The Digital Brand’s Guide to Stock Images

Kyler Nixon
March 28, 2022
5 min read

Get everything you need to choose great stock photos.

With so many options available online, it can be overwhelming trying to find the right stock photos for your digital brand.

In this post, I want to share an overview of stock photos, give you some of my favorite sites for finding stock photos, show you the difference between good and bad stock photos, and lastly, I'll provide some tips for gathering and organizing stock photos.

Ready? Let's jump in!

What are stock images? When would you use them?

Stock images are photos that can be used for commercial purposes. You might use them on your website, in an email marketing campaign, or on social media. They’re a great way to add visuals to your content without having to hire a photographer.

As a quick note: we think brand photography is a fantastic investment. Stock photos should be used to supplement what you have, not replace it. We also understand that you likely need to use stock photos at some point as a digital brand. That's what this guide is for.

There are two primary instances where you might use stock photos as a digital brand:

1. Featured Images for Blogs

Most blogs you'll write will need to have a featured image. The featured image is the photo that appears at the top of your blog post or on the /blog page, and it can often be the difference between someone clicking on your article or moving on.

2. Social Media Posts

You're likely using stock photos on social media as well. Whether it's for Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram–stock photos can help break up the text in your posts and make them more visually appealing.

Again, if you can use brand photos of your brand, that's ideal. When posting featured images or social posts, you're probably going through so many different images over the course of the year or month, that sometimes using brand photos just isn't realistic.

In just a moment, we'll talk about good vs. bad stock photos and what to look out for, but first, let's talk about the best places to actually find stock photos.

The Best Stock Image Sites (Free & Paid)

Thankfully, it's easier than ever to find stock photos. 5-10 years ago, you had to do a lot of digging around to find good, high-quality stock photos that didn't break the bank. With the proliferation of stock photo sites, there are now dozens of places you can turn to get the perfect photo for your next blog or social post.

Here are some of our favorites:

Probably 95%+ of the photos we use come from the first three, free sites on that list. In fact, if you visit our blog page, all of those images are from Unsplash. Even the featured image at the top of this page is from Unsplash.

I included the paid options on there in case you have a specific type of photo or you want all of your photos to come from the same photographer or collection. For example, Adventure Nannies (one of our clients) had a specific look they were going for on their site and were struggling to find those photos on the free sites, so they bought photos from Stocksy.

Lastly, one caveat about the free sites: it can be challenging to find much diversity. The third option on the list ( has photos specifically of black and brown people and it's one of the only sites I've found like it on the internet.

Good Stock Images

Now that we've talked about the best places to find stock photos, let's talk about what to look for when you're picking stock photos. Below are 8 things to keep in mind (with examples).

Let's first assume you're one of our clients, Living Gluten Freely. They provide content for women who are gluten-free or have Celiac disease.

1. Photos of People

As a general rule of thumb, stock photos with people in them tend to perform better on social media (blogs, too). They help add a personal touch and make your content more relatable. In other words, people can see themselves in the photo.

If you want to take it a step further, look for photos of people that are:

  • Smiling, happy, candid (avoid the awkward straight-on-headshot look)
  • Diverse
  • In line with your audience demographics (LGF reaches women so all of their photos are of women)

2. Match Your Brand

The biggest upside of paying for your own brand photos is that you can make sure they match the style and feel of your brand.

When you're looking at stock photos, try to find ones that come close to matching the style of your brand. For example, Living Gluten Freely wants to feel light, boho, and warm. So they would try to find photos that reflect that. (See the image above).

You'll also notice that they all have a similar edit. The photos they've chosen don't have different filters on them... they all feel sort of the same.

3. High Quality

We'll keep this one pretty short. Nowadays, there's literally no reason to have grainy or blurry stock photos on your site.

Bad (or Average) Featured Images

Below are some examples of what we would call "bad stock photos."

Now, this is more of an art than a science. My degree is in business with an emphasis in design, so I'm more trained in visual stuff than the average person. I look at thousands of photos every single year, too. Take the tips below as a filter, not as a hard and fast rule. You have to do what works for your brand.

1. Cheesy or Weird

There's a time and a place for most photos, but you should try to avoid cheesy or weird stock photos as much as you can. You know what I'm talking about. Photos that have dumb little sayings or signs, take the topic way too literally, or just generally feel cheap and corny.

With no intended insult to this photographer, if I was writing a blog about "life after a Celiac diagnosis," the photo below would classify as cheesy.

Generally speaking, just avoid pictures of "stuff" or photos that have text, signs, or weird composition and editing:

2. Off Brand

Earlier we mentioned the importance of picking stock photos that match the style and tone of your brand. The opposite of that, thus making it a "bad stock photo" would be photos that are off brand.

For Living Gluten Freely, having dark, moody photos would feel like a stark contrast to their normal, bright and boho aesthetic.

3. Against What You Teach

This one is a bit odd, so let me try to explain.

All of the photos you use on your site should align with your brand in visuals and in the content you're sharing.

Here are two examples with different brands:

  • Living Gluten Freely wouldn't have a photo on their site of bread, because bread has gluten and their audience wouldn't respond to that.
  • Taking Cara Babies (another of our clients) wouldn't have a photo of a crib full of toys because they teach safe sleep.

This one can feel tricky to get right, but make sure you're checking out all areas of your photo. Is there something in the background that shouldn't be there? Was this photo taken in a demographic area I want to reach (ie, are the words on the signs in English if I have an American audience)? Is there anything that might cause me to get a DM about this later?

Take a few seconds to think through those will help you weed out the bad photos.

4. Low Quality

Again, pretty simple. Bad stock photos are low quality. They're grainy, blurry, or harshly edited.

Bad Stock Images… Avoid These at All Costs!

The worst stock images...

Are you ready?

Pausing for emphasis...

The worst stock images violate copyright law or infringe on someone else's copyright.

Friend, if you haven't heard this before, please read this: you cannot use photos you found on Google. Those photos belong to the photographer or copyright holder and are not fair game just because you found them in a search.

That is theft.

I'm not trying to scare you, but if your site is full of images you grabbed from Google, stop reading and go swap those out as fast as you can. You can (and likely will) get fined hundreds or thousands of dollars for using copyrighted images on your website.

We have a client who has a lily farm in Iowa. They have dozens of different types of lilies and most of the photos on their site are directly from their camera. However, for one lily (seriously, just one) they went to Google and searched the name and grabbed the first photo that popped up. A month or so later, the owner of the photo sent them an invoice for a few hundred dollars for using the photo without permission.

One last time... stay off Google or any other search engine for photos. Just use the list above. Unsplash allows you to use any photo on their site however you want, completely free. The paid sites allow you to pay for a license.

Gathering Stock Images

Now that you know what makes photos good or bad, you can start to gather photos for your brand. I like to take about 10-15 minutes every month and scan through the free sites to add to my collection.

In fact, in Unsplash, you can create different collections, name them whatever you want, and add photos to them for later. Just click the "+" icon in the corner of any photo and it'll prompt you to add it a collection or create a new collection. It's a simple way to save you time later on.

If you find a photo you like in Unsplash, you can also open it up and scroll down. Unsplash will show you other images just like it as well as collections with photos that might be similar.

Here are a few different collections you might have:

  • Website Images
  • Featured Images
  • Horizontal Images
  • Vertical Images
  • Social Images
  • Photos of People
  • Photos of Things
  • Background Photos
  • Textures
  • Colors
  • or project-specific things like, "Collab w/ [Brand]."

This brings us to the end of our guide. Your homework this week is to collect at least 20 stock photos from the sites above.

You got this!

Kyler Nixon