Some see it as a necessary evil, a few view it as an invaluable resources, others call it an annoyance, and still more see it as a slowly dieng trend. Whatever your feelings on stock photography, you’ve got to understand that you’ll end up using it at some point if you regularly create online content.

If you’re going to use stock photography, it’s important you learn the when and how of proper usage. It’s not always a cut and dry scenario. You’ve got to establish budgets, balance your time, and determine realistic expectations for your content. And even after all that, your course of action may seem a bit blurry.

Hand of person taking photo using point and shoot camera
Hand of person taking photo using point and shoot camera via Shutterstock.

Still there are some universal rules to remember when applying stock images to your content. This no-nonsense, highly usable, and implacable advice is the subject du jour. Strap on your thinking caps and get ready to enter the realm of the hypothetical as we dive into the deep depths of the subject matter, namely: how and when to use stock photography.

Last Resort

First of all you need to establish in your mind the hierarchy of preferences in image buying. Stock imagery should never be your go to resource for unique and high quality imagery to add to your content. In simple language, it’s just not unique. It’s stock. That means there’s a lot of it rolling around out there, so if you’re using it, it makes your site that much less unique, that much more ubiquitous, and it hinders your chances at standing out from the crowd.

The hierarchy is then implemented to help you go from best to worst in terms of getting the ideal imagery for your content. The hierarchy goes like so:

  1. Hire an artist/photographer to produce your images
  2. If you have artistic talent, produce the images yourself
  3. Pay for stock imagery
  4. Download free images

Now depending on your budget, talent, time, and a plethora of other factors, your own personal hierarchy may vary significantly from the one featured above. Yet, if we’re speaking in ideal terms, this is how it should go.

In a perfect world, you or your client (whatever the case may be) would have an unlimited budget to hire professional photographers, fly them to Alaska, and get a unique and beautiful, high resolution, full-screen shot of the Northern Lights to plaster across your site. Unfortunately, on planet earth, this isn’t always the most practical course of action.

Northern lights aurora borealis in the night sky
Northern lights aurora borealis in the night sky via Shutterstock.

More often than not, you’ll be under the gun on time, over the limit with your budget, and under pressure to produce excellent content with high quality imagery to supplement your text. Even if you’re a talented photographer yourself, it’s not always practical to produce your own images. You probably won’t have the time or energy to go and get the best shots for the project at hand.

In such cases, stock imagery can be a life saver. Stock images that will positively augment your content can often be procured cheaply, or even for free online. Even so, you still want to pay for images if budgets allow.

The more you pay, the less you’ll see the image you purchased. Distinctiveness equates to individuality. Being an individual, unique within an industry, in turn translates to having a more valuable service or product. You want your images to be as rare as possible, so that your content appears to be more original and more compelling.

Of course, you have to weigh the money you spend against the potential benefits of that perception. If you’re low on funds, it’s hard to justify putting a sizable amount into purchasing fancy shmancy stock photos when a slightly more ubiquitous offering will still do the trick.

So to sum it up: whenever possible get completely unique imagery. If that’s impossible, do whatever makes the most sense considering your time, energy, and budgetary constraints.

The “how-to” Section

So now that you have a broad idea of the proper time to purchase or download stock images for free, it’s fair to assume you need a refresher course on how they can best be implemented. This can be tricky, because the use of stock imagery is very much dependent upon context. When placing images in context, you’re of course, being subjective. Thus it’s very difficult to make blanket statements about subjective matters.

Still, there are some absolutes one can follow when using stock photography.

Chaos is… uhhh… Bad

Another thing to be mentioned is that random images with no connection to the subject matter, have no place in your content.

A random images with no connection to the subject matter
A random image with no connection to the subject matter.

To reiterate the point, you can’t use stock imagery without purpose. If you just slap a pretty picture that has nothing to do with your content in the middle of the piece, it only serves as a distraction, a mental digression that breaks up user engagement and endangers your fragile grip on their attention spans.

Instead, you need to include stock imagery that illustrates a point that your content is trying to make. Almost like a supporting detail in the body of your paragraph, or an exclamation point at the end of your sentences. Simply put, your imagery should complement your text, rather than steal the stage.

Contextual Augmentation

Since your images should complement your text, that means you need to think about how they will affect the reading of your text from a design standpoint. That means thinking about placement on the page, and trying to help readers understand why the image is there.

Sometimes an idea is perfectly clear in your own mind, but it’s not quite translating to the reader once you’ve written it on the page. The image is there to facilitate, but adding text within an image or even adding a descriptive caption can really tie up the loose ends.

Targeted Imagery

Another helpful tip for effective use of stock imagery is to inform your image choices with your market research. By that I mean you should know your target audience, and pick imagery that’s likely to appeal to them specifically. For example, let’s say you have an ecommerce store offering a clothing line aimed at young adults. You would be ill advised to use stock imagery of people in their forties in your blog posts.

Target Audience
Target Audience. Sorry, I just love stock images!

These are simple tips, but you’d be surprised how often people get the common sense stuff wrong.

Mix It Up

There’s no reason you have to exclusively use stock photos. Variety is the spice of life, and youre content is no exception. Don’t be satisfied with your favorite stock site, and be done with it. Take a few photos of your own, commission a graphic artist to make an image for you once in a while, and play with all your hipster filters on Instagram.

I Fought the Law and the Law Won

The biggest pitfall people fall into using stock imagery is copyright infringement. You can’t just search Google images and pop whatever the first result is onto your web page. It’s dangerously irresponsible to do so. You open yourself or your client up to serious litigation. Your site could get shut down. You can even get sued for all you’ve got, and some you don’t.

Target Audience
Copyright via Shutterstock.

The real problem here is that copyright laws are really malleable in many cases. Some judges might find you guilty whereas others would dismiss the case. So you really have to be careful to cover all your bases.

In general, purchasing from a stock imagery site protects you from any such concerns, because you’re purchasing the license to redistribute and alter the image. Just be sure to include an attribution, which will usually be available on the page where you download the image.

If you’re downloading something for free though, you have to be extra careful. Research an image’s point of origin before you download. In some cases, you’ll have to contact the photographer and ask for permission, which defeats the primary benefit of stock imagery: convenient buying.

So how to cover your bases? Google has a handy search filter that allows you to search only for images labeled for reuse:

Yikes, that first one looks kinda vicious
Yikes, that first one looks kinda vicious.

Yikes, that first one looks kinda vicious.

These free images are generally good to go, but you still need to do your homework on where they came from, and if you need a license to reuse them. Be on the lookout for the type of license an image has:

  1. Royalty Free
  2. Rights Managed
  3. Extended or Enhanced

Royalty free photos are free to reuse and alter at will, while rights managed are for a particular purpose for a limited amount of time. Extended or
image licenses are ones that have been altered from an original purchase. So be mindful of which type is which, and familiarize yourself with the legalese that accompanies each variety.

Where to Look?

The final piece of the puzzle is finding stock images worth purchasing. I’m partial to for paid images, and (formerly for images that don’t require a donation. There are, however, a multitude of sites looking to trade dollars for imagery.

Try these out and see which you like best:

And there are many more, but those are a few of the heavy hitters.

What do you think of stock imagery? Should it stay or should it go? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comment section.