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What are Stock Photos? The Do's & Don'ts Designers Need to Know

what are stock photos

As a budding designer, you’ve likely heard the term used often. But what are stock photos, exactly? Simply open a website, scroll through your Facebook newsfeed or flip through a magazine or brochure, and you’re sure to find some type of stock photography.

Stock photos can feature anything—scenery, everyday objects, animals, landmarks, events or people—and the images are typically licensed for specific uses. They also can be used and reused for commercial design purposes.

In fact, brands often utilize stock photos as a cost-efficient way to enhance their marketing materials and represent their brand. The images can also be an important component of a business website if the company doesn’t have the means to produce their own photography.

Now that you’re aware of what stock photos are, it’s critical that you understand how to properly incorporate them into your designs. There’s a handful of advice for using them appropriately, and just as many guidelines for what not do to. Get some advice on the do’s and don’ts of using stock photos.

How to do it right...

It’s safe to say that using custom photography is a better choice than stock imagery. But sometimes you just don’t have a choice. In those instances, make sure you’re following these best practices.

1. DO use images that complement your content

First and foremost, consider the subject of your content. Be mindful about choosing images that will enhance your content and make it stand out to its intended audience. The user should never have to question why the image is accompanying the content.

2. DO remember to have an appealing background

It doesn’t matter how great your stock photo looks if the rest of the design isn’t great. Be conscious of color, texture, fonts and proportion to ensure everything is complementary.

3. DO be picky when choosing an image

You’re probably not going to find the perfect stock photo in your very first search. Remember that every image used in marketing materials or on a website is a direct reflection of the brand, so it’s important to choose images that complement the rest of the brand materials.

4. DO manipulate your photos (license permitting) to match your content

If you have access to these stock photos, that means other designers do as well. Stand out from the crowd and avoid repetition by making them your own. This helps make the photos look more polished and professional and allows you to cater them to your brand. Try adding text, shapes or photo filters to complement your design, suggests Shana Haynie, creative director at SplashOPM.

5. DO invest in a good stock photography site

If you’re planning on implementing stock photography in a large portion of your work, consider subscribing to a database. While there are free stock photo resources out there, they are likely more saturated with users which means the images are used more frequently.

“Uncovering unique images on sites that are less trafficked will give your designs more edge,” Haynie says. Also, keep in mind many free sites have outdated imagery, while subscription-based options continuously add new images.

6. DO give credit where credit is due

Terms of use will vary depending on the source of your stock photos. Be diligent in crediting sources when using stock images when it’s required to do so. Don’t assume you have free reign just because you paid for the image. Make sure you’re aware of what the license allows you to do.

“Copyright infringement can happen to anyone who isn’t cautious when using other people’s images,” Haynie warns.

What NOT to do...

When it comes to using stock photos, there are definitely some things to avoid at all costs. Here are a few no-no’s to steer clear of when using borrowed images.

1. DON’T use images just for the sake of using images

“Using photos is a way to enhance the content and make it easier for your viewer to understand the design, not a way to decorate a page,” Haynie says. Every photo you use should be contributing to your content, audience or overall message. If it doesn’t serve a purpose – scrap it!

2. DON’T use images without permission

This probably seems like a no-brainer, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. Never use stock photos unless you are absolutely certain you have permission to do so. This is against the law and could get you in some big trouble, Haynie warns. If you have any doubt, it’s best to find a different image.

3. DON’T use overused images

You know them – those familiar faces in your newsfeeds that seem to appear in ads for everything from restaurants to car dealerships. If you recognized an overused stock image, chances are good your audience will notice it as well. Take the time and spend the money if necessary to find stock photos that are unique and not overused.

4. DON’T choose cheesy photos

We’ve all encountered images of the perfectly posed employees in a boardroom or the overly enthusiastic women enjoying a colorful salad. If you’re in a position where you need to use stock photos, be mindful of choosing authentic images that help convey your brand’s message. Avoid using photos featuring overzealous subjects unless there’s a strategic purpose.

5. DON’T exclusively use stock photos

Stock photos are an acceptable solution when in a pinch, but they should never become a crutch. You shouldn’t immediately turn to stock images. Try incorporating custom photography or illustration if at all possible. Experiment with combining in-house elements with procured assets.

6. DON’T use poor quality images

If you’re going to spend money on stock photos to feature in your designs, you should be sure they are top quality. Most stock photography sites offer different dimensions of each image. Be sure to choose the version with the ideal resolution for what you need, even if it’s not the cheapest option.

The takeaway

Now that you know what stock photos are and how to incorporate them in your designs, make sure you're not making any other rookie mistakes. Learn about some other important aspects of graphic design in our article: 7 Things Self-Taught Designers Don't Know They're Missing.


Jennifer Pfeffer

Jennifer is a Content Marketing Specialist at Collegis Education who researches and writes articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about learning and higher education and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.


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