How to Use Free Stock Photos like a Designer

Mar 6, 2018 | 8 comments

Tell me, how many times have you seen these photos before?

If you like reading online business and marketing blogs, I’ll bet you have seen them many, many times. So have I. And yes, I have used some of them myself.

The thing is, they’re are cool — and free. But because they’re cool and they’re free, everyone wants to put them on their blogs. As a result, cool turns into overused and annoying and the photos dilute your brand.

No one will remember you if your visuals look like everyone else’s.

Overused stock photos are an equivalent of cliches in writing. 

But that doesn’t mean you need to avoid free stock photos if you want to stand out. You just can’t go with the default option.

Let’s explore some creative ways to play with stock photos without killing your brand.

Don’t let free stock photos ruin your brand. Learn how to use them creatively, legally, and in a way that makes people fall in love with your brand.Click To Tweet

What is a stock photo, anyway?

Stock photos are versatile photos created for different purposes, such as web design, ads, book cover design, brochures, personal projects, and more.

In other words, the author doesn’t create the photo for a specific client, project, or purpose, but for anyone to download and use. So, the difference between a stock photo and a custom photo is the same as the difference between clothes you buy in a store and a tailor-made dress. 

As a small business owner, you’ll most likely want to use stock photos in your blog images (so you can use Pinterest to get visible online), social media images, sales visuals, ads, digital products (books, workbooks), and web design.

How to use stock photos legally and ethically 

No matter if the photos are free or paid, if you want to use them on your business website/blog or social media, you should always pay attention to the terms of usage and make sure that:

Commercial use is allowed (“commercial use” doesn’t mean that you can sell the photo; when your blog promotes your business, anything you put on your website is commercial use)

Modifications are allowed (because you won’t use the photo as it is)

You are allowed to use the photo in the first place: Never use Google, Pinterest, and other search engines to find photos to use on your blog. Yes, Google does have a usage rights filter, but it’s not 100% reliable. Always get your photos from a stock photography marketplace (some are listed below) and triple-check the license.

And finally, don’t forget to add an attribution (the name of the author and the link; look into guidelines on how to attribute properly on the website you’ve downloaded the photos from), unless you are told you don’t have to.

You can learn about the best practices for attribution in the Creative Common Wiki

Pssst, even if you’re told you don’t have to attribute, it’s always a kind thing to do and a free and simple way to support a fellow creative. Especially when they make their work available for free. 

The trouble with free photos

Most bloggers don’t invest in stock photos. And we all know what it means: Cool photos go viral and a picture you used to love now makes you want to scream because it seems to be following you everywhere.

It’s a stock photo terror.

But when you’re putting the photo on your blog, you have no idea that in a few weeks or months, the photo is going to flood the Internet. You have no way of knowing and no way of preventing others from using “your” photo.

But you aren’t completely helpless either. Here are a few steps you can take if you want to use free photos and stand out at the same time:

1. Break the rules

Nowadays, you can choose from hundreds of quality free stock photos. So why do we seem to see the same pictures over and over?

It’s because most people go with the default option. You write about writing, so it makes sense to focus on pictures of laptops, notebooks, and pencils. Right?

Not if you want to stand out. There’re only so many cool-looking writing-related free stock photos, and thousands of bloggers who write about writing. So no wonder they all end up using the same pics on their blogs.

But hey, that’s a good thing. Because if you want to stand out in the sea of sameness, it’s pretty simple. Here’s what to do:

First, find out what kind of images other bloggers in your industry use. Then, come up with something totally different.

For example, if you write about online marketing, you don’t have to limit yourself to styled desk photos. If you write about language learning, you don’t need to follow the maps, flags, and speech bubbles trend. And so on.

Give yourself permission to be different. Your style doesn’t have to be “normal,” it doesn’t even have to “make sense.” Trust me; no one is going to think you’re weird just because you’re different. Besides, being weird is more profitable than blending in with the crowd.

And no, you won’t confuse people by showing them a picture of a flower together with an article about writing. The role of the image isn’s to explain the topic but to make people stop browsing and click the image/read the post. The image can, but doesn’t have to, be related. But it should never be literal. There’s nothing creative or interesting about saying exactly the same thing with the words and the picture.

So, no matter your industry or blog topic, you can try things like:

Food photography (when you aren’t a food blogger)

(Okay, don’t do this; these are mine ;-))

Countryside photography (when your topic has nothing to do with nature)

The Universe

Abstract photos

Different photos, always the same limited color palette

… and anything else — you got the idea.

As you can see, the images look so much better, fresher, and more seductive than the businessy images from the first set of photos at the top of this post. But just like them, these images are free and available for anyone to use, even commercially. 

Now, not only do they look better, but they’ll also make you stand out. Literally. Just imagine it from your audience’s point of view: They’re browsing Pinterest or googling [how to start blogging], barely paying attention to what they see since everything looks the same:

A woman with a laptop, a man with a laptop, hands typing on a laptop, hands writing, hands highlighting, another laptop, sunflowers, laptop, laptop, wait… sunflowers? Let me check that out!  

For this very reason, it makes no sense to google what other people in your industry are doing with their images and then do the same. Go google or Pinterest-search them, but only so you can do something different and unexpected. 

When choosing your style, make sure it matches your brand personality (if you don’t have your brand personality defined, my Brand Manifesto workbook might help). 

Once you choose your style, stick to it. Don’t put a picture of the Universe on your blog one week, sunflower field the week after that, and then a watercolor swash. That wouldn’t work.

Collect your photos in advance. Put them in one folder and check how the photos look next to each other, because that’s how people will see them eventually: On your blog page and Pinterest, the feed has to look consistent.

Speaking of which…

2. Stick to your guns

The name of the game is to make all your images: (1) look different from everyone else in your industry, but (2) look similar to each other. 

When you are different from others and consistent across your online presence, people will soon start recognizing your brand. And once they do, you will have skipped the line.

I mean, there may be bigger and older brands in your industry, but you will have an unfair advantage: People will recognize you and remember you, and therefore they will trust you.

The thing is, we humans tend to trust things that look familiar because they make us feel safe. And as you know, marketing is nothing but building trust with people you care about — your dream clients.

Now, how do you make stock photos look consistent when they come from different resources and different authors? Here’s how:

3. Make them yours

Many people skip the last step — and that’s why their images are neither outstanding nor consistent.

So here’s the last step: Don’t use stock photos as they are; adjust them and brand them:

Don’t show it all. Crop the photo. Zoom it, move it, flip it, play with the composition. Even a photo you’ve seen a hundred times can look different if you present it differently:

This is an example of how you can take one of the overused photos from above and turn it into a share-worthy image. 

Create an atmosphere. If I had just picked the images above and put them together based on the one thing they have in common (topic, color), they would have never looked good next to each other.

Even if you pay attention to the style of the photos, their color palette, composition, and atmoshere to create a harmonious photo colletion, they will still be… well, different.

The thing is, they’ve been taken by different authors, with different equipment. They can’t look as if they belong together unless you do one more thing: Add a filter.

Just like with your brand fonts and colors, you should have a “brand” filter that is always the same and that you always use with your photos. If you don’t have Photoshop, don’t worry, Canva can do filters, too. 

 Brand it. Images that will live outside your website (like your Pinterest-optimized images) need a little bit more love: Add a text overlay, use your brand elements (colors, fonts), and don’t foget about your URL.

4. Write it in stone

Finally, create image templates and a simple style guide to help you (or the person who creates your images) keep your visuals consistent.

The style guide can be a simple Google Doc. Here’s how to put it together:

♦ Describe the kind of stock photos you want to use: Their style, topics, colors, and anything else you find important based on your brand values and personality. Add a link to your favorite stock photo resource(s) and a few photos that you love.

♦ Describe what kind of photos you’d rather avoid: Industry cliches and things that contradict your brand values and personality. Add a few photos that you dislike.

♦ Jot down what filters, colors, fonts, and brand elements need to be on your images.

Where to get free stock photos

Canva has its own in-built gallery where you can search for free photos. But don’t limit yourself to their gallery. You can upload photos from other resources, such as:

Unsplash

Pixabay

Pexels

StockSnap

Burst

tl;dr

If nothing else, remember this

➢ Never use photos or other visuals that you’ve downloaded from Google, Pinterest, someone else’s website or blog, social media, and similar. Use stock photography websites and marketplaces or in-built galleries (like the one in Canva).

➢ Always make sure you (1) have the right to use the photo, (2) can use it commercially, and (3) can modify it.

➢ Always attribute the author, unless there is clearly stated “no attribution required.”

➢ If you aren’t sure, don’t use the photo.

➢ Your visuals need to be (1) different from other people in your industry and (2) consistent throughout your online presence.

➢ Having a template and a style guide for your images will help you stay consistent, no matter if you create your images yourself or hire someone to help you.

Phew! Here’s what to do now:

★ Look into the galleries of the websites listed above and try to find a style that fits your brand’s personality.

★ See if you can find enough images of the same style. Unsplash has a handy collection feature — you can create your own photo collections.

Put together a few collections before you decide on your style. 

★ Once you have the right style that fits your brand, create a template and a style guide for your images.

✯ If you found the post helpful, would you please share it on social so more people can find it? Thank you!

Main blog image photo by Nathan Boadle on Unsplash

8 Comments

  1. lucy

    Great post as usual. I couldn’t wait to open this one because I love the pictures that accompany your posts. Once I figured out who my people were, it still took me a little while to find my “look.” I ended up making a small investment in customizable graphics and it was totally worth it. And your style guide suggestion is genius. I’ll definitely be creating one. Thank you for sharing ?

    Reply
    • Veronika

      Thank you for your kind words, Lucy! Yep, a style guide is super useful. And it also makes collaboration with creatives (designers, illustrators) easier — they can use it to match your style.

      But sure, finding the right style takes some time, and the style evolves with time. I don’t like my own images from a year ago, but I think that’s a good thing: If I still loved them, it would mean I didn’t make any progress since then…

      Anyways, thank you for your comment 😉

      Reply
  2. Lee

    Love the tips including not using as is. I can usually recognize an image that has been “adjusted” but I love to see how people are using in different ways.

    Reply
    • Veronika

      Hey Lee, yes, me too 🙂 And I also love seeing the old, familiar photo having a new life, after someone has put their personality and creativity into it.

      Thank you for your comment!

      Reply
  3. Alexandra Lima

    Hi ! Thanks for made my day! I feel like you just wrote this article for me! I can’t thank you enough !!! All the best,

    Reply
    • Veronika

      Hey Alexandra! Woohoo, I’m so glad to hear that — you totally made my day with your comment, too 🙂

      Reply
  4. Hema Malini

    For someone new to graphic design this article has been an eye opener. Can’t wait to try your ideas.

    Reply
    • Veronika

      Hey Hema, I’m so glad you found it helpful! Thank you for your comment 🙂

      Reply

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  1. How to Create Friendly and Memorable Images on Instagram - Elena Mutonono - […] professional photos, or templated images (such as quotes or mini-infographics created in Canva), use them as a starting point.…

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