Selecting Stock Images: 6 Tips for Nailing a Consistent Look

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In a perfect world, we’d all have the time and budget to stage professional photoshoots for all our marketing images. But for most of us, that’s not always possible. And when it’s not, we turn to stock photos. 

There was a time that most stock photography was pretty bad… and pretty obviously stock. Think awkward men in business suits looking at the camera while stiffly posing with a coffee mug. Yuck. 

Thankfully today’s content creators have a wealth of free or low-cost stock images to choose from that look amazing and natural. But being spoiled for choice can also bring its own challenges. 

Your first concern when looking for the perfect stock image to use for your website, blog or social media post is the subject matter. But there’s more to it than that.

The images should also reflect consistency in terms of your brand’s visual style. If you’re thinking, “My brand’s visual style?” your company may benefit from digital content governance. This process can help you define standards and procedures for more effective content creation and management.

Let’s get back to the question of stock photography. Think of it like putting together an outfit or decorating a room - it doesn’t all have to be the same to work, but it should all match. 

When choosing images, it can be helpful to consider six different visual style aspects to ensure that you’re picking images with a similar feel, even if the subject matter is different.

Literal vs. Figurative

One of the first choices you’ll make when selecting an image to use is the subject matter. After all, you need to determine which words you’ll use to search. So, let’s imagine you’re choosing a featured image for a blog about brainstorming. 

You could go the literal route and find a dynamic photo of people having a lively discussion in a boardroom. This literally depicts the act of brainstorming. Or you could take a more figurative approach and find an artistic photo of a lightbulb, which represents an idea. 

Stock image literal versus figurative example

Stock image literal versus figurative example

Illustrative vs. Photographic 

The first thing to consider is whether you’ll use illustrations or photographs. While there may be some instances where it would be appropriate to use a mix of both, generally, you want to stick to one or the other within the same article or page type on your website.

Stock image photographic vs illustrative example

Stock image photographic vs illustrative example

Whether you go for photos or illustrations, consistency is important. If you decide to use an illustration as the main image on each of your service pages, they should all have a similar style. It will look inconsistent and jarring if one is very cartoonish and one is more of an abstract sketch style.

Stock image illustration style example

Stock image illustration style example

Contrast

When it comes to photography, contrast refers to the degree of difference between highlights and shadows (tonal contrast) and the way that colors interact (color contrast). For example, an image that’s mostly made up of reds and oranges has relatively low color contrast because these two colors are next to each other on the color wheel.

On the other hand, a photo with a green background and a bright red object would have high color contrast because these two colors are directly opposite on the color wheel. You can also see the concept of tonal contrast most clearly illustrated in black and white photos. High contrast images have very dark blacks and bright whites whereas low contrast images would consist mostly of gray mid-tones. 

When deciding whether to use low or high contrast images, think about the kind of style or mood you’d like to convey. High contrast images pop and have a more energetic, strong look. Conversely, low contrast images are more mellow and calming. 

Stock image high vs low constrast example

Stock image high vs low contrast example

Color Temperature

You may not think of colors as having temperatures, but you’ve probably heard some colors referred to as warm and others as cool. Warm colors (yellow, orange and red)  bring to mind fire and heat. Cool colors (blue, green and magenta) remind us of the sky, water and ice. However, there are both warm and cool tone options for every color. 

Many stock images you’ll see have a decidedly warm or cool feel based on the majority of the colors used. Some may be neutral if they have a good balance of warm and cool tones. 

Brands can create a more consistent look by choosing whether they’ll usually opt for imagery that’s warm or cool. Nothing’s set in stone here, but it can be helpful to keep in mind that cool colors evoke a more serene, technical or sophisticated feeling while warm colors evoke a more energetic, emotional or playful vibe.

Stock image warm vs cool temperature example

Stock image warm vs cool temperature example

Depth of Field

Unless you’ve taken a photography class, you’ve probably never considered this aspect of photos. Depth of field refers to the distance between the closest and farthest objects that remain in focus. 

For example, a photo of a person where the background is blurred has a shallow depth of field. A landscape photo where both the nearby trees and the very faraway mountain are sharply in focus has a deep depth of field. As you can see, different depths of field create very different looks and feels for images. 

So, which is right for your brand? You don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other for every single image related to your brand, but you should use some consistency when it comes to images that will be seen together on one page. 

Stock image depth of field examples

Stock image depth of field examples

People

It should come as no surprise that people respond well to images of other people. It brings a personal, human element to your content and can help people visualize themselves in whatever you’re selling.

According to a study by Nielsen-Norman Group, people respond best to photos of real people from your company. Since that can’t always be done (especially these days), high-quality stock images can fill the gap. 

Stock image examples

When selecting images with people, here are a few things to think about: 

  • Are you representing racial, gender, ability and age diversity? 
  • Are you presenting a realistic, yet aspirational version of your target demographic? 
  • Does the scene look authentic or staged? 
  • Will your customer find the image relatable?

Once again, there’s no right answer. But we recommend choosing images that feature people looking natural in an environment that looks real. Website users are savvier than ever and can spot a staged stock image a mile away. Inauthentic images probably won’t send your customers running for the hills, but engaging and consistent media helps you represent your brand in the best light possible.

Stock image examples

Finding Your Brand's Visual Identity 

Visiting huge stock image sites can be overwhelming. When you’re looking at 50 seemingly similar pictures of a person working at a laptop, how do you choose the right one? While preference plays a part, we hope that these tips will give you more strategic direction. 

Assessing these visual elements may be a challenge at first, but keep practicing and soon you’ll be doing them unconsciously as you internalize your brand’s visual style. 

And if you need some help getting started, get in touch. EDUCO can help your brand create visual style guidelines that make future design and image selection a breeze.

Anna Garvey Digital Strategist Chicago

About the Author

Anna Garvey

Anna is Content Strategist at EDUCO. Connect with Anna on LinkedIn or