Best Practices for Choosing Stock Photography

By: Aaron Gelston  | 08/22/2018

What’s this? Another article about stock photography? Sure is! If you ever find yourself staring down the barrel of the "no photography budget" gun, this post is for you. While stock photography has a sort of stigma against it, there are ways to utlitize quality stock photos to enhance your designs. Following these simple guidelines will help you make the most of any design project, using little budget.


Note: You’re going to need some level of personal taste to execute this properly.


1. Match the Mood of the Overall Site and Brand

This may seem obvious to most, but an out of place image can take a user from a place of brand solidarity and confidence to where am I and what happened? You’ve spent so much time and effort to align your design system with an engaging color palette and perfect font, why would you jeopardize the experience with an image that looks like it’s from a 1970’s Sears catalog? Ask yourself, how does the image make you feel? Does the photo convey trust or authenticity? If it makes you feel anything other than what your personas would desire, start over.

2. WHEN Including Humans...

The presence of people can add a personal touch to your website. As you are searching for the perfect image, keep in mind the relationship your user will have with it. Can they imagine themselves as the subject in the frame? The easiest way to put them in this mindset is to be authentic. The scene should be candid and absolutely no one should be smiling as hard as they can directly into your soul. This tends to intimidate the user and can quickly take them from relatable to unobtainable. If you would still like to have a strong impact without the tension, consider photos with a single subject. Their eyes or gestures can move people around the page.


3. CONSIDER Quality of Lighting

Let’s talk temperature for a moment. Does your site lend itself to a cool or warm picture set? In my experience, it depends on how brand colors are applied to the design system. If your actionable elements are cool in hue, it might make sense to balance those cooler elements with warm photography. If a particular image matches the feeling you are trying to capture, but not the temperature, don’t be afraid to jump into Photoshop and adjust. Just remember that consistency is the name of the game when cultivating a brand presence.


4. LASTLY, DON'T FORGET Composition

You wouldn’t try to fit a round peg in the square hole, would you? Always keep in mind the destination of your image. If you are working with a vertical space, choose an image that will work in that space. An easy way to do this is to decide before you search, and then search based on the orientation of the photo.


"Avoiding the Stock Look" Checklist

Keep these in mind when selecting your photography to avoid the "stock" look and feel.

  •  Does it evoke the correct feeling?
  •  Is there a forced smile?
  •  Is there a forced interaction?
  •  Is it obviously shot on a set and not in a real environment?
  •  Is there an obvious artificial lighting source?
  •  Is it too cool/warm to be consistent with the rest of the site imagery?
  •  Is the orientation of the image consistent with its destination space?


As with all design decisions, it’s paramount to know your users inside and out. How would they feel when viewing your photography? Once you have answered this simple question, it’s completely possible to develop a high-quality photo library with stock photos.



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