Searching for the perfect stock photo can be a daunting task. Without the right strategy, you could find yourself wasting a lot of time and ending up with disappointing results. By using some of the following tips, I am hoping to save you some time, and grief, while offering some insight into finding the kind of image that makes your project shine and outperform everyone’s expectations.

Tip #1: Finding the right stock photo site

An important aspect when choosing a stock photography site is your budget. With premium sites, you can purchase individual photos or pay for a yearly membership. A paid membership can bring down the overall cost if you are planning to download multiple images over time, rather than buying them à la carte.

Before we start discussing the premium sites, let’s talk about free image sites. There is an abundance of sites offering free “royalty free” stock images. Some pretty good sites are ones like Unsplash, Burst, Pexels, Pixabay and the appropriately named Free Images. These sites often have their own license of their images, so you don’t have purchase them yourself. One predominant pitfall with these free sites is the dearth of relevant photos available to you within your search results. You can use the perfect keywords in your search, and still come up emptyhanded. As the saying goes, “you get what you pay for,” or in this case, don’t pay for.

There are many premium stock image sites that are reasonably priced for an individual or business. Check out places like iStock, Shutterstock, BigStock or Fotolia. They have a wide range of photography, illustrations and vector art to choose from, some with added amenities (image editing, color filters, adding text overlays, etc.) to make it worth the price. Sites like iStock offer tiered memberships where you can pay more or less depending on length of commitment, the amount of downloads per month, and whether you would like access to just their standard “Essential” collection or widen your prospects by adding their higher quality “Signature” collection.

Tip #2: Using search filters

When searching for an image, there are steps you can take to move the process along more efficiently.  One step is to determine what size (resolution) or format (landscape, portrait or square) your image will need to be. Most stock photography sites off filters to allow you to eliminate results that don’t fit your requirements, shortening the search process. If the future destination has a vertical orientation, you can filter out all of the horizontal photos, and vice versa. If this search does not produce the image you seek, you can always expand the number of search results by deselecting the filters you chose, and then use image editing software to change the orientation as needed.

This is just one of the many types of search filters you can find on stock photography sites. The filters are usually located along the left edge of the web page, and sites offer a similar range of filter types to choose from.

Stock photography sites offer these advanced filters to narrow your search to just photography, just illustrations, or just vector art. There are options to determine how many people you would like to see in the image, or no people at all. You can decide how you would like the people to appear in the photo, whether you see their full figure or cropped at the waist, in what direction they are facing, shown close up or cut out of the background. This simple application will substantially reduce the amount of search results you have to scan through.

One of the great features that comes with using iStock is they give you the ability to edit the image within the site. You can try different preset crop sizes, or make a custom crop to your exact specifications. They also have some handy social media preset dimensions built in, for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Then you can just purchase your customized image, download and you’re all set.

Tip #3: Using the right keywords

When you start scrolling through the thousands of pages of search results while looking for the ideal image, you may feel like you have descended into a bottomless rabbit hole, with no end in sight. Finding the right keywords to aid your search can make the difference between a quick and efficient search vs. a very frustrating and fruitless waste of your valuable time.

  • Try using 3 to 5 words to describe the image you are looking for and enter them into the search bar. If the results don’t produce what you had hoped to find, or gave you too many results, then introduce other more specific keyword options. The more targeted your search is, the fewer pages you will have to scroll through to find what you need.
  • You should be specific. If you are looking for an elderly woman drinking tea indoors, then include those words in your search. If that search happens to produce too many or not enough results, then add or subtract keywords from your search until you get the desired amount.
  • Also try substituting synonyms for the words you are using. Sometimes a certain word doesn’t create a match but a synonym of that word may do the trick.
  • You can exempt certain words from your search. If you are searching for an image of a customer service employee but one that is not using a phone or headset, and most of your results are of people on phones and headsets, you can use the keywords:

“customer service NOT phone NOT headset”. Now a few will still appear in your results, but the vast majority of those phone and headset images will be omitted, making your search much easier.

Tip #4: Selecting the right photo for your needs

Another aspect to consider when searching for stock photography is determining whether the content fits your desired use of that image. When contemplating which type of stock images to use for your business needs, ideally you will want to include people in them. Photos with people convey a sense of trust. Including pictures of smiling people can actually increase your conversion rate.  You can use the direction of the subject’s eyes to draw attention to your product or call-to-action. You will want to find images that do not distract from the intent of the overall layout. If you are using typography that will overlay the image, you need to make sure the contrast between the type and the image is strong enough to guarantee readability.

When trying to grab attention in the vast sea of social media images on the web, contrast is key. Here are 6 types of contrast to consider:

  1. Hue (color) contrast (using visceral colors like red, orange and pink can promote the sharing of your post)
  2. Light-dark contrast
  3. Cold-warm contrast
  4. Complementary contrast (colors opposite from each other on the color spectrum, like orange and blue)
  5. Color saturation (adding grey to dull a color that is adjacent to a pure, rich color)
  6. Contrast of quantity (large areas of one color vs. a small area of a contrasting color)

Choosing the right color combinations and taking advantage of contrast in your stock image will allow your designs to stand out from your competitors.


They are many things to keep in mind when embarking on a stock photo search, and I hope these tips will help make your quest for the perfect image brief, stress-free and successful.