A little like stereotypes, stock images exist because they’re a shortcut of sorts to something needed… generally, some kind of budget-friendly graphic to prevent your page from turning into a sleep-inducing sea of text. Unfortunately, they also share another characteristic with stereotypes: their limitations and/or lack of originality. If you happen upon an exceptional photo, you can almost be sure it’s in use somewhere else.

The good news is, with an ounce or two of creativity, you can overcome these challenges. Today, with the expansive World Wide Web at your fingertips, you can find nearly endless possibilities for images and icons. And by sprinkling some magic design dust on everyday stock photos, you can really make them your own – all without breaking the budget. 

To help navigate around limited selection and poor/cliché image quality, we recommend the following: 

1. Crop the images in a unique way and/or add some form of overlay or design element...

so the photo becomes more than just a photo. To add interest, aim to surprise your audience or make them think about the object or idea in a new way. Here are a few of our before and afters:

2. Use consistent iconography in place of photography. 

Noun Project is a fantastic place to start, featuring an ever-growing number of terms and ideas that have been turned into industrial-style icons. We use these icons to add visual interest, break up chunks of text, and bring simple steps, sentences, or instructions to life on both print and web content.

3. Search extensively on higher-end stock sites...

to find key images that will best represent your brand. Here at Bonfire Effect, we use Getty Images, but Shutterstock and iStock (also owned by Getty Images) are solid options as well. Look into investing in a bulk package to get the most for your money. (And for an educational and entertaining look at why you should avoid staged office stock photos, take a detour to this blog.)

4. If you need a general portfolio of images, try to find the supporting photos on a free site...

like Pexels, StockSnap.io, Unsplash, or Pixabay, and consider giving them a novel treatment such as the examples showcased in tip number one. By giving stock photos from these sites a little extra attention, you'll be sure to escape unnaturally staged images that scream "we went to great pains to make this scene look organic." (See happy executive by day, hardcore banjo player by night example below.) And if you're trying to decide on Pexels vs. Pixabay, Pexels vs. Unsplash, Unsplash vs. Pixabay, yada yada yada... get a helpful look at how the various sites compare.

5. Spend the time and money to shoot custom photography.

This sometimes pricey option has a couple of big advantages: You won’t find the photos used to market anyone else’s products or solutions and you can customize each shot to illustrate very specific concepts. Check out how we've helped a few of our clients stand out from the crowd with custom photography:

On the flip side, when sourcing stock photos to use in your marketing materials, we do NOT recommend…

  • Relying on trite, posed, office shots that make us a) appreciate the scintillating existence that is #modernofficelife or b) question why we were ever born. Even with Vince Vaughn and other actors in them, these shots fall flat.
  • Downloading generically beautiful images that you’re likely to also find on display in the picture frame aisle at Target or in Botox marketing materials.
  • Building out a photo library filled with great, aspirational images and roughly zero “get the job done” images that actually illustrate what your company does. (Take this Super Bowl commercial about herding cats for instance – not a photo, per se, but a strong illustration of the concept. Full of humor and a well-received video, but did it really help viewers understand EDS solutions? Maybe not so much.)

To sum things up...

Whatever site and photo style you choose, know that you’re already headed in the right direction by making the effort to include an image that complements your content. If your budget permits, go ahead and set up a custom photo shoot to get personalized photos you can use for years to come. But, on the other hand, if your budget leans more toward PBR than Dom Perignon, know that there are seemingly limitless possibilities out there for you. You just have to know where to look – and how to dress up the options to make them your own.