How to Pick Great Stock Photos for Your Content

We've all seen them.

You know, the websites that have gloriously awful stock photos (woman smiling eating garden salad, anyone?), stock photos so bad that you can't look past them to what might be great written content. Worse yet? People actually pay for these abominations. 

As bloggers and business owners who want to produce great content, attract your dream readers and clients, and of course build a successful brand and business, the last thing you want to be doing is scaring away your future audience with off-putting and off-brand graphics.

The good news? These days there are some really quality stock photos out there that look nothing like the awkward corporate robots grimacing at the camera that we're used to seeing. With determination and a little know-how, you can get gorgeous stock photos for your content and use them in a way that helps build your brand and enchant your audience— without spending a cent. Here's how.



There are lots and lots of places out there that will charge you good money for good stock photos, and lots of places out there that will charge you good money for bad ones. Spending money on good stock photos isn't a bad idea, but it's not always feasible when you're just starting out— in fact, I still publish a digital quarterly magazine using all free stock photos, and it's gorgeous





So here's the important thing: not all stock photos are created equal. In fact, the vast majority of them are awful, and scream stock photo. When you're picking a stock photo, one of the main things you want to keep in mind is that you don't want your stock photo looking like a stock photo. What does this mean?

  • your photo doesn't look overly staged
  • your lighting is natural, over artificial
  • you're avoiding too many bland smiles, or unnatural emotions


Which one Of these would you rather see?

Yes, all stock photos are staged, but the one on the right does a much better job of capturing an authentic moment, of showing a scene how it may have actually played out. Your goal? Seek out stock photos that look as though they're giving you a snapshot into a real moment, a window into a real scene playing out somewhere in the world— a great candid photo that was taken by accident, rather that a posed photo where everyone was told smile.



So you're writing a post about money, specifically, finding money for your blog or business why it seems like you have none. Your first instinct might be to find a stock photo of money, right? Because you're writing about money. That's when you often end up with this.

This image, while portraying a delicious suitcase of cash, does nothing for your post. It doesn't put the image in context, it does nothing to humanize the content, and it's cheesy as hell. Instead, take a step back from the most literal interpretation of your topic, and think of some related concepts that you might be able to capture in a stock photo. What else comes to mind when you think of money? Stress, papers, notebooks, spreadsheets, calculators/general desk imagery, etc. So rather than a boring suitcase of money (okay, it's the image that's boring, not the concept. A suitcase of money would be anything but boring), you have a realistic image that helps place your reader in the scenario about which you're writing.



When you're sourcing photos from many different websites, it's important that the general style and mood of your photos remains the same, creating a consistent brand feel. It's helpful to think of your brand as a season.

Your photos might be bright and colourful (spring)


They might be muted and romantic (summer)


Earthy, dark and mysterious (autumn)


Or dramatic and crisp (winter)



Alright, so it's just part of the bargain when using stock photos, especially free ones: they're not unique. Every day I run across another blog or even published book that has some photo that I've used before. However, that doesn't mean that you have to look exactly like everyone else!

Most reputable stock photo sources give you images with a high resolution, often as much as 4000x6000 pixels. This means you have a decent amount of wiggle room when it comes to cropping the image uniquely.


For example: this photo? Shows up everywhere.


But this one? Helps disguise the original just enough to keep things interesting.