •    Pick photography where the model or models aren’t directly looking at the camera
  •    Pick angled shots rather than straight-on, centered photos
  •    Pick photography with diversity — this is important!
  •    Pick photography with high or unique contrast and lots of color variety
  •    Pick photography that features very similar colors to the brand you’re designing for
  •    Pick photography that relates to the message you’re representing! (For example, go to slide 18 on Hubspot’s 10 Do’s and Don’ts for Using Stock Photos in Your Marketing).


Integrating Great Stock Photography with Design

Now that you’ve got your perfect stock photograph, you’ll need to modify it. As Carrie Cousins said in a Design Shack article, “…A stock photo should never stand alone.”  This will depend on the design project you’re working on. You might have to crop it, adjust the photo settings in Photoshop, or even add a logo or branded color overlay. So how could that same photo you liked earlier be used for a social post for example? Think of your stock photo as an enhancement to your message and design. Try connecting the content, message, brand and target audience together in your design. Here’s how I made that photo earlier into a branded social post example, using a statistic from our Marenated article, “Why You Should Give Candidates a Yes or No and How.”




In the example I created, I made sure to use the stock photo as an enhancement to the important statistic taken from the blog article while still making the photo appear branded and unique.


A stock photo should never stand alone. Here's how to make sure it doesn't: Click To Tweet


When you need to use stock photography in your design projects, make sure to use them effectively. Utilize my discernment tips to pick the right photo, and make sure to always modify your photo after you download it. Finally, make sure to download your stock photos in the highest dimensions possible every time. In no time, you’ll be able to seamlessly integrate stock photos into client designs. Making the stock photos as natural, unique and interesting as possible will help make them feel more professional and authentic.