David Meyer

Take Stock of Higher Quality Stock (please).

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a lousy stock photo’s thousand words are ‘crap.’ OK, maybe some of them are ‘lazy.’

The Image Tells the Story

As a lover of words (it’s called an octothorpe, not a hashtag), it pains me to admit that for most people, the visual element is better retained. Plus, whether you like it or not, your brand means something and has value. When you need a photo, grabbing the first royalty-free (or free) image that works isn’t the solution.

I’m not going dive into the benefits of custom photography, but (for your brand’s sake) please don’t rule it out. Sometimes the just-right image is still waiting to be captured. Also, just because your phone takes ‘great’ pictures or you have a really nice camera doesn’t automatically make you a professional photographer.

How We Use Stock Photography

Maybe we could discuss this over a beverage watching basketball at our next Spoke Friday happy hour, but the image we used to promote it was composed entirely of stock images. It’s not drag and drop easy, though.

First, we needed a concept to blend St. Patrick’s Day with March Madness. St. Patrick playing with a basketball sounded good to us. With concept in hand, Drew Mangels started looking for images. It doesn’t work well when it’s the other way around; browsing stock photos in search of a concept hasn’t ever yielded us good results.

Drew thought it would be cool to blend a Byzantine image with an image from the present to create juxtaposition. Unfortunately, the basketball he liked wasn’t spinning Globetrotter-style. With a few layers of a motion blur, he was able to create the desired effect. Oh, and in the original image the ‘St. Patrick’ nameplate was at the top. He clipped that part of the image out and moved it to the bottom of the design.

Using stock imagery isn’t something to be ashamed of, but bad design is.

Stock Doesn’t Have to Mean Awful

We understand that not every budget allows for custom photography, and that the number of stock images available seems to grow (literally) every day as professional photographers upload their photos for a (very) small percentage of the sale price.

Close your eyes for a second. Wait. Don’t do that. You’re reading. OK…try to imagine the most generic stock photo. Is it a perfectly multi-racial group of business professionals smiling? Is it an attractive woman who looks oddly happy that she’s wearing a headset? Is there a lightbulb over someone’s head? Hands shaking (maybe with a globe nearby)?

Sometimes I think the companies selling those overdone photos should pay people for using them.

There are a growing number of sites that sell stock images. Some are even available for free downloads (I haven’t figured out that business model, yet). You need to be willing to spend some time and more than a few bucks for a good photo. It’s worth the investment.

Stock Photography 101

Hopefully, you’ve invested in and built up your brand. Photography can be an excellent design element. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of bad stock photography dragging the brand down.

Yes, there are rules associated with using stock images. There are also some rules-of-thumb. Here’s a simple breakdown.

From a Creative Standpoint

While design and style are subjective, there are some (very) basic tips for choosing a compelling stock photo.

– The image tells the story effectively and complements the copy.

– The resolution is high enough to reproduce. For most print, this means 300 DPI (dots per inch) at full size. Web photos only need to have a screen resolution at 72 DPI.

– It’s well lit. The human eye is naturally drawn to light (hence ‘shiny object syndrome’). Make sure your intended focal point isn’t lurking in the shadows.

– Good colors and contrast. The image won’t be out there all by itself; make sure it enhances your overall design aesthetic.

There are more: pattern/rhythm, variety, movement, harmony, balance, proportion, etc. This isn’t about design theory.

Altered Image

As noted above, yes you may (and should) modify the image to suit your design. Introducing a layer of color, motion, and adding or removing elements can make the photo more unique and more on brand. Go for it.

On the Legal Side

Note: we’re not lawyers; hire a nice one. Each company’s ‘Terms of Use’ can vary.

Royalty-Free vs. Rights-Managed

Royalty-free images can be purchased and used anywhere, with unlimited use. This means you can reproduce it on a million billboards until the end of time.

Rights-managed images are often more expensive, and their use is limited. Generally, this means the photos are higher quality and not as commonly used. You will need to work with the stock company to get a quote for use based on where and how it will be used, and for how long. And yes, if they see that you’re using the image past the licensed time, you will pay dearly. Even if it’s a mistake (If you don’t believe me, I’ve got some $1,200 clouds to sell you).

Model Release

Just because a photographer captures the perfect photo of the perfect family doesn’t mean the family agreed to be models or have their image blasted all over the world. Reputable photographers require subjects to sign a model release which allows them to use the photo for commercial purposes. It’s always easier to make sure the photo has an attached model release than defend yourself in a lawsuit.

Which brings us to…


Most reputable companies offer indemnification (up to a certain amount) for the use of the image. This means if the photographer doesn’t really have a model release and you get sued, the stock company will take care of it.


It’s best to remove all identifiable logos from any image. Most companies don’t mind if their logo is in your photo, especially when it’s shown in a flattering way. But if they think you’re trying to leverage their brand for your benefit, watch out. It’s easier just to remove them.

Shutter the Thought

Don’t be scared to use stock photography. Just have a concept in mind, spend some time and make it look like it’s not stock photography and you’ll be fine.

If you have any questions or opinions, we’d love to discuss them at Spoke Friday; please join us!

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David Meyer


There are a lot of great story-tellers, but there aren’t enough story-understanders. When clients have trouble explaining a new value proposition, David can name that tune in fewer words than they imagined possible. When prospects come to us with a symptom, David asks the (sometimes hard) questions that get to the root of the problem. Then he solves it. After decades in account management and creative roles, David is able to bridge the gap between creatives and clients (and back). Oh, and he can tell stories, too.

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