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Taking Stock of Stock Photography

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Most design projects benefit from some kind of engaging imagery, but custom photography can be expensive – that’s where stock photography comes in. Stock is professional photography of almost anything that’s been licensed for diverse purposes. Some stock is better than others, and the cost to license varies.

Where to Find the Best Stock Photography?

There are millions of stock images available online on hundreds of websites. Here are some good places to start looking:


Some websites have pricing models such as monthly access to unlimited downloads, pay-by-credit, or simple cost-per-download. These are usually royalty-free, so you’ll pay just once. These are popular paid stock websites:


Yup! There is stock photography that’s totally free! Always check the license before using free stock because some free stock websites restrict use to non-commercial purposes only. Here are some of our favorite free stock collections:

Paid vs Free?

Paid stock photography collections usually have a wider selection and high resolution sizes available. Paid sites also usually have a robust search function to help you find exactly what you need. The downside is, of course, that stock can get expensive.

On the other hand, you can’t beat free! Free stock can be high quality and abundant, and often has that indie feel you might be going for.

What Makes Good Stock Photography?

Stock photography should be useful and versatile. This means that the picture is in focus, the subject of the photo is more or less centered, and the subject of the photo has ample space around it so it’s easy to crop to different proportions. The best stock photography is very high resolution so it can be used in even large format printing.

How to Choose Stock Photography?

It’s all about being yourself. Think about the tone you want to portray. There are thousands of pictures of people using laptops, but tone makes all the difference. Do want to use cool blues, people in business suits, sitting in a glass high rise to illustrate cutting-edge professionalism? Or do you want a warm coffee shop vibe with the subject dressed in flannel to emphasize a down-to-earth local sensibility?

Thinkstock 46622321

Make stock choices that reflect your values. Taking time to shop around and compare can really pay off.

Tips to Making Your Stock Photography Work

  1. Keep A Library. Most stock licenses allow you to use images as many times as you like. Save high-resolution source images in a Stock Photography folder, and re-name each file with the source of the stock and the images. This allows you to find the stock again, find similar stock, and follow up on any licensing issues down the line.

    Example: stocksnap-T4448216-bear.png
  2. Custom Tailoring. Don’t be afraid to make the stock your own. Crop it so it fits nicely in your project, and use a photo-editing software to apply filters or adjust the colors. The clever designer can even combine stock to create new compositions.
  3. Illustrations & Icons, Too. Many of the paid stock websites also have illustrations and icons on offer. It's always nice to have options.

Just for Fun

When we said that you can find pretty much anything represented in stock photography, we meant it! Stock photography is infamous for having some truly bizarre content. Enjoy!

Little boy hugs a small potted cactus.
Cats wearing 3D glasses in a movie theatre, eating popcorn.
A man with a beard lays in bed using a sheet cake as a pillow.


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