4 things to check before using a stock photo

A woman looks at her laptop while sipping a smoothie

Shutterstock. Unsplash. Pexels. Heard of these? They're stock photo sites. In this post I'm going to run through how you choose the right stock photo for your business, and why that's important!

What is a stock photo?

Believe it or not, you actually can’t just take photos from Google Images and use them for your website, because you don’t own those images. It’s a rough lesson to learn in the era of everything being constantly available, but if you’ve studied at uni, you’ll know that ripping random images from the internet can even get you done for plagiarism.

So how do you get images you can legally use for your website?

This is where stock photography comes in – royalty-free photos you can use with peace of mind. What’s more, most stock photos are taken by professional photographers and are clear, beautiful, and ultra-crisp resolution.

How to choose the right stock photo

It’s not enough to know that stock images are there for you to use – you have to make sure you’re picking the right ones. Take it from a designer – there is nothing cringier than coming across a website and seeing a super obvious, totally staged stock photo splashed across the screen. Without putting thought into your imagery choices, you risk coming off as:

  • Unprofessional

  • Not confident with technology

  • Lazy

Not ideal - so here are the 4 things to tick off before you hit that "Download" button.

Rule #1: Choose something that looks natural

While stock photos are taken by professional photographers, the actors in those photos can be amateurs - or maybe they've just been told to exaggerate their actions.

The truth is, there are companies that exist purely to mass-produce stock imagery and they will stage sets and hire actors to fill out their roles. If this is done well, it can look fantastic. If it’s done poorly... boy oh boy, it’s a cheesefest.

The Distracted Boyfriend meme, where a stock photo has become pop culture comedy.
Really corny stock photos will become memes faster than you can say "distracted boyfriend".

Ideally, when choosing a stock photo you want it to look like you've hired your own photographer.

So how do you pick something that looks both natural and professional?

  • Pretend you’re a fly on the wall, watching the situation in the photograph unfold. Does this look like a normal, believable situation? Or do the people in the shot look like they know a camera is there? (Hint: unless it's a headshot, you might want to avoid direct eye contact!)

  • Look at the background and the lighting. Is it shot in a natural location like against a wall or in a street, or has it got a super bright, fake colour? If the latter, is that background suitable for your purposes?

  • Do the people in the shot look relaxed and unaware about their observation, or are they stiff and uncomfortable? Are there smiles or facial expressions that just look too forced?

Choose photos that pass all three of these criteria.

Hide the Pain Harold - a stock photo that went viral as the man looks uncomfortably into the camera
Hide the Pain Harold is another stock photo that went viral because he just looks so uncomfortable.

Rule #2: Avoid using a photo from the first page

This is a generalisation, because some really good photos are on the first page of results.


If you download the first photo you see, guess what? Odds are that everyone else has done the same thing. You're now part of a club of business owners who are all using the exact same photo for their website, instantly outing yourself as using stock photography. This is a problem because it identifies you as lazy and time-poor.

Try digging a little deeper and seeing if you can find some better content on subsequent pages.

Rule #3: Don’t use images with graphics on top

There are so, so many stock photos that have graphics (read: bad graphics) overlaid on top. The reasons you shouldn’t use these are:

  • Those graphics were not created for your business, so they probably don’t actually describe what you do properly;

  • They are often obnoxious and loud, with no subtlety or finesse;

  • There is almost no point putting a graphic over a photograph – it means the photo and the graphic fight for attention and you should instead just pick one or the other;

  • If you really need to make a graphic, just get a custom one designed – it will make you look heaps more professional.

Rule #4: Compress it!

Stock photos are huge - it is not uncommon to find them sitting around the 25MB mark. Before you upload it to your website, please resize it to at most 500KB. By saving your stock photo as a JPEG, reducing the dimensions to around 1500px wide, and lowering the quality a little, you can really help speed up your website.

You can get your designer to do this for you, you can use inbuilt features in web builders like WordPress, or you could upload the image to an online image compressor like CompressJPEG.

Now that we've learnt how to choose a good stock photo - let's take a look at some bad ones! The main photo for this blog entry is a stock photo I found after searching "person looking at photos on computer" on Adobe Stock. Below are some poor ones I found during my search.

A woman sitting at a computer in a cafe
Beautiful photo, but this woman is literally sitting at a blank computer pretending to type.

A man looks into a computer screen, confused
This photo is so poorly-lit, dated and contrived that the only appropriate use I can think of is comedy.

A woman has spreadsheets, devices and deadlines held out to her.
Staged as hell, unnatural background colour, unrealistic situation = obvious stock image.

And the one I chose...

A woman looks at her computer while sipping a smoothie

She's dressed normally, she looks comfortable, she's engaging in an activity unaware of the photographer. There aren't that many lighting effects applied, the location is natural, she's using the trackpad of her computer in a normal fashion. No overlaid graphics, no cheesiness. Tick tick tick!

This photo was on page 3. The rejects were on pages 1 and 2.

That's it for today - where do you like to get your stock images? Do you have any strategies for choosing a good one? Let me know in the comments!