Seven steps to get faster, easier results when picking stock photos
As a designer, I’ve selected tens of thousands of photos for clients in my career. Stock photos and images have been around for decades, but the process of picking stock photos that are right for your creative project needs and budget can be a problem.
The introduction of digital photography, computer illustration, and explosive growth of the Web and ecommerce have made millions of stock photos available. Rights-Managed and Royalty-Free (RF) stock photos and images play a larger part in what designers and marketers use today instead of relying on custom photo shoots for marketing assignments.
With so many to choose from, picking stock photos may seem easy, but it’s not because photo buyers can suffer from overload. You can waste a lot of time and money if you don’t have a process in place. Professional designers and art directors who are really good at picking stock photos each have a process.
I’m sharing the process I’ve used for using tens of thousands of stock images in the course of my career. It’s a process that incorporates clear steps, removes confusion, focus efforts, and save both time and money.
Searching for stock photos starts with identifying non-negotiable items
Step One: Identify your non-negotiable must-have
Exclusivity. Do you need to have images that no one else will use?
Product display and alterations. Do you have a product that must appear in the image? Some stock photo sources limit what you can add or change in their images.
Availability of use/rights. Do you need an image that is only available for editorial use? If that’s the case, you cannot use it in commercial/marketing projects.
Cost. Do you have enough budget to pay for the stock photos that are best-suited for your creative project?
Answers to these questions help you narrow down where you are looking for stock photos. In some cases, the answers also drive the decision to forgo the loss of time picking stock photos and instead pay for a photo shoot.
Once you’ve determined that your non-negotiable needs can be met using stock photos, you can move on to curating and editing stock photos.
Step Two: Rate and score the 3-6 negotiable wants on a scale of 0-5
When it comes to picking stock photos, negotiable ‘wants’ are things in an image you would like to have, but can live without. Don’t overthink it. Try a scale of 0 (unimportant) to 5 (really want this) for those items you are looking for in the images. Jot the list down somewhere, on paper or your computer, so you can refer back to it as you continue in your process of image selection and rating as you narrow down later in your search. Your list of needs might include things like:
People, places and props: How important is it that people are identifiable and tailored to your audience? Do locations need to identify a certain place or country? Are there must-have props and objects that need to be in the image?
Setting type: Do you want the image to communicate a more realistic slice of life, or would an image that is conceptual or in a studio setting be more desirable for your needs?
Brand-alignment: Is there a certain Brand personality the stock photos will need to match?
By knowing which negotiable needs are priorities, you will go through stock photo searches much faster and with higher quality results. You’ll have your notes for reference.
Step Three: Determine your budget and use parameters
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to overlook and jump ahead too fast. It is frustrating to spend hours looking at images you simply can’t afford. You can avoid this by using the filter tools on stock photo websites that let you filter out rights-managed images, editorial-only images, or premium RF (Royalty-Free) images that won’t fit in your project budget.
For some projects, setting a higher budget for premium RF stock photos or images is necessary to get the kind of images your project needs to be successful.
Step Four: Create a written list of images, using short names and keywords
Search tools for stock photos sites are powerful and great time savers. But an empty search window doesn’t help if you haven’t put your thoughts together first. If you jump too soon into searching without a plan, computers and technology can easily suck you into searching before you really know what you might want.
Turn off the computer, put down your cell phone, pick up a pencil or pen and some scratch paper, and take 15 minutes to think of each of the stock photos you need. As you think of each image, write down 5 to 10 keywords or short phrases that associate with that image. Then move on to the next image, and so on until you have done this for all images.
For example, let’s say you are looking for an image for home loan ad or brochure. The image is going to support some message about first time homebuyers. A list of words that come to mind might be:
- Moving (or Moving In)
- First home
- At home
- Cozy home
- Happy home
By using these words as search terms, you’ll not only get some literal images of people being handed keys, or carrying boxes happily into their new place, but the last two search term sets in the list above will result in search results of more stock photos that have emotion and may provide better quality.
Step Five: Limit your initial searching to the best-suited sites for picking stock photos
In step 3 above, you set up a scoring system of images that can be used on many sites. There are so many outlets for stock photos, it can be hard to narrow down your efforts to sites that will give you quicker, better results. This is where a simple clear process will help you narrow down sites. The questions below will help you focus on the best sites to search in addition to saving hours of your time to then use in other creative efforts for the project.
If you answer ‘No’ to any of the questions below about a stock photo site, eliminate it and move on to the next site your are considering.
- Does the Average Cost of stock photos on this site fit my budget?
- Do stock photos on this site include the kind of model releases, and usage for my client’s industry?
- Do examples of images on this site’s home page have the kind of image quality I need for my project?
- Is the search function easy, clear and provide results quickly?
- Are the licensing terms clearly stated for stock photos?
So as each stock site you are considering clears these questions with a “Yes”, start your search of each site.
Step Five A: Licensing terms and the images you’re considering
I want to give a special reminder about licensing, use and modifying images. These are not all the areas you may need to consider, and not legal advice, but may help you avoid delays or even legal problems:
Licensing limitations for certain industries: Some sites will not let you use images for medical or other industries.
Use of images to imply endorsement: Most stock photos that feature a model cannot be used in a manner that would imply endorsement.
Licensing images for products to be resold: Some stock photos require you to purchase an extended or enhanced license, as Shutterstock does. Some do not allow use of images in products.
Editing of stock photos: Are you allowed to change the wine glass in hand of a model in a stock photo to your product? Does the license permit you to add your product to a beachside party scene? Some stock sites allow it, while others will not. You need to read through the license agreement on the website.
It is a fairly standard policy across most stock photos may not be altered to become pornographic or scandalous, obscene, defamatory or immoral in nature.
Most problems can be avoided if you read the license agreement of a site. It usually is written in clear language, doesn’t take long, and is well-worth the time.
Step Six: Cull, Curate, and Complete Your Search
The editing process of stock photos comes down to a combination of skilled professional assessment, combined with sound product and Brand knowledge.
First, as a visual professional, you can eliminate images that won’t fit the dimensional requirements for your use. Too wide, too tall, etc. Then, you will consider the quality of the stock photo content. Are actions, expressions, models, interactions and settings in line with your needs?
Is the image file format workable for your project needs? This is important factor in final quality when you work on a billboard, bus wrap and most other large-format projects.
If you need to retouch the image using tools like Adobe PhotoShop, this is a time to assess if this is a workable image. For example, if you have to put a tabletop product into a stock image of a room full of people, will it end up looking right, and still be large enough to be visible? Or if you need to extend the background of the image to meet your needs, does the stock image lend itself to this kind of retouching?
Once you’ve edited your picks based on quality of content, and usability, then consider your product’s brand personality. Does this image consistent with that brand? For example, if your client’s brand is rooted in authentic real-life experiences, you may want to avoid picking stock images that are fanciful in-studio images. If you have access to current brand standards, this is a time to review them.
Present your images in layout, in galleries, or other presentation form for approval. I’ll write another post about the best way to show photos for approvals. Be sure to look for that post soon, or sign up for my blog posts by email
Step Seven: Price check other sites that sell stock photos for the same photos to be sure you are getting the total best price for your project
You may have noticed that some stock images are available through more than one resource. Once you’ve arrived at your final list of photos, use a tool like Excel to list and price the stock photos that are available from more than one stock resource.
I use an Excel worksheet to keep track of images for this purpose, and it’s been an incredible time-saver. When I have image approvals done and this worksheet complete,
I’m able to provide the lowest overall cost of images to my clients.
Stock houses run special promotions all the time, so once you’ve identified stock sites that have the kind of stock photos you can use, sign up for their emails. You’ll be able to advantage of sales, multi-image discounts and special offers on stock photos.
Closing thought: The Danger of Relying on Stock Photos and PhotoShop
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
The combination of lower cost and speed of acquisition makes it tempting to pick stock photos and modify them with PhotoShop. and if you have mad PhotoShop skills, you can do a lot of great retouching to an image. It might work, but it’s not always the best option to a custom photo shoot.
Don’t jump to the conclusion of using stock images without carefully considering your image needs. With a custom photo shoot, you have complete control over the final image content, quality and personality. There are times an assignment photo shoot will end up cheaper and better in the long run.
I’ve spent thousands of hours picking stock images for different clients. My experience has taught me it is good at the start of a creative assignment to quickly decide between whether to have a custom photo shoot arranged, or pick stock photos.
Here are some factors to use in a quick decision about using stock photos or assignment photo shoot.
- Do I need to show my product in the image?
- Does the image demonstrate desired Brand uniqueness?
- Do I have an idea of costs between stock photos and PhotoShop vs. a photo shoot?
You may add your own factors to these, but these will help you reach a confident recommendation.
Go on, take this process and make it your own
Picking stock photos for a creative assignment can be a very satisfying and rewarding part of a visual designer’s job. But done wrong and without a plan, and it can turn into an exercise in frustration. You suffer through rounds of revision and client rejection, and a blur of images that become mind-numbing. But if you follow the plans I’ve shared, you’ll approach your next search for stock photos with added confidence. You and your client will win: They’ll be happier because you delivered stock photos your client will approve. You will have to be proud of in your portfolio, and can speak to delivering on design and business needs.
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