Become a Stock Star: Using Stock Images with Style

If you enjoy reading cautionary tales, just browse the Internet for best practices in stock imagery. From trying to match a specific message with a generic photo, to misleading your audience with unintentional misrepresentations, to calamitous—albeit hilarious—stories about overused stock image models, there are plenty of warnings floating out there. But amidst the terrors, there are exciting ideas cropping up that might be changing the way we look at stock photos forever.

Stock images vs. custom photography

When it comes to ad imagery, standard advice is to go the custom photography route. However, this involves shelling out what might be a good chunk of your budget just to get pictures very similar to what you could find much cheaper online. If you can find stock imagery that will work just as hard as the photos you hire someone else to take, it’s pretty clear which option wins.

Some may argue that personalizing your photos with a client’s real staff is worth the extra cost. However, many people overlook the fact that some staff members may, for whatever reason, leave the company, requiring you to update the photography—sometimes on short notice. If this ever happens, the added time, money and hassle may make you reconsider your ideas on stock images. So, while it’s easy to rag on stock photos when they’re done wrong, let’s consider how no one notices or says anything when it’s done right! It’s time to celebrate the stock image with these three recommendations.

Look where you’ve never looked before

We already know the pool of stock imagery is overflowing with generic images. So how do we find the gems buried in the sand? While sites like Shutterstock and iStock are popular resources, their popularity also means that the images they provide can tend to become standard. As today’s audiences increasingly rely on images to tell them what to feel and do, “standard” is just not enough to evoke a strong emotion or inspire a meaningful action. That’s where innovative, and often lesser-known, stock image sites come into play.

Many of these sites provide not only fresh imagery that strays away from the typical people against white backgrounds, but they also offer a different approach to stock photos altogether. For example, Death to the Stock Photo offers image packs with each photo accompanied by its own behind-the-scenes story. The sense of depth and authenticity this fosters in each image will likely speak much more to your audience than one-size-fits-all imagery. For some more inspiration, Entrepreneur put together this list of the best free stock image sites that you may not know about.

But you don’t have to ditch the more popular sites just to get something different or creative. Whether you purchase from the well-known stock spots, or download from the indie sites, there are plenty of ways to make stock photos your own. That’s what happens when you…

Do what you’ve never done before

Just like mixing two songs together can create one incredible mash-up, combining two or more stock photos can make one attention-grabbing image. That’s what sites like PSD Box are teaching us with tutorials on how to make a person’s head look like a broken piece of pottery with two stock pics. And Tuts+ shows how to incorporate stock puzzle piece imagery with a stock headshot to create a really unique visual. Whether or not these specific ideas work well in the context of your own designs, you’re sure to find plenty of eye-catching techniques by simply browsing the Internet for some photo manipulation inspiration.

Of course, you should always read the licensing and usage rules for every image you download and use in your work. But, unless otherwise specified, manipulating stock imagery to say exactly what you want it to say—whether by simply cropping out irrelevant features or combining photos to make a totally new visual—is how you keep your distance from the dreaded generic.

Text like you’ve never texted before?

No, not texting on your phone. This one’s about how you can add more power to your stock photos by implementing creative typography. This is something that works beautifully with presentations and blog posts. For client projects, it is important to review any brand guidelines that may place restrictions on overlaying type on top of images or only allow certain fonts.

But when you establish the possibilities, playing around with how headlines and messaging look on top of images can provide a surprising and unique appearance. Whether you’re simply filling in empty spaces on the photo, or getting more advanced with positioning copy in the landscape of an image, marrying text and visuals has the potential to unify and strengthen your message in incredibly creative ways.

Stock up wrap-up

Clearly, while there’s a wealth of advice warning against stock images in favor of custom photography, there are also plenty of ways to work with stock photos to present fresh and powerful messages. Using these creative techniques and becoming familiar with how they work within your content can ultimately save you a good chunk of change that you would have otherwise spent on “real” photography. The low cost will be worth it—and the increased creativity will be priceless. So find your message, find your image, and stock n’ roll like a champion.

Published on April 21, 2015