Navigating stock photography sites

While we shoot photos for most of our work, and try to avoid stock photos, sometimes stock photography can come in handy and is unavoidable. Reports full of text and data can truly benefit from photos to provide context for a region or the people impacted by the study. But, what’s the best way to find an appropriate and tasteful stock photo while avoiding the obvious and cliché ones? You know what I’m talking about, a group of young professionals simultaneously jumping up and high-fiving all while smiling directly into the camera. Here are some ideas on how to elevate your use of stock photography in design.

Stock photography sites

These sites have extensive collections with a range in styles and prices. You can purchase credits or monthly bundle packages if you’re using stock photography regularly.

Expand your search

Before you start your search, it can be helpful to use some the filters on the site to avoid too many pages of unworkable options. These filters allow you to refine your search by categories such as orientation, people or no people, dominant color, price, etc.

An example of the filter options on Adobe’s stock photo site.

Now that the filters have been applied, on to the keyword search. Sometimes thinking about additional ways to describe your search subject can open up new possibilities for photos you might have missed. Let’s say you’re looking for a scene of a group of young consultants working on a project. Instead of simply searching the word “young consultants”, you might try something like “brainstorming project, business professionals.” The variety of photos is instantly more dynamic when you add in some additional descriptors.

Distinguishing a quality stock photo

Particular attributes of a stock photo can contribute to a higher level of sophistication. Here are a few examples of what to look for:

  • The models should appear natural. Having an overly posed scene or having the models looking directly in the camera can come off a bit corny and unprofessional.
  • Seek out photos with an interesting composition. Different angles carry a lot more interest than a centered, straight-on shot.
stock photos
In the example on the left, the model is centered, overly posed, and there are too many props to distract. The photo on the right is more successful as it presents a compelling angle, dynamic negative space, a more natural model, and pleasing colors.

All in the details

When you think you’ve finally landed on stock photos, ask yourself these questions.

  • Will the colors and style work with the brand you’re designing for?
  • Does the subject matter communicate the message I’m trying to convey?
  • Is the photo representing a diverse group of people? Or the appropriate audience?
  • If you plan to integrate or overlay text, is there enough solid space in the photo to maintain readability?

Whether designing a brochure, poster, website, report, etc. stock photography can work if chosen carefully.

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