Stock Photos That Don’t Suck

Let’s face it: stock photos suck.

A quick Google search will show you just how bad they are. Take for example this, this, and this.

We could go on, but pointing out how awful stock photos are isn’t the point. The point is helping you find…

Stock Photos that Don’t Suck

You’ll notice that all of those examples of stock photos that suck are absurd, generic, stereotypical, resemble clip art, or all of the above.

So what actually works?

The best stock photos are generally more abstract. They merely hint at the idea of your message or product. For example, if you are talking about change, instead of a keyboard with the word “change” inscribed on it, what about a photo of a caterpillar or an ocean tide or mountains? These are ideas that are related to change, and they will always look better in your design than the generic keyboard or puzzle photo.

Lifestyle photos are another area where stock photos will often fail you. Stock photographers are trying to think of very specific situations or scenarios that they think designers or marketing departments will want to use in their materials, which, in my opinion, is why they almost always fail. They aren’t actually participating in that situation and the models are terrible actors.

Instead, search through photos of people actually engaged in that lifestyle. That’s why I usually turn to the Creative Commons section of Flickr. Thanks to the democratization of technology, everyday people have access to high-tech camera equipment, and are taking very high-quality photos for anyone to use. One thing to note: Creative Commons photos generally require attribution somewhere in your design. But that has always seemed to me a small price to pay for free photos that don’t suck.

A well-composed, high-quality photograph will do the trick. If you have found that your run-of-the-mill stock photo sites aren’t getting the job done, there are a few specialty sites out there that are worth checking out. Stocksy is perfect for browsing through different kinds of lifestyle images, and works on an à la carte payment system, so you don’t have to buy 50 photo credits all at once (which I hate, by the way). Their images are generally very well-composed, tasteful, artsy, and there isn’t a businessman handshake photo anywhere to be found.

I’ve always been partial to iStockPhoto. They do have their share of corny photographs, but their robust search tools (color, shape, subject, etc.) can help you find the perfect photograph for your design. They also have several different payment methods, which I really like.

How to Look for Photos that Don’t Suck

Here’s a short list of the methods I use to find photos that don’t suck:

Go abstract. There are times when an old timey photo of a man in a diving suit standing in a lagoon is the best option. Just think about the keywords or ideas of your design, and/or things related to them, and you’ll find a great image.

Creative Commons. Lifestyle photographs found on Flickr or through the Creative Commons image search site will nine times out of ten be your saving grace.

High-Quality. When in doubt, even if it’s generic, a high-quality image shot by a competent photographer is going to hide whatever common failures that photo has. This photo is pretty dumb, but at least it is well-lit, and it’s a million times better at conveying the idea of happiness than this garbage.

We know it’s a jungle out there, and it is my sincere hope that this post will help you find your way to photos that don’t suck. Of course, if you still need assistance, we are always here to help.

Jason Forrest
About Jason Forrest
Forrest began his career as a staff designer at a futurist consultancy in Washington DC, and since then has worked for clients both large and small in a wide variety of industries. He received his BFA from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.