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How To Choose The Right Stock Photo: Use This, Not That

November 11, 2014 Stephanie Fisher


Those of us who eat, sleep and breathe content, understand too well the joys and sorrows of stock photography. The wonder of finding a fresh perspective for a tired subject. The meme-worthy nature of a particular subgenre of stock photo (women laughing alone with salad).


When you don't have original, high quality photography on hand, stock photos can be a life saver. We use stock a lot, especially for blog posts and longer content pieces like ebooks and slide decks.

But buyer beware: not all stock are created equal! After looking through about five zillion stock photos, you get an eye for what works and what doesn't. Here are my quick tips for searching for the right photo on a site like Shutterstock, which is what we use:

  1. Don't always go with what's obvious. For example, if your blog post is about productivity, use a photo of a chicken! What? The opening paragraph of this blog post about our Favorite Productivity Apps references a "chicken running around with it's head cut off." Voila, a chicken! Much more compelling and click-worthy than a stock photo of a woman tapping on her smart phone.

  2. Make it your own. Add text, crop out a distracting element, or add another layered image to the photo. There are many, many ways to use simple photo editing tricks to enhance a boring stock photo.

  3. Check for weird or distracting elements. Is the photo in focus or blurry (you'd be surprised how many sloppy stock photos are out there)? Does the model have a strange or distracting expression? Do the people or setting look fake or overly posed?

And now for the fun part! I will take you on a journey of stock photos where I would choose THIS, not THAT, with explanations of what is right or wrong about each.


What's wrong with the bottom photo?

  • No one is that happy on moving day. 
  • Those boxes are totally empty.
  • No writing or tape on the boxes.
  • I don't like how he's smiling at me!

What's better about the top? 

  • No faces distracting me, focuses on the moving and "taking a break" vibe.
  • Boxes look realistic. They're stacked to the side with a roll of packing tape on top. 


What's wrong with the bottom photo?

  • At first, this seems like a fine photo, but... no helmets! It's those little details you have to look out for.

What's better about the top? 

  • She's angelically looking ahead, nothing is out of her reach, because she knows she's safe with that helmet on! 
  • It's just a better photo. And, you have a nice open space next to her to add text!


What's wrong with the bottom photo?

  • Where do I start?
  • Is he using a paper tablet with a pen, or a digital tablet (which is what I was looking for) and a stylus?
  • Distracting beard

What's better about the top? 

  • This man is fully in charge of his digital device. He knows how to tap the screen.
  • The sun is setting, but he's still working...from his luxury yacht. (Projects success!)
  • Again, a nice clear space for adding text.
  • No distracting faces or facial hair.


What's wrong with the bottom photo?

  • Is she pointing a gun at the bubble people or are they bubbling out of her fingertips?
  • What do those icons mean, anyway? I'm looking for social media imagery.
  • It's just weird and her hand is distracting.

What's better about the top? 

  • Specific imagery for Twitter without using a boring logo or screenshot of Twitter.
  • Clean and bright, plus a clear space for adding text or a hashtag caption.
  • Happy! 


What's wrong with the bottom photo?

  • Recurring theme: People doing a job they're obviously not doing.
  • Again, what is with the distracting facial hair? Grow it out or shave, guys. This is a bad look.
  • That paper is blank, don't try to fool me!

What's better about the top? 

  • This guy is really working hard and he might be in danger but I don't feel uncomfortable about it.
  • Real construction going on in the background.
  • No distracting "I don't really do this for a living" faces.


Both of these work because, let's face it, stock photos of business people in suits are so boring! Every one of them. But at least these folks look happy, it's a diverse group, and both offer a fresh angle on meetings.

Please, hold your hats for this next set. My apologies in advance.

Are you ready...



Just this inexplicable elbow patch and matching lapel.


I hope you enjoyed this stock photo tour! I would love to see your favorite/terrible stock photos. Link to them in the comments. 

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