Stock Images in Graphic Design: Do’s & Don’ts

A picture is worth a thousand words. They can capture and preserve the beauty of fleeting moments or convey thoughts that we can’t quite articulate. They can connect us by invoking feelings. The right image can take your communication to new levels. But what happens when you don’t know what to look for during your search?  

Before publishing content specific to your brand, it’s important to have a complete understanding of the story you’re trying to tell. One of the great things about stories is that they can be told through various mediums: video, text, and in this instance, images. Depending on how these mediums are used, they can either elevate or diminish the customer experience. All of the content you put out is an opportunity to strengthen your brand’s presence. With the right help, your brand can rise above the rest. 

One of the most common resources used in design is stock photography. Stock images have their advantages: they’re cost-effective and save us the hassle of scheduling photo shoots. But they also have their disadvantages. Here are a few ways you can successfully incorporate them into your designs. 

One Size Fits All

One Size Fits All

Consistency is key. It’s important to keep this fact in mind since each project will call for its own set of dimensions. During your search for the perfect photo, you might find a few interesting prospects that seem like they’ll work for your project. However, 9 times out of 10, the dimensions for these stock images might be significantly different. Before you begin scaling one image down to match the other, try placing them in frames. Traditionally, a frame is an object that holds and displays an image. In this instance, however, it is done digitally. A great way to understand the process is to think of cookie cutters. Once you press the shape into the dough, the dough conforms to the shape of the tool.

Here at Birch River, we frequently use Adobe’s Illustrator to do most of our design work. To create a frame for your image in Illustrator, you’ll create what is known as a clipping mask. One thing to note is that this can only be done with vector images:

  • Select and create the shape you’d like your image to take on
  • Make sure the clipping path (the desired shape) is placed above the object you’d like to mask.
  • Select both the object and the clipping mask
  • Select ‘choose object’ > clipping mask > make

You might be inclined to stretch or scale your image to fix a sizing issue. Depending on the size and resolution of your image, making it larger will result in it becoming pixelated. Using frames is a great way to preserve the quality of your photos and ensure that the elements in your design are consistently proportioned.

Hold The Cheese

We know you’ve experienced searching through stock images and coming across that one photo that seems so unrealistic it fills you with second-hand embarrassment? Yeah, that’s definitely something you’d want to exclude from your design. In our branding series, we explained how people connect best with real stories shared by real people. This will also hold true for your designs and the assets that you incorporate within them.

Using images of far-fetched scenarios will diminish the authenticity of your brand.


For example, if you’re trying to create a design that speaks to the traditional office setting, it might be best not to use photos where people are high fiving at the water cooler or a group of four or more standing around aimlessly, smiling directly at the camera. Unless the situation calls for it, the photo above is a great example of the type of photos you should avoid. 

When beginning a project, you may have an idea of the subject area or genre it’ll fit in, but before moving forward it’s best to ensure you have an understanding of the message you’re trying to get across. If you feel like your subject is too broad, try creating a list of ideas. This is a great way to pinpoint the specific angle you’d like to use to approach your project. This method can also be used when trying to search for specific images.

If you’re in need of stock images that accurately depict an office setting, including shots of an individual staring intently at their computer while working at their desk or avoiding the inclusion of faces altogether. Shots of hands-on keyboards or graphs displayed on computer screens can be just as effective! By capturing the essence of natural workspaces, this sort of design will boost the relatability of your brand.

Source: Unsplash

Depending on the intention of your design, any stock photo can be used. But it’s important to have a solid understanding of the message you’re trying to convey. Is your content or the tone of your brand intentionally comedic or lighthearted? Bring on the cheese! But if your message is on a more serious note, try to find photos that match that tone.

Personal Touch

Personal Touch

With most stock photos being free to use by the masses, you can almost guarantee that the photo you’ve set your sights on has been chosen and used by others as well. So, this begs the question: how can I make my design stand out from the rest?  Well, we’re glad you asked! 

Making minor adjustments to your image, like adjusting the contrast and brightness can make a huge difference. In most cases, simply applying a filter that doesn’t decrease the legibility of your design might be the perfect solution. But some situations might call for a more personal touch. Including your logo or a bit of text can be just what your design needs to set you apart from the crowd.

Stay On Topic

Stay On Topic

We agree, sometimes it’s hard to resist that truly adorable cat photo or that awesome drone shot of a cityscape! But when it comes to relevance in design, flashy elements can only take you so far. 

With most digital platforms placing a huge emphasis on visual elements, it’s important that your designs are consistent with the topics that are being discussed in your content. Think of your artwork as an appetizer that is preceding the main course. Its purpose is to serve as a visual aid for your content. Depending on the project itself, your designs can take on many forms: a hero image for a blog, a slideshow highlighting bullet points, or a featured image on your website. 

If you feel inclined to include a stock image in your design, ensure that you use one that is relevant to your message. Having an unrelated image be the face of your content will only result in miscommunication with your audience which can ultimately lead to a decline in your following if this becomes a habit. 

Catch Of The Day

It’s hard to deny the appeal of something fresh and new! When images you choose have been used time and time again, creating an impressionable design can be difficult. Research has shown that our ability to remember pictures exceeds our ability to remember words. With most stock photos being free-to-use, it is difficult to avoid reusing those that have been used by the majority. But one way you can limit their use is by organizing your search results to display the most recently uploaded images. These filters can usually be found near the search bar in the form of a drop-down menu:


Remember, we only want stock images that are relevant to your message, so if you adjust the filters and don’t find a newly uploaded image that relates, don’t sweat it! Try getting creative with your keywords. Keywords can be tricky, but with the right one, you might stumble upon exactly what you’ve been looking for. If you’re still not having any luck, simply add your own personal touch to one that will work best for you! 


Need more variety in stock images? You can find a wide range of royalty-free images in these platforms: 

  • Unsplash – with over 110,000 contributing photographers, Unsplash’s ever-growing catalog has over 1.5 million photos.
  • Pikwizard –  with over a million high-quality stock images and videos, Pikwizard’s growing catalog has plenty of royalty-free options for your design needs.
  • Pexels– by collaborating with creators, Pexels offers a wide variety of photos and videos which can be used anywhere. 
  • Canva– as a design tool with a fairly easy to use interface, Canva makes creating and sharing your graphics to social media easy! 
  • Adobe Illustrator– Although this product isn’t free, it’s features give you the ability to create striking vector graphics and other impeccable designs!

There are many components that go into creating a solid design. If you plan on incorporating stock photography into your projects, we hope you found this information useful! Remember, relevance is key! Keep your design and your message consistent and you will start to build a strong association between your core messages, values, and the visual elements of your brand. 


Written by Bryanna Norris
Published on May 18, 2020
Filed Under: Graphic Design