Simple Secrets for Selecting Superior Stock

Part two in a series on how to pick great photos and illustrations for your documents and presentations.

I want to help you create great looking stuff, whether for business or personal use. I’ve been a graphic designer for many years. But you don’t have to be a design expert to make your work look professional. Just follow these basic guidelines.

Let’s briefly review a couple of key points I covered in part one. [Click to read part 1 of this story.] The first rule of using stock photos and illustrations is to make sure you’re downloading properly licensed or freely available work. This is a critical step that many people skip over when choosing to add pictures to their documents. Take the time to get this step right and you’ll be well on your way to producing a professional looking, aesthetically pleasing finished product.

Next, be sure to focus on authenticity. By using stock images that appear natural — models with a relaxed expression, in a real setting, using natural light — you convey trust and honesty. Now, I’ll give you some tips on choosing images with a consistent theme, modern styling, and a diverse group of people to elevate the professional look of anything you create.

Use a cohesive style. There’s a wide variety of image styles available on stock photography sites. But, if you mix disparate elements in the same document, it can feel disorganized. A cohesive theme will tie everything together. For example, you may want to use all illustrations instead of photography. But if you decide to use only photography, do not mix color photos with black & white photos. Choose images that share elements that tie them together. Similar lighting, setting, composition, cropping, and model expressions will give the group a tight, organized appearance.

Below are a couple of sets of images that demonstrate this point. The first set feels too different. Although they share a common theme, (“family”) the differing styles of this group would seem cluttered and disjointed when used together in the same document or presentation. They may be fine used on their own. But, they don’t flow together very well.

The styling of the second set is more carefully curated. So, it imparts a clearer sense of connection. Again, the (family life) theme is the same. But, the elements of color, composition, and setting tie the images together.

Keep it current. Since clothing and hairstyles are always changing, stock images can appear outdated pretty quickly. Do not recycle the same old stock images you’ve been using every year. Select new images that reflect the current culture. Look for contemporary styles and modern devices that show new technology.

Avoid pictures of flip phones, 35mm cameras, and acid-wash jeans. Go for fitness trackers, tattoos, smart home devices, wireless headphones, and VR goggles. Instead of landlines, analog watches, and paper notepads, choose images that show people using the digital versions of those tools. Or if you want to use images with a longer shelf life, just avoid showing trends or styles that could become quickly outdated. Stick to simple clothing, modest hairstyles, and don’t show any digital tools.


The outdated style of yesterday’s stock photography featured a lot of perfectly-coiffed young models — mostly Caucasian — dressed in business suits, grinning artificially and staring straight into the camera. In reality, a typical office setting looks much different. Many companies now have a more relaxed dress code. Offices have creative brainstorming areas or even game rooms where employees can take a break. Many people are retiring later than they used to — so the active workforce population includes people in their sixties and seventies. So choose stock images that show people of all sizes, ages, shapes, genders, and skin tones.

Stock family photos that used to only show the old-fashioned nuclear family should now reflect the variety of combinations that are found in everyday life. Childless couples, adoptions, blended families, same-sex couples, and multiracial families make for a more realistic portrayal of everyday life. Choose images that reflect this diversity.

Avoid clichés

When conveying a concept with visuals, you’ll find a lot of stock images that go straight for the obvious representation that people are most familiar with. The handshake between two business people, comparing apples & oranges, an arrow hitting the bullseye, etc.

Please don’t make the mistake of using images like those. There are so many more creative solutions at your fingertips. Try to illustrate a common concept using a new approach.

For a bold, original look, choose images that show a unique perspective — such as an unexpected angle, a closeup detail, or a frozen moment in time.

In part three of this series, I’ll give you some tips about using stock illustrations instead of photos. Many of the same rules apply to selecting the best images. But, I’ll highlight a few things to watch for and provide some great samples to demonstrate best use practices.

Using stock images doesn’t have to break your budget. There are quite a few inexpensive sites out there if you’re looking for royalty-free photos and illustrations. And if your budget is tight, there are even a couple of sites with images that are free to use. Just be sure to give the proper credit to the artist if the site requires it.

Do you have questions about stock images or design? Drop me a line for a free consultation.

I am an animator / #Illustrator / graphic #designer from Seattle, WA. I write about design and productivity.

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