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The Complete Guide to Using Stock Photos in Your Marketing

Ash Read
Ash Read Editorial @ Buffer
The Complete Guide to Using Stock Photos in Your Marketing

12 min read
You will learn

When you hear the term ‘stock photo’, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

My hunch is it’s probably a photo of a group of friends awkwardly laughing, business people staring at charts on a wall, or something along those lines.

Probably not the best connotations, right?

Used correctly, though, free stock photos can really bring your ads, blog posts, and content to life.

And at Buffer, we use stock photos daily.

Here’s why:

  • Stock photos are cost effective (mostly free ?)
  • If you know where to look, you can find some incredibly high-quality images
  • We’ve found that stock photography can outperform custom designed images in terms of reach and engagement

In this post, we’ve teamed up with Unsplash to bring you the complete guide to stock photography and answer the ever-illusive question: should you be using stock photos for your marketing?

The power of images

We’ve known for a while now that images can work wonders when it comes to grabbing attention and boosting engagement:

But, not only can images boost the performance of our content, they can also influence purchasing decisions:

“Visual platforms such as YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram are highly influential in shopping,” Nikki Karai Renaud, CMO at Zazzle explained in eMarketer’s US Millennial Shoppers 2017 report. “For millennials, we found that the visual piece – honing our photography and creative assets – helped attract and convert [this generation].”

In other words – not only are people posting and sharing more images online, but these images can also be a major influence in their decision to purchase a product.

Nowadays, images aren’t a distraction from the message – the pictures themselves are the message.

How people react to stock images

When it comes to finding the right images to use in our marketing efforts it goes far beyond simply finding an image that simply “looks nice.”

Stock photos, when used correctly, can elicit emotions in your audience (both positive and negative).

For example, have you seen an image like the one below before?

Typical stock photo

We’ve become so accustomed to seeing this style of image that it can often be hard to differentiate between where we saw it and the brands that used it.

We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10 percent of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65 percent. Think back to the last ad you saw on Facebook or the last billboard you walked past in the street, I bet there’s more chance you’ll recall the visual, rather than the copy.

This happens due to the Picture Superiority Effect, which essentially means that images are more likely to be remembered than words. In the brain itself, there are hundreds of millions of neurons devoted to visual processing, nearly 30 percent of the entire cortex, as compared with 8 percent for touch and just 3 percent for hearing.

If the stock photo you’re using is at all similar to the image on another website that created a negative experience for the visitor, subconsciously, they’re projecting their previous experience onto your stock photograph, reducing trust and bringing up negative connotations.

A study has also shown that 63 percent of consumers say that repeated, generic messages from brands are irritating to them.

So instead of enhancing your content, you could actually be harming your chances of success if you’re choosing the wrong kind of image.

The importance of authenticity

In the social media world, authenticity is key. We often turn to social media to see an authentic look into the lives of our friends, our acquaintances, and our favorite brands.

The content shared to these platforms is meant to give us a glimpse into the world of the people and brands closest to us. And often, the most authentic and genuine content is the most interesting. This is evidenced by the surge in popularity that stories have seen since the format was debuted by Snapchat. Stories enable us to see raw, often unedited content and give an authentic glimpse into other’s lives.

The problem with most stock photos is that they’re not authentic. For example, when it comes to business-related photos, there’s no shortage of clichés. A photo of a business person in a crisp suit or a smiling group of twenty-somethings might help fill a void, but often, these images will fail to connect with your audience as they’re simply not relatable or authentic.

Let’s say you’re looking for a stock photo showing someone working, the below image could fit the bill:

Typical stock photo

On the other hand, something like this image from Andrew Neel may be better suited:

Unsplash photo | Andrew Neel

Essentially these two images show similar scenes, but the first one feels a little more staged and inauthentic. Whereas the second option feels a little more relatable.

Defining authenticity

It’s hard to tell exactly what makes an image authentic, but it seems to be incredibly important as people are instinctively drawn to brands that are considered more authentic than their competitors.

Authenticity means that the things we say and the things we do are the things we really believe, not just something we say to help sell our products/services.

The reason being authentic matters so much is deeply seeded in our instinct to survive as Simon Sinek explains:

Instinctively we’re constantly evaluating the words and actions of others. We’re assessing if they can be trusted. To that end, the more we sense that our values and beliefs align with the values and beliefs of others, the more apt we are to trust them. This is the reason we are drawn to people who are “like us.” The trust we feel and the relationships we form with another person or with a brand are exactly the same.

So when we’re looking at images, we’re making split seconds decisions based on their authenticity. If the image feels fake, or in any way inauthentic, we might lose trust in the brand instantly.

On the other hand, an authentic image can provide feelings of safety, trust, and comfort.

You might think an image of a group of people working is just an image. But if it doesn’t feel authentic, it’s likely doing more harm than good.

2 quick tips on identifying authentic images

1. Look for real people

It can look obvious if the people in your stock photos are models. When looking for a stock photo, keep an eye on the people in the photos:

  • Do they look like they’re genuine or are they clearly models?
  • Are their hair, teeth, and clothes perfect?

These are often tell-tales of stock photos. When choosing an image, look for real-world setups and subjects that a little reveal character.

Here’s a great example from Priscilla Du Preez, where the subjects look like they’re actually having a great time:

Unsplash photo | Priscilla Du Preez

2. Identify natural poses

Most of us don’t sit fully upright or smile 24/7. But it’s very common to see stock images with generic traits like these. Try to identify images where the subjects look natural and not posed.

Check out the below photo by Jacob Ufkes and notice how natural the subjects look:

Unsplash photo | Jacob Ufkes

How to find the perfect stock image

Most stock images were taken to fit with a wide range of topics and concepts, which can sometimes be both a blessing and a curse. The images can be used for a bunch of different occasions, but can also look rather generic.

As a marketer, the images you choose for your campaigns or to company content can help you to stand out from the noise. But it takes careful consideration and planning to do successfully pick the right images.

Here are 4 tips to help you find the right one:

1. Use images that compliment your content

Images shouldn’t feel like they’ve been randomly dropped into a piece of content. Where possible, try to ensure that the images you choose compliment your content in some way.

For example, in a recent Buffer Open blog post about using playlists to help boost productivity, we chose a feature image showing music being played on a mobile phone:

By choosing this image, people can see right away that the post is about music without having to glance at the headline. Check out how it looks when shared to Facebook, too:

By using an image related to the content of the post, we can give the reader a glimpse into the content before they check out the title or description. The music playing on the phone, coupled with the coffee, makes me think about music and productivity (as many people rely on their morning coffee to kick start the day).

2. Think about your audience

You know your audience better than anyone and when it comes to finding the perfect image, you should always put your audience first.

You want them to make a strong visual connection to your brand and using images that relate to the message you’re aiming to communicate. Choose photos to reinforce your branding. Make sure that the images are not an afterthought and simply used as a way to fill a gap. Use images that include subtle meaning and offer ways to connect with your audience.

For example, if you’re trying to connect with millennials who are likely to value the freedom to work from home and travel, the below stock photo from Rob Bye could help to reinforce that message:

Unsplash photo | Rob Bye

3. Check Unsplash

Unsplash features over 200,000 free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos brought to you by the world’s most generous community of photographers.

It’s our go-to place for stock photos here at Buffer, too.

4. Use fresh images

We’ve all seen the generic stock photos a million times. But even some of the most unique and beautiful stock images crop up all over the web from time-to-time.

Using the most popular images isn’t always the best tactic. Try to find the freshest, latest, and lesser-used photos for your content.

For example, instead of just heading to the Unsplash homepage and picking one of the popular images, try a few keyword searches or check out a few collections to uncover some awesome images.

My best advice is to find four to five options rather than settling for the first suitable image you find.

Pro tip: There’s a really neat tool called TinEye that helps you to find out how many times an image has been used before and where.

TinEye enables you to search an image and discover where and how it’s been used on other websites. By checking images before you use them you can try to paint a picture of any pre-conceived thoughts people may have from seeing that image elsewhere online.

5. Check the copyrights and model release

Most importantly, once you’ve found a photo you want to use, check the copyrights and license of the photo and if the people captured in the photo have agreed to the use of the photo of them (i.e. model release).

While several stock photo sites provide “free” photos, there might be certain terms around the use of the photos. Some licenses allow only the personal use of photos, require attribution to the photographer, or don’t allow modification of the photos. Be sure to read the license information carefully to understand if the photo is suitable for your use.

For most commercial use of photos of people, such as in advertising, you are required to get the consent of the people in the photos. This is known as model release. So before you use a photo, also check on the site if the site owners have gotten a signed model release by the people in the photos. Otherwise, you could contact the photographer who uploaded the photo.

If you would like to learn more about copyrights, Creative Commons, and model release, you might find these two articles useful.

How to remix stock photos and make them your own

Even once you’ve found the perfect image, it might not be a perfect fit for your content right away.

Luckily, it’s super simple to edit stock photos and there are even some free tools to help you do it.

In this section will share some quick tips on remixing and editing photos and our favorite tools to help you do so.

5 ways you can ‘un-stock’ your stock photos

1. Add text

Often, images are used for a very specific purpose.

For example, we regularly use stock images as the feature images on our blog posts or to create neat sharer images for when someone posts our content to Facebook or Twitter.

Here’s an example below:

To customize this image, we’ve simply added some text to provide context into the post it links to. This helps the viewer to connect the dots between the image and the post it links to.

2. Use a color overlay

90% of snap judgments made about products are based on color alone.

Color is one of the most important and complex aspects of any social media design. It helps to set the mood, create an atmosphere, convey emotions, and even evoke strong individual experiences from someone’s past.

Try to use colors familiar to your brand to make a stock photo feel cloesly aligned with your business.

3. Crop the image

If you want to hone in on a specific part of a stock photo you can crop it to discard the unnecessary portions of the image. Cropping allows you to change the emphasis or direction of an image.

4. Add contrast

Contrast occurs when two elements on a page are different. For example, it could be different colors between the text and the background color or dark vs. light colors.


One of the main reasons to use contrast in your designs is to grab attention. For example, the infamous iPod silhouette adverts were so memorable because there is a huge contrast between the white iPod and earphones and the bright background and silhouette.


5. Try Blurring the background

Using a blur can be a great way to make text or branding stand out when overlaid onto an image.

When you put text over an image, the two elements can form a somewhat competitive relationship (example on the left below), a little blur can make the text stand out more and appear much more readable (on the right below).


Further reading

For more design tips, check out these posts:

4 tools to help you edit stock photos

1. Canva

Canva is a free graphic design tool. It has an easy to use drag-and-drop interface and provides access to over a million photographs, graphics, and fonts. It is used by non-designers as well as professionals.


GIMP is a free and open-source graphics editor used for image retouching and editing, free-form drawing, and converting between different image formats.

3. Photoshop

Photoshop is Adobe’s photo editing, image creation, and graphic design software. With Photoshop you can create stunning photos and illustrations, designs for web and print, 3D imagery, video, and more.

4. Sketch

Sketch is an amazing design tool and mainly used by professionals to create and design graphics and interfaces from scratch. It can also be used to edit and embellish photos.

Over to you

Stock photos, if used correctly, can be incredibly useful for marketers. I hope you found this guide helpful and would love to know your thoughts on stock images:

  • Do you use stock images in your marketing content?
  • Where do you source your stock images from?
  • Any tips on editing stock photos?

Feel free to share in the comments below. I’m excited to join the conversation ?

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