How to work with stock photography

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In an ideal world, every image you put out would be your own. Your scenes, your props, your products, your everything. Professional photoshoots can be expensive, and at some point we all run out of pics to share on Instagram or to add a pop of activity on a website. So we turn to stock photography.

Now there is a lot of terrible stock photography available, and some of it is darned expensive. Check out Carol in the pic above (yes, I’ve named her Carol). That’s an empty mug Carol you fool! I bet those aren’t even her pens. Classic Carol, always thieving pens. What makes Carol even worse is that to get her, I have to pay £38.40 (inc VAT) from Shutterstock.

Now that does gets me 5 image downloads (and there’s literally always a discount code about so get Googling) – but an average website probably needs about 20 pictures, plus a weekly blog post and a little contingency – that’s like what, a bazillion pounds?

Ok, so it’s just under £600 but who want to spend £600 on pics of Carol? Sterile, empty-cupped Carol.

Now I’m guessing you don’t want to spend £600 a year, or want to have a website covered in Carol and her dead-behind-the-eyes friends. So I’ve put together a few tips on how to get the most out of working with stock photography.

Use sources of great stock photography

There are a few excellent websites offering totally free stock photography. You’ve probably seen their images on hundreds of sites and not noticed – although after reading this blog post you’ll start to recognise them everywhere.

I promise, you’ll start to see this woman EVERYWHERE

Here’s a rundown of my favourites:

Crop creatively

You don’t need to use the stock image in its entirety, I rarely do. It might be that the whole image isn’t relevant to the point you’re trying to communicate, in which case you can chop off the bit you don’t need.

It could be that you need a nice plain area to overlay text, like in a website banner.

One of the most common reasons I do this is because I just want a lovely chunk of texture to use as a background, like the example below.

The original image downloaded from Unsplash
A lovely textured background for the main website banner (text is added in the content management system)
Image with text for an Instagram post

Tweak for brand

Your brand has an identity, even if you haven’t consciously decided on one. And if you haven’t, that’s ok – I highly recommend grabbing one of Fiona Humberstone‘s books on branding though as it’s probably a lot easier than you think.

The Studio Cotton brand identity is full of warm blush pinks, taupes and creams – sometimes with a pop of citrus yellow. Everything is soft, and we aim for a kinda dreamy look.

As a contrast, our friends over at Inkwell Bristol have a bright, bold and rainbow feel to their imagery. Strong, saturated shades of mainly complementary colours create a playful and vibrant vibe.

Sometimes we’ll find an excellent photo that is perfect for the context, but just off brand. This is when I turn to PicMonkey. PicMonkey is not a great photo editor – but it is a quick one, and it’s free for everything I need to do.

Using PicMonkey I can tweak the brightness, saturation, fade, add effects and loads more. I tend to stick to the simple stuff though, or images can start to look rather MySpace (circa 2004).

The original colourful sunset image, again from Unsplash
Studio Cotton-ified, image saturation and shadows way down – warmth and brightness up
Inkwell Bristol-ified. This didn’t actually need much change – increased highlights and decreased temperature to add more hues
Side-by-side comparison (Cotton left, original centre, Inkwell right)

Edit for location

A massive mistake small businesses make is to use images poorly, particularly on their own websites. The biggest culprit is typically text on a highly-patterned, high-contrast background. Like this article – just scroll back up and see how terrible that is too read.

When you’re selecting or creating an image that will have text over it – you really need to stick to one area of the colour spectrum with little extremes between shades. This increases readability and on a practical level, ensures you can always use either black or white for the overlaying text.

This image pretty plain and feels perfect for a background, but the extreme highlights and shadows mean neither white nor black are totally legible

Now there’s a couple of ways you can tweak these. You could ramp up the brightness, ramp down the shadows and decrease the contrast – but most of the time you end up with an image that looks like swamp juice.

So now the white headline is legible, but the background looks like it’s being viewed through very dirty glasses

My tip is to reduce the number of colours overall, and I again turn to PicMonkey for this. They have a filter called Warhol, that allows you to reduce an image to two colours. If you select these well, you can end up with a perfect background image.

Selecting two shades of green (mid and light) the black headline jumps out
You can also do a total recolour, like this blood red – perfect for white text

Inject humour

Sometimes there just isn’t a suitable stock image for your needs. At this point, I give up and turn straight to humour (or Kanye West). Adding an out-of-context image can immediately create an engaging, delightful moment in a blog post or website.

Now when I say out of context, there still needs to be some sort of link – it can just be super, super tenuous. I wrote a blog post for our client, Fierlan with beginners tips for cycling. I could not find an image to go with staying hydrated, but I’d finished a few lengthy paragraphs and really needed to break up the page.

So I broke out this boy…

With the caption “We love any excuse to include a dog picture…”

It’s a wet dog, so it’s technically about hydration, and it brought in some excitement when the post was at its driest. You can check out pretty much any post on our blog for more of the same, and if in doubt – add Kanye West – I’ve found I can work him in to nearly any topic. Like I have now!

And a Kanye West picture for good measure (I added the space effect myself)

So if you’re stuck for images, there is more than likely a stock solution that doesn’t suck. Just tweak for your needs, and dream about the photoshoot you’d plan if you had unlimited dolla dolla bill.

And next time you’re choosing a stock image – think Kanye, not Carol.

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