A good stock image is like a good design: you want it to be powerful, persuasive, and memorable; without drawing attention to itself. It can seem like a difficult balance to achieve, but a little effort on your part will reap rewards.
Stock images are used for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, they’re great if you simply do not have the time, budget or resource to conduct your own photography shoot. Stock images are also great placeholders for designers when pitching to a client you can experiment with ideas and deliver mockups that reflect the final design, without the full cost of original photography, knowing that you intend to swap out the images later.
Sometimes, professional photographers post stunning images, of unique moments, that simply cannot be recaptured, no matter how high your budget. But almost everyone on the planet has access to a camera, and with 3 billion budding photographers out there, not all stock photography is equal.
Here’s some insider knowledge on how to distinguish quality images from low-quality stock.
#1 You get what you pay for
It may be a cliché, but it happens to be true: quality products cost money. A quality photograph is normally taken by a skilled photographer who has spent years, if not decades honing his or her craft. Many professional photographers spent years in college learning about lighting levels, composition, and a host of other technical details that combine to produce a great photograph. Most professional photographers use expensive equipment. The photographer might have invested heavily in a shoot, paying a model, travelling to a location, or hiring a studio. All that investment has to be paid for.
To give away a photograph for free, you need to be cutting corners somewhere. That’s not to say that there are no quality stock images available for free, but there are fewer. Purchasing from a reputable supplier such as iStock by Getty Images means you’re guaranteed all the quality of a professional shoot.
#2 Avoid filters
A good photograph is just that. It doesn’t anticipate a design, or a style. We see thousands of images submitted to stock sites that have filters applied, and this raises two concerns: firstly, filters are often applied to disguise flaws in a photograph that may become apparent once it’s introduced to your design; secondly filters always add a flavor to a design that you may not have intended.
If you want to use a filtered image, first select a great photograph, then apply the filter yourself in an application like Photoshop. Not only will you be confident that the image isn’t hiding a flaw, but you’ll retain control of the look and feel of your design.
#3 Look for processed images
At the other end of the scale from filters, is professional processing.
Professional photographers shoot images in raw format, rather than jpg, because it stores more data and thus enables the resulting image to be processed more easily. Photography is more than just pointing and shooting, processing is an essential part of a professional photographer’s workflow.
Images that have been processed have deeper blacks, more detail in the highlights, greater contrast, and more vibrant colors. This richness of detail produces an image that pops off the screen. Free stock rarely demonstrates this level of quality, due to the time that the photographer needs to invest.
#4 Avoid flat
Flat design may be all the rage in web design, but flat images hold less visual interest. An experienced photographer will capture not just what’s in front of the lens, but the spirit of the subject as well.
Take for example, an image of a building: an amateur photographer might frame the shot full frontal, in order to capture as much of the building’s facade as possible; an experienced professional will instead pick out an architectural detail, shot at a dynamic angle, making use of perspective, to record not just the facade, but the presence of the building. It’s a skill that takes thousands of shots to perfect.
#5 Avoid Xeroxing
The biggest asset any creative brings to the table is their ideas, and photography is no exception. A good photograph conveys an idea, an emotion, an event, in a way that is unique to that photographer. Free stock tends to be produced as stock. As a result, rather than taking an original approach to an idea, the photographer mimics other stock images.
For example, while a professional photographer might document a business meeting, a free stock image will show the infamous handshake shot that has been duplicated thousands of times this is how we end up with so many clichéd stock images.
If it looks like a stock image to you, it will look like a stock image to everyone else even if they don’t know what stock is.
Premium stock vs. free stock
Is there any such thing as high-quality free stock? Of course! Many of the world’s best photographers give away some, or even all of their images. Even professional photographers who sell premium stock will often give away lesser images for free, or with a restricted license.
The problem with free stock is that it so often looks like stock, and therefore the project/brand/user of the image fails to stand out and make an impact, as so many others are using the same image.
When you purchase premium stock you know you’re buying an image that doesn’t look like stock—and doesn’t convey the negative associations that free stock carries with it. Premium stock raises the perceived quality of your design, both for your client, and your client’s customers.