How To Find Better Stock Photos and Not Lose Your Soul While Searching

Published May 5, 2014

With 27 million new pieces of content hitting the web everyday (some good, most you wouldn’t even let your cat sit on, let alone read yourself), we are experiencing the first waves to strike the shore - the after effects of a global quake known as…(dramatic pause)…Content Shock.

Brands big and small are now realizing the effectiveness and gains to be made when they create streams of benefit-rich content. Some are even bringing copywriters into their marketing folds to help pump out the content and build their audience.

But where do images come into play within this world-web-wide fervor for new content?

As online marketers, we’re all well aware of the importance of including photos in our blog and social media posts. They instantly create an emotional response within the viewer. To reach the same effect with written language can be a lengthy process (read on…), but a well-chosen photo can provide that visual, emotional hook that reels a visitor into your content.

Mat Siltala, in his SearchFest 2014 presentation on Trending Visual in Social Media, underscored this message stating that images receive 50% more interaction than other content, 10x more shares than links and posts with visuals receive 94% more page visits and engagement than those without. So we dare not post without a picture, but are we as content marketers giving proper consideration to the images we use?

The rise of what we call Content Marketing and the well-recognized need for accompanying imagery on a budget has created a deluge of what I have come to call visual crapulence. This is no spring shower, my friend, yet we all find ourselves standing beneath it, arms outstretched and head held high, nearly every time we surf the web or go hunting for stock images.

I think you may know what I’m talking about. Just go to iStock and search for “teamwork” or “business” and let the perfectly-lit shots of handsome white people shaking hands start rolling in! Yet these are the bland images that we stick next to our hard-wrung words post in and post out. If the photos and graphics you’re choosing seem more obligatory than creative and relevant, then it’s time to rethink your approach to sourcing images.

It’s Not a Supply Problem. It’s a Selection, Time and Budget Problem.

Since the problem is not a shortage of quality, relevant images out there, it seems to be more an issue of selection and budget.

Below I'll outline 7 tips for finding great, and sometimes free, post images without losing your soul in the process. I also list 9 free stock photography sources, along with some solid fee-based options as well. So stick with me and I promise you'll learn something along the way.

1) Your Post Image Should Be Relevant To Your Post

I would say this goes without saying if it weren't such a rampant problem. Good accompanying post images will expand and expound your message, help capture the reader’s attention, provide a resting place within long-form content and improve time on page and other quality metrics.

Bland or irrelevant post images are a result of the author or editor not realizing that sourcing a quality image can take some time itself. They finish writing the post and slap a quick stock image at the top and call it good. Not so! Be good to your images - take the time it takes to find or create interesting, relevant imagery and your images will be good to you.

PRO TIP: If you don’t already have a solid idea of what image or images to pair with your article, try reading through your copy again. This time look for the natural imagery within your text, then let what you’ve already written guide your image search. Is there an overarching visual metaphor in your article? Search for images that illustrate this.

Not seeing any imagery in your writing? Consider adding depth, color and visual interest to your copy by editing your piece and adding relevant metaphors and/or descriptive language. There’s no need to put too much sugar in the punch, but do seek to enable your reader to visualize your concept. Incorporating descriptive language will further engage your reader, make technical articles more palatable and provide a thread for you to sew in actual images as well.

2) Free Stock Photography Warning: You Get What You Pay For

We’ve all lost some time rummaging through the Internet’s image giveaway bins, hoping to find that perfect free image with unrestricted licensing, just waiting, like a Vermeer at a garage sale, to be discovered, cherished and clicked on. Yet the reality that often confronts us is that the perfect “free” image is quite often much blurrier, less relevant and way more time-consuming to unearth than we imagined it would be.

So be frugal, but don’t be downright cheap. Never use an image just because it’s free; use it because it adds value to your content. With that in mind, check these 9 free stock photography websites from time to time, but don’t hang your image sourcing hopes too high on them.

9 Free Stock Photography Sources

  1. Big Stock Photo has millions of high-quality images, including many professional and less “stocky-looking” images of people, which is always good. The monthly subscription-based pricing is favorable to high-volume publishers who require access to a steady stream of images and vector art. If your company is publishing less than eight articles a month then this may not be the best option for you. They do offer free images to their subscribers during trial periods and after that 1 free image per month, but you’ll have to give them your billing info before accessing any images.
  2. Dreamstime offers a selection of decent free images to its members, as well as good pricing on its selection of over 22 million paid images.
  3. Flickr Creative Commons tons of free amatuer, amatuer-ish and blurry images to chose from, but hidden amongst the roughage there are diamonds to be found. Use the Advanced Search feature in Flickr and be sure to select the box that says, “Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content”. Again, remember to give props to the photographer. See Foter & Photo Pin below for more polished access to the Flickr Creative Commons.
  4. Foter preports to have over 228 millions free stock images available and may be one of the cleanest, simplest ways to search the Flickr Creative Commons Library. Once you locate an image you like, Foter gives you 3 easy-to-follow steps for downloading the size you need, how the image can be used or modified, and the code for attribution.
  5. offers thousands of web resolution photos and illustrations for free with proper artist attribution. If you need print resolution or an extended license you’ll have to pay a modest fee. If you’re looking for natural-looking images of people, this may not be the site for you, as I find many of the images convey that generic stock aesthetic.
  6. Google Images. I include this source with a major caveat. You can browse a whole universe of images on Google, and now you can even sort results by “content labeled for reuse with modification”. Find this and other usage-related filter options under Search Tools >> Usage Rights. However, Google itself warns that just because an image finds its way into these results doesn’t mean that you are free to appropriate it. If you find a useful image here you should always track down the source and confirm with the image creator that you have their permission and proper attribution details.
Google Images: Cats in Space
Rest your eyes here. Just a smattering of what's available on Google Images should you be in the market for images of cosmic cats labelled for reuse.
  1. iStock is a Getty property offering millions of images, illustrations and videos that range from sublimely authentic to awfully bland - all depending on how deep you’re willing to reach into your wallet. But iStock also offers a rotating selection of 3-4 free stock photos, illustrations, video and even free audio clips. They refresh their free offerings once a week or so. If you’re a registered user, you can find these free stock images and resources by following any of the links in this paragraph and looking for the free offerings within the page’s righthand sidebar.
  2. Photo Pin draws its selection from Flickr’s Creative Commons. Simply select the type of license you are looking for and you’ll be on the hunt. Image resolutions and quality vary, so if you find an image you like, click “get photo” to make sure it’s available in the dimensions you need. Photo attribution info is available in this window as well.
  3. ShutterStock. Here you’ll find a quality selection of 36 million royalty-free images and vectors, plus one free photo and vector each week. On their homepage scroll down to the New + Noteworthy section to find the weekly freebies. The chances of these images being relevant to you are only slightly higher than you winning the Powerball jackpot, but significantly less if you never check this resource at all. ShutterStock offers flexible pricing structures, meaning you can subscribe or just get the images you need on demand. I find myself often defaulting to this site for paid, royalty-free images.
  4. UPDATE! SEPTEMBER 1, 2015… Canva. Shortly after I published this article back in May 2014, I stumbled across this fantastic, even fun, tool for creating and sourcing images/graphics for your content marketing strategy and it's only got better since then. You can customize images from your own library or even source them directly through Canva. Also, check out Jacqueline Thomas' great article: Free Stock Photos: 74 Best Sites To Find Awesome Free Images.

Keep in mind that most stock agency licenses come with a one year limit on usage to prevent folks from stockpiling their stock. That is, you must use the image within one year of the date that you licensed or downloaded it. Be sure check the terms (or license) for the image if you have any questions about how and when you can use it. Only download what you plan on using within your current and upcoming content cycles.

It’s also worth noting that exclusivity is not included from any of the image sources above without paying a premium for an exclusive license. This is the caveat that comes with low cost images: they are available to everyone.

Always be sure to give proper attribution to the image’s creator. This usually takes the form of a friendly link to the photographer, but again, review the usage agreement for attribution details.

3) Avoid Overtly “Stocky-Looking” Images: Get Picky & Customize

Bad Stock Photo Example
A recent search for the term "teamwork" on iStock turned
up this gem. If I had searched "eyebrows" I believe the
results would have been similar. I often like to imagine
what the subjects are saying.

The problem with most stock photography is that it looks like stock photography. What does stock photography look like? Bad stock photography is emotionally-flat or hyper-shmaltzy. It’s disingenuous or hardly relevant. It tries to fit every content purpose and so barely fits them all. Good stock photography is professional without being inadvertently over the top. It’s congruent with the concepts expressed in you writing.

So find a source from the list above and get picky. You should know the image that will make your content pop when you see it, because it will give you the same emotional response that you want it to relay to your audience.

Can’t find an image that clearly conveys your concept right off the shelf? Find an image that’s oh so close and, if the terms allow for modification, edit the image so that it better suits your purpose. A little familiarity with Photoshop here will go along way. Crop out the part that doesn’t fit. Add or change some text (see above) so that the concept the image illustrates overlaps more with the idea in your copy. Don’t overcomplicate it - very small edits can often have big effects on perceived meaning. If major image editing is needed to bring the image or graphic inline with your concept, then perhaps it’s time to find a better fit.

4) How Not To Lose Your Soul While Browsing Stock Photography

It’s a dark subject that many copywriters don’t like to broach. We finish our articles, fat with a sense of achievement and dripping with self-satisfaction. The world is a beautiful place. Then we go and try to find a stock photo to use as a feature image. Suddenly we are surrounded by generically sexy people, shaking hands, pointing at floating numbers, staring endlessly into their laptops and doing yoga. This is not a place we want to spend our day.

The best way to maintain your sanity and soul when browsing stock catalogues is to avoid prolonged exposure. Here are 5 ways to limit your contact…

  • Find one or two stock libraries that you know and trust and let those be your quick, go-to sources for your image needs, or…
  • Search multiple catalogues in one swoop at Compfight.
  • Develop your own stock image sourcing system. More on that later on…
  • If Wordpress is your publishing platform, a plugin like Zemanta’s Editorial Assistant will not only suggest and auto-attribute images related to your post, but can also analyze your post and provide you with options for displaying related posts.
  • DIY and be your own source for great images. See next tip for more…

5) Operation Image DIY: Create Your Own Creative

Not too long ago, one of our Edge contributors sent me an image comp for her article. It was a stock photo of an iPad sitting on a wood desktop with the LinkedIn logo on the screen. Nothing fancy or original, but it illustrated her topic well-enough and was easy on the eyes. It was also kind of expensive for what it was, so I held off on purchasing the image license. Later, when I was eating lunch, I noticed my own iPad sitting on my coffee table. So I put a few chocolate hearts around it to add seasonal context and took a picture. Then I ate the chocolate hearts and used a much freer, better picture to illustrate the article.

A Cup of Coffee and LinkedIn Loaded Up On an iPad Mini
Your own camera and a bit of nice window light can be
your best friend. Save your company's stock photo budget
for when you really need it by recognizing when you can DIY.

Take and catalogue your own images and so you can search your own library first - before outsourcing to a stock website. This assures original work (my example above not totally withstanding) and lets you save your stock budget for when you really need it, like paying for examples of really “stocky” images like this one, because you care that much.

Sure I have a fancy, heavy camera which I reserve for professional shoots, but most of the time I use my smartphone to capture daily life and textures when I’m out and about. More than expensive camera equipment, an eye for light and texture and what could be of later use as visual content is what matters most.

I use Adobe Lightroom to curate and search both the images that I’ve created and ones I’ve purchased or downloaded from online image libraries. Lightroom allows me to make quick edits and search thousands of tagged (or keyworded) images in just seconds to see if there’s one that fits well with my post.

Also, if you have the design chops, or your company has a design department, consider creating an interesting graphic or accompanying infographic in house. An infographic that underscores your point is great for getting more mileage and shares out of your article. It makes your content that much more shareable within social channels.

Adobe Lightroom Image Catalogue
Curate your own stock photo library with tools such as Adobe Lightroom (shown above), Aperture, Bridge or even iPhoto.

6) Develop Your Own Stock Image Sourcing System (SiSS)

Sometimes just getting a little more organized by defining and delineating our approach can save us heaps of time. A while back I noticed that each time I finished editing an article I’d plunge willy-nilly into the bowels of various stock catalogues, fingers crossed that I might find what I’m looking for. I eventually would find what I’m searching for, but without a predefined game plan, I always found both my time and lifeforce seriously depleted before emerging semi-victorious from stock purgatory.

To combat this problem and to further avoid prolonged exposure, I developed my own Stock Image Sourcing System, or SiSS, which I outline below. Feel free to take it and modify it to best fit your approach.

  1. Search Your Own Stock Library First
  2. Search Your Favorite Free Libraries, but don’t spend more than 10 minutes doing so.
  3. Search Your Preferred Paid Libraries
    • Can’t afford an image you found? Look at the keywords for the image and click on the most relevant options to find similar, but perhaps more affordable images.
    • Look beyond the first two results pages…sometimes good images are ready to be found a little deeper.
  4. Still Nothing? Then go out and make your own image, or have your graphic designer whip something custom up that illustrates your idea. Keep this in mind as you write your article and maybe you can skip steps 1-3.

One final image sourcing admonishment: respect the artist. Basically, there are 3 ways in which we can do this: paying them, properly attributing their work and abiding by the terms we agreed to when we downloaded their image.

I find that most people don’t wilfully disregard copyrights or break licensing terms maliciously. They just don’t know better and may even think any image they can drag off the web is fair game. They are unaware that images belong to their creator and that the creator of that image has the right to proper consideration for their work, as well as control over how and where their work is displayed. Proper consideration usually takes the form or money or attribution.

So when we license an image, whether it be a free or paid, we do not own that image. It’s more like renting a vehicle. The more specialized the car and the more miles we want to get out of it then the more we can expect to pay for that privilege.

Using the tips I’ve shared above you can avoid visual crapulence on your website. You can also save valuable time and money by developing a systematic approach to how your find images for your posts.

However you go about it, the first step is to care. Why? Images speak volumes and will often form your visitor’s first impressions about your brand.

Be good to the images and they will be good to your image.