Stock photography, along with coffee, is a staple in today’s marketing design—especially if you’re a growing brand without the budget or time to hire someone to shoot custom photography. But with the wide variety of stock images out there, it’s hard to find just the right images that fit your organization.

Before you grab the first images you see "off the shelf," let’s talk about best practices when using stock photos for your next project. Not every stock image is made equal, and many aren’t made for your brand.

Find the right images

Your brand has its own unique voice, and that spills over into your imagery as well. And you want (need!) that voice to stand out so baby doesn’t get put in the corner. Look for images that match the aesthetic of your website and your brand voice so your audience receives the same, consistent message across all your collateral materials. You don’t want something edgy and modern on one PowerPoint slide and a warm, cozy coffee shop on another.

If you’re looking for photos with a human element, choose wisely. The people in your stock photos should closely represent members of your audience—ethnicity, socio-economic level, visible geography, clothing style, etc. And any people in the photos should look natural and relaxed, not configured into uncomfortable, staged situations (mannequin challenge, anyone?). Of course, we all know that stock photos are usually part of a staged photo shoot—but that doesn’t mean it has to look that way.

Look in the right places.

There’s not a lack of resources for snagging stock photos today. In fact, there are so many options that it’s hard to narrow it down. Unsplash and Pexels both offer free stock images you can browse and use for your business without restriction. Death to Stock is another free service that delivers weekly photo packs with unique themes that are usually winners.

But the free sites do have their limitations—for paid stock, we like DepositPhotos with its wide selection of professional-quality photos and the better-than-average search. A particularly nice feature of DepositPhotos is the ability to search for collections of photos with the same background or subjects (hello, branding!). That way you can get a whole sequence of images with the same models, almost as if you paid for your own shoot.

Know branding basics for images.

Stock photography is a time and cost savings—but the downside is that the images tend to be generic. It makes sense—the photographers want their images to appeal to as many people as possible, so they can make more money. Unfortunately, that means that great stock photo you found might end up in someone else’s ad as well.

But never fear! With a little bit of Photoshop magic, you can put a unique spin on the image to make it yours—and better fit your brand.

  • Crop the image to include only the elements you want. The original aspect ratio might not work for your design, so keep an eye out for ways to crop the image to make it work for you.

  • Adjust the tone or hue of the image to reflect your brand’s aesthetic. A quick way to change the feel of an image is to overlay it with a color or add a subtle gaussian blur to make it feel like a background image.

  • Include text that speaks to your audience. Add your copy, logo, or watermark over the image. The important thing to remember when adding text to an image is maintaining legibility—you might need to use the color tinting or blurring trick to get the contrast you need.

  • Stack multiple images in a collage. Group your images to create a story and add visual interest. You can do this easily with Photoshop, but there are a number of online tools that can do it for you.

Think outside the cheezy box.

Look, the worst thing about stock photography is that it can be incredibly cheezy. Admit it—it’s probably the first thing you think about when someone suggests a “stock photo.” Even after years in this business—and using a lot of great stock photos—a little piece of me still cringes.

But you can win the war on cheeziness. Of course you’ve seen the images of fancy coffee mugs, studious speakers in front of a crowd and two colleagues shaking hands (been there, done that). Before you grab a cliché image to go with your next blog post or to add to a presentation, think about the message you’re sending to your audience—and keep looking for a fresh image.

Tired images make for forgettable design. Think about how you can take your choice of images to the next level. Your images don’t have to tell a story that goes exactly along with the text (i.e. handshakes to complement text about setting up a meeting); instead, use your stock images to give your message more pizzaz and power.

When used correctly, stock photos are truly a great tool to quickly and inexpensively add professional polish to your brand and your written content—it’s just a matter of choosing the right image for the right message while maintaining your brand’s identity. So take a deep breath and go find some awesome stock photos!