How to stand out online with stock photos

February 6, 2023

Images are a powerful design tool. Poorly framed, low-quality or irrelevant images can distract or even put off your audience, reducing their belief in the validity and trustworthiness of your brand. On the flip side, high-quality, beautiful images that tell the story of your brand can build trust with your audience; and this is never more true than with product-based brands.

This isn’t just hyperbole either. Design psychology tells us that humans are naturally attracted to things we find aesthetically pleasing. We see pleasing visuals in a positive light and we subconsciously associate beauty with trustworthiness. Even further than that, we tend to judge an entire experience based on a single initial characteristic. 

And sometimes a cliche is a cliche because it’s true: a picture is worth a thousand words. 

All of that aside, sometimes we simply do not have the resources to populate an entire website or social media feed with high-quality original images. While original and (I say it again for emphasis) high-quality product images should always be a priority, it’s the incidental images we turn to stock images for. The photos of the beach demonstrate the local Gold Coast origins of your founders. The photos of the rainforest demonstrate your commitment to sustainability and your mission to become a certified B Corp organisation. 

You know… everything else that goes into telling your brand story. 

So how do you pick high-quality relevant images that will pair seamlessly with your brand and your existing product images?

a human in front of a waterfall
a dense rainforest

This blog post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on a link. These links are clearly marked, and the commission is paid at no extra cost to you!

Decide on the Mood

The first thing you want to do is one of the most fun parts of any design project - creating a mood board!

If you’ve gone through a detailed and strategic brand design process, you might already have an idea about image direction. Take a flip back through any resources your designer provided you with, and especially any images found in mood boards, mock-ups and throughout your brand guidelines.

Once you’ve gathered all of these into your mood board, you can fill the gaps by finding images on Instagram and Pinterest to inspire you and set the direction of your stock images. 

It’s important to note that images you source from Instagram or Pinterest can’t actually be used on your website without the permission of the original creator. At this stage, we’re just gathering them for inspiration, but if you think you’d like to approach the creator (especially for product-based businesses where influencers have created content for your product), make a note of the creator so you can reach out to them later. 

a fern leaf
a rainforest path

How will you use people?

An important part of stock imagery selection is how and if people will feature in the images. Traditional stock imagery like that found on Shutterstock tends to feature highly corporate-style imagery that consumers find highly clinical and off-putting these days. Those kinds of images aren’t suited to the Australian market which tends to prefer relatable lifestyle imagery.

For most product-based brands you’ll be going for more abstract street-style imagery, which embodies the lifestyle your brand is trying to promote. Basically, think about the things your audience might be doing while wearing or using your product, and that’s usually what your stock images will want to look like. 

Important note on diversity

If using people, think about how your target audience will be represented, especially when it comes to diversity. Picking photos that only feature people who look and act like you sends a message of who is and isn’t welcome here - be sure that's the message you want to send.

Your audience wants to feel safe with you (especially those of a marginalised identity), so strategically chosen stock images can make or break that feeling! Aim for an authentic mix of race, size, ability and sexuality, as a bare minimum to diversity in your business. There are some great stock websites dedicated to diverse imagery >

It’s also important to really look at the images for a second hidden meaning that might be contrary to what you meant to convey. Just like how colours convey different things in different cultural backgrounds, so does imagery!

Dive Deep!

We’re not basic around here, and we’re not looking for basic stock images. That means thinking outside the box, searching beyond the first page results and trying lots of different synonyms to find the perfect image. If we’re looking for a coffee photo think coffee, cafe, tea, teacup, mug, restaurant, latte, Starbucks etc.

Another good dive-deep strategy is to search for vibe-like keywords that are a bit more abstract instead of what’s obvious. So using our coffee example, we might look for cosy, comfy, mornings, breakfast, sunrise, warmth etc. Trust me, it works!

hands holding a coffee mug
two lattes

Make sure you have the right license!

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, make sure you’re legally allowed to use those photos.

Your website designer is not responsible for ensuring you hold the rights to any images you provide - that’s your responsibility alone. Contrary to popular belief, posting something online doesn’t mean it’s available for anyone to use. In most cases, you will need permission from the original creator to use that image, and often you will need to purchase a special license that will clearly outline where and how you can use that image.

The exception to this is free stock photo websites like Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay and FreePik, all of which provide millions of high-quality stock images for anyone to use under a simple royalty-free license. Examples of paid stock image services include Shutterstock (affiliate link), Adobe Stock and iStock, which provide a variety of subscription options to help you fill your stock image library. Be sure to read the license information carefully to ensure it applies to your specific use case.

It’s important to note that saving an image from Instagram or Pinterest to use on your social media or website will most likely constitute copyright infringement, even if you credit the creator. That creator will always reserve the right to request you take down the image and may even send you an invoice for using it without permission. It’s best to be on the safe side and source your images from any of the services linked above!

a human wrapped in a dressing gown holding a mug
a steaming mug

A reminder that any information provided in this article or throughout this website does not constitute legal advice and Laura cannot be held responsible for the validity or accuracy of any information contained herein. Read the full terms for more information.

Pin for Later
How to Stand Out Online Using Stock Images
How to Pick Stock Photos for a Stand Out Website
How to Pick Stock Photos for a Stand Out Website

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Laura F Gosney
Hey, I'm Laura
I’m a Soulful Brand and Website Designer specialising in creating beautiful, personality-driven brands that showcase how remarkable you truly are.

For more than 5 years, I’ve worked with innovative e-commerce founders, passionate service-based businesses, and inspiring creatives to capture the remarkable soul of their work and transform that into a brand and website they can feel proud of.
Find out how I can help
I acknowledge the First Nations people as the Traditional Owners of the land on which I live and work, i.e. Meanjin, Brisbane. Sovereignty was never ceded.
Copyright © 2023 Laura F Gosney ABN: 88 413 183 164

Words by Brit Stevens
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