January 22, 2024

Finding high-quality stock photos that don’t suck and actually support your brand is a maaaaajor challenge.

BEFORE I GO ANY FURTHER, LET ME JUST SAY THIS: stock photos should never ever ever ever fully replace getting a custom brand photoshoot—which will always look significantly better, more authentic, and 10x more personal. However, there will be times when you need some extra imagery and have limited budget and options. In those cases, stock photos may be your only resort to fill a content gap quickly. (And we’re not letting a lack of imagery keep us from getting eyeballs on our genius work this year!)

The challenge? Most stock photo sites are flooded with tacky, cheesy images featuring corny models and awkward concepts. And I know first hand (from doing this weekly for clients) that sifting through millions of these subpar stock photos searching for some gems is frustrating and feels impossible. But fear not, bestie – not all stock imagery is created equal. With the right strategy and some effort, you can locate decent stock photos that don’t destroy your brand credibility or make your content look totally amateur.

In this post, I’m giving you all my best tips, tools and criteria for actually finding good stock photos so you can use them as needed without cringing or sacrificing visual integrity.

Let’s get into it.

Stock Photos That Don’t Suck: A Guide

1.) Clearly Define What You Need Based on Brand Guidelines

Before you start endlessly scrolling through generic stock photo sites trying to find stock photos that don’t suck, take a step back.

Carefully analyze your brand style guide, past content, color palettes, and visual direction. (Or if you’re like me, you can even make a list/Notion hub of the specific types of textures, color schemes, lighting, objects, and overall vibes that align with your brand images.) Having this clear creative direction locked down ahead of time makes filtering through mediocre stock so much easier. You’ll know exactly what to look for and what meets your standards.

For example: if your brand uses a lot of natural wood textures, black and white color schemes, and lifestyle home decor, zero in on those types of images. Ignore the overly perfect, brightly saturated, cheesy stock images that don’t match your look and feel. Approach stock sites with intentionality about what works for your brand.

Hot tip: Tackle stock photo searching with the same brand standards you’d have for a professional photoshoot. Don’t settle just because it’s stock—find imagery that enhances instead of cheapens.

2.) Try to Match Your Brand Photoshoot Content as Much as Possible

Once you’ve clearly defined what specific photo style and elements you need based on your brand direction, try your best to directly match the aesthetic of your existing brand imagery and content style. (Because yes, you NEED a brand photoshoot! Don’t get it twisted!)

Don’t veer too far from the core look and feel already established in your professional custom photoshoots. When leveraging stock photos (that don’t suck) here and there to supplement, aim for cohesive harmony with your existing photos.

Hot tip: analyze the color grading, editing style, and overall vibe of your brand photography. Make note of framing techniques, angles, and backgrounds used across the custom photoshoot content you already have. If the stock photos feel jarringly different from your norm, it will look visually disjointed and obviously like stock.

3.) Actually Make the Investment in Premium Stock Websites

While free stock sites seem appealing, you know what they say: you get what you pay for—which often means cheesy, generic stock photos that DO suck at best. If you’re serious about finding high-quality, usable stock imagery that actually aligns with your brand standards, make the investment in one or two premium stock subscriptions suited to your niche. Sites like Death to Stock, Haute Stock, and Editorial Stock Images offer much better diversity, consistency, quality curation, and styling more on-brand versus most amateur free stocks.

4.) Keep Your Stock Imagery Simple

When picking out stock imagery to use, simpler is usually better. Super complex stock photos with a ton of stuff going on will look obviously fake and cheesy.

Go for crisp stock shots with clean backgrounds and not a lot of distracting props and people. The less cluttered the pic, the easier it’ll be to seamlessly blend the stock into your own content without it sticking out.

Minimal stock photos give you more flexibility to get creative with cropping and editing too. You can add them into lifestyle scenarios that match your brand photography style. The more simple the image, the easier for you to control the context.

So ditch the busy overloaded stock shots trying to do too much. Clean, simple and subtle stock lets you incorporate images more casually without it screaming “generic stock photo!” all over your brand content. The goal is for it to mesh right in.

No More Bad Stock Photos, I’m Begging You

Let me say it one more time for the people in the back: STOCK PHOTOS WILL NEVER FULL REPLACE THE NEED FOR A CUSTOM PHOTOSHOOT! (And if you’ve made it this far in the blog, maybe you’ve realized that what you actually need IS a custom photoshoot—in which case, follow this link and thank me later.)

However, stock is great when you treat it like a solid supporting character when budgets or content needs demand it. Just be very intentional about actually finding decent stock images aligned to your brand guidelines. Define exactly what you need visually, match your existing photography style, invest in premium over free stock, and keep shots simple for seamless integration.

Hi, I'm Sarah Kleist.

Brand & web designer, personal brand strategist, and marketing educator obsessed with the power of connecting with audiences.



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