Best Practices for Using Stock Photos
13 minutes read

When you think about using stock photography, you’re probably rolling your eyes because you immediately imagine bad stock photos of people that don’t really send a message. 

Or they send the wrong one. How happy can a woman get just by eating a salad? 

In fact, there are plenty of professional stock photos that are extremely useful for companies or designers who need high-quality visuals but don’t want to spend too much time and money on photo shoots. 

Now imagine how helpful it can be to have access to premium stock photography images that don’t cost you thousands of dollars. Not even hundreds. 

In Creatopy, with a premium plan, you have access to high-quality Shutterstock images, on top of the other features that help you automate your work.

The key is to know how to use stock photos so they don’t look awkward and cringe.

I will tackle this in the article by showing you the best practices for using stock photography.

We’ll also share advice from six designers who gave us their best tips on finding perfect stock photos to create excellent designs.

1. What Are Stock Photos?

2. 3 Types of Stock Photos Licenses

3. 9 Best Practices for Using Stock Photos 

4. What Are The Benefits of Using Creatopy’s Shutterstock Integration?

But before talking about the good stuff, let’s see a thing or two about stock photos.

What Are Stock Photos?

Stock imagery refers to generic pictures, icons, or illustrations published online under varying licenses and destined for public use. Individuals or companies can buy a license or simply use the images (if they’re not licensed) for marketing materials, websites, personal use, etc. 

Now that you know the stock photos’ definition, you should also keep in mind that there are various types of licenses for stock photos, although you’ll mostly encounter three main ones.

It’s important to learn about them to know how to use stock photos legally.

3 Types of Stock Photos Licenses

1. Public domain

These types of photos are free to use without a license. You’ll find free banner images on multiple websites if you don’t want to invest, but keep in mind that the photos in there may not be as diversified as premium stock images.

2. Royalty-free

For royalty-free images, you’ll have to pay just one time to buy the license. Then you can use the photos for as long as you want. 

No further payments for licensing are necessary. The Envato Elements stock photo library is a good example of this model, providing a vast collection of premium images under a single affordable subscription.

3. Rights managed

The rights managed license is a bit more strict, as the user not only has to pay for the images but they’re also licensed for a determined period, maybe even according to geographic location. 

Once the license expires, it has to be renewed, or you’ll violate the terms of the agreement.

Now that you know what stock photos are and their different kinds of licensing, you may want to know about a solution that keeps you away from constantly asking if you broke the license agreement. 

And there is one, which I mentioned before.

If you don’t have a paid account in Creatopy already, you can start your free trial to give the Shutterstock integration a try, among many other things that will help you create professional designs in just a few clicks.

Are Stock Images a Good Enough Resource?

To put it shortly, yes, they are. But you have to use them creatively and give them the right spin to make the final results personalized, as anyone can spot a super generic picture. And if we talk about ad images, customization is the key for people to get to know your brand.

Stock photography is cost-effective as well. 

While you can hire a photographer for custom photoshoots, you’ll end up paying a lot of money for something you can get by using stock photography at a more affordable price or even free of charge.

That being said, let’s see a few valuable tips on how to use stock photos.

9 Best Practices for Using Stock Photos 

best practices when using stock photos

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1. Search for the right stock image

Professional designers know premium stock photography is a game-changer, so we asked six designers to share their opinions and experiences after working with stock images, helping us back up a few essential best practices.

Even if you can’t add your products or services to stock photography, you can still pick a relevant stock image for your brand and advertising goals. 

Besides, if you want your visual to look professional, not only that image needs to be relevant, but also high-quality.

The purpose of an image is to sustain your main idea expressed through copy and help people notice your message faster. Therefore, you don’t want to confuse them by picking an image that has nothing to do with your intent.

By not matching your elements in one single design with one overall meaning, you risk losing your audience due to a lack of trust in your communication methods.

Rob Villanueva, Senior Manager, Athlete Relations & Marketing at The Players’ Tribune, recommends you consider this before picking your stock photo:

Rob VillanuevaWe’ve all seen the cheesy, fake hugs. It looks super stockish. You want to find a photo that looks natural and as authentic as possible to your brand. Choose an image that is contextually relevant to your message, but at the same time, keep in mind that your goal when choosing a stock photo should not always be about the message that the photo conveys but more so consider how the photo will compel the user to click and make a decision and move your marketing funnel along. You want to be able to entice that sort of connection.

Joseph Kalinowski, the Creative Director from Content Marketing Institute, gives us yet another great starting point when it comes to choosing stock photos:

Joseph KalinovskiSome ideas that I always keep in mind when using stock photography and selecting it for my projects. First: is the image relevant to the content, and does it make a good connection to your concept? Second: can you customize the image (size, color, etc.) to make a better figure narrative.

In this sponsored post from the German Design Council Facebook page, the simple image from the background helps to emphasize the neon text and logo without overwhelming the audience.

german design award stock photo

2. Check out for trademarks

Before using stock photos, make sure they don’t have any trademark such as brand names, logos, or famous buildings that could make people think these names are related to your brand.

It’s best to use a simple advertisement pic that doesn’t have elements associated with something else other than your brand. 

Like in this template below, where the sneaker is not branded.

3. Pay attention to stock photos of people 

When choosing your ad photo, pay attention to stereotypes, which can make people notice your visual the wrong way (see Women Laughing Alone with Salad).

Another thing is to make sure you have the right to use stock photos of people. If you plan on searching for an ad photo with identifiable faces in it, first, you’ll have to ensure everyone in that image gave their consent for their photo to be used publicly.

If you’re looking for these stock images in the public domain, you can contact the photographer to ask if the people in the photo have signed releases or check the model release details in the link with the licensing info. 

In order to skip this part and still be sure you’re complying with all the stock photo licenses, you can use stock images from the Shutterstock library integrated into Creatopy, where you’ll surely find the best stock photos for your campaigns.

To have an idea about what stock photos you need to avoid, let’s compare two scenarios.

  • Stock images you should say no to

There’s a type of bad stock photos you don’t really want to use in your ads. 

Like in the example below.

bad stock photos
This is supposed to be a business stock photo, where the person is showing us something, but he’s pointing to a blank piece of paper that doesn’t tell us anything.

Even if the paper were left intentionally blank, it would look unnatural after adding something to it. So probably just a professional designer would save it through editing.

  • Stock images you should say yes to

Then, some images look simply natural, and you can use them for your advertising needs in an effective way.

Here’s such an example.

good stock images

If you want to showcase a business context, you should use this kind of stock photo, where people seem in a real meeting.

So, if you’re creating an ad using both these images, which one do you think it’s going to perform better?

Three designers who value the importance of high-quality images that look natural and human gave us essential suggestions. 

Cristina Pecherle, Graphic Designer at Flipsnack

Cristina PecherleYou should avoid photos that look like stock photos. So, try not to pick images of people people that are exaggerated or that have really fake smiles, and stick with something more natural.

Rob Villanueva:

Rob VillanuevaDon’t just use photos that clearly look staged. You want to stay away from that. Having a genuine human emotion in the photo itself, whether it’s a natural smile or a reaction to a real moment, is an effective way to pull in the audience who can relate to those in the picture. I always say people connect with people. So focusing on choosing images where the emotion is felt, and genuine can really help support your message, and it can really send that message in an effective way.

Mike Kus, a designer specializing in Branding, Graphic/Web Design, Illustration & Photography:

Mike KusWhen using stock photography within a design, the key attributes of a photo I look for are a natural-looking photo, not staged looking, and natural color and lighting. I look for photos that are relatable to the viewer. They need to be able to see themselves within the scene. The photo needs to support the content in a meaningful way in order to give added context to the copy. Great photography can help engage the viewer/ reader and help tell a more powerful and meaningful story.

4. Edit your stock image for personalization

If you want your audience to notice your advertisement pics, you have to start using stock photography the right way.

This means browsing for eye-catching ad images to which you can add extra value through editing. 

The stock photos are meant to be generic so that you can adapt them later to your liking. This gives you the possibility to edit your visual with the right color combinations to make it more personalized.

In Creatopy, you can turn the most simple stock photos of people into perfect advertisement images. You have the option to crop your image, add filters, change the opacity, and more.

Match the style of your visual with the right font pairing, and make everything come together perfectly.

Cristina Pecherle also knows exactly how to pick stock photos to match her design editing without using any filters that could alter the quality of the photos:

Cristina PecherleUsually, when I pick a stock photo for the templates, I try to create the design before. Then, after I complete my design, I match the colors in my work with the photos. So, if I have something really colorful, I choose an image that has the same palette.

Here’s an example of stock images used right for a lookbook template, which you can start using right away.

flipsnack stock photos in templates

Image Source

5. Keep everything on-brand

The key to keeping everything on brand is to use the same style throughout your visuals. With Creatopy’s brand kit feature, you can make sure you’re always using the same font, colors, and other brand-personalized elements in your visuals.

The high-quality, relevant advertisement photo you chose, topped with your unique style throughout your creatives, will make everything look professional. 

6. Don’t forget about white space

When you start discovering how to use stock photos, you’ll see that choosing the right stock image implies a bit of research. 

Even if sometimes you need to point out an idea by choosing a clustered visual, more often than not, it’s best to keep everything crisp and clean for your image to be effective.

You need to find a stock photo image that allows you to add all the necessary information and elements to it for people to understand your message while keeping everything visually pleasing.

Once you find the proper advertisement picture, a good rule of thumb is to have enough white space to point out the essentials, like title, copy, logo, and CTA.

Jeremy Mura, Brand Identity Designer & Educator, and Founder at Mura Design Co gave us his opinion on the importance of white space in stock photography:

Jeremy MuraIf you’re going to use stock photos for advertising, make sure that you curate and select the right images that give you space to put text in them or graphical elements. You don’t want to make the images clogged, so find images that have good lighting and good color balance, as well. 

In the following example, everything is balanced, from the stock photo to the CTA, leaving enough space for people to read and understand the message properly.

7. Think about investing in premium stock photography images

Even if you can search for your stock photos in the public domain and find perfect quality images, there’s always the risk that someone else used them too. 

Because of this, you may end up posting an already overused photo. And people will get confused when seeing the same photo used by different companies in different contexts. Or even worse, they could think you didn’t put too much effort into creating visual content.

So, if you’re planning an important campaign that needs to stand out, think about using stock photo images that your competitors won’t.

This means you should buy stock photos, an investment that will help you avoid all the situations where your stock photo can be the same as the one chosen by your competition, and it will also offer you way more options when it comes to hunting for the right ad image.

Joseph Kalinowski from the Content Marketing Institute suggests you should ask yourself this before starting your campaigns: 

Joseph KalinovskiHave you seen the artwork used before in your competitive set or somewhere else? Is it a commonly used image? How many downloads does it have?

8. Consider your budget

Once you’ve decided on buying stock photos, think about how much you are willing to spend on your visuals.

Jacob Cass, Brand Designer & Strategist (CEO/Founder) at JUST™ Creative, can help you contour a better idea about what the budget aspect means:

Jacob CassDesigns have different types of stock photography and quality as well, so when you’re searching out for the perfect stock photo, you have to consider the budget, where it’s going to be displayed, and if there’s going to be any effects or cropping done to the photo. So, once you have those things defined, you have to go on your search, which is the hard part. Knowing where to look for your stock photography is key, based on your budget. Some of the best ones that I’ve come across in terms of value: Shutterstock, iStock photos, and for more premium photos, Getty Images as well. You can also go for a free route: Unsplash, Pexels, and so forth.

9. Launch an A/B test 

Once you know the real value of the premium stock photography images, you can never go back.

If you want to keep exploring the benefits they’ll bring, you can launch A/B testing campaigns and test different versions of your ads with distinctive images to find out which are the best stock photos for your brand. Of course, you can change other elements in your visuals, such as the copy or the CTA.

This may seem time-consuming, but don’t worry. There’s a solution to this recommendation, and it’s called the Feed Ad Builder, which you’ll find in Creatopy as well. 

The Feed Ad Builder allows you to upload a CSV file with all the visuals’ details (images, text, CTA) and generate multiple designs at once.

With this feature, you’ll launch your A/B test in no time, and you’ll be able to learn what types of images resonate with your audience, so you’ll know what advertisement pictures to look for in the next campaigns.

Rob Villanueva recommends experimenting with stock photography:

Rob VillanuevaOne of the benefits of stock photos is that you have a library of almost endless amounts of images that you can leverage. Once you get a good workflow on how you find the best images for your ads, don’t be afraid to experiment. A/B testing your ads will help you learn what types of images resonate most with your audience. This will give you the power to make better decisions for your future campaigns and beyond.

What Are The Benefits of Using Creatopy’s Shutterstock Integration?

As a platform meant to help you with all your advertising needs in a straightforward manner, Creatopy has all the necessary elements for you to create professional visuals. This means you’ll also have a premium stock photo library.  

What does this mean for your creation process? You’ll be able to:

  • Create heavy visual ads using unlimited high-quality photos within your Creatopy paid subscription.
  • Stay within the platform while creating your visuals—no need to search for images on other stock photo websites. 
  • Edit the photos as you wish, without worrying you’re breaking the terms of agreement of the stock photo license.
  • Sort pictures using the advanced filtering system by relevance, category, orientation, color, people’s age and ethnicity, the number of people within the picture, and gender.


Using stock photos can be extremely beneficial, especially when you don’t want to invest a huge amount of money in your advertisement photo needs.

Now that you know all these tips and best practices from professional designers, you can consider why it is worth investing in paid images to create great ads.

Keep in mind that you have to learn how to use stock photos legally before searching for the perfect stock photography image. 

Or you can always tap into what Creatopy has to offer and forget about bad stock images.

Then, through editing, even the most simple marketing stock photo can become a perfect visual asset.

Amalia Madalina Pop
Content Marketing Specialist at Creatopy. Always looking through rose-colored glasses type of person. Really passionate about content creation and movies, with a precise aspiration to watch as many as possible in a lifetime.


  1. Highly appreciate for creating such helpful content. Got some help from this article. Thanks

  2. Helpful Information. Keep Sharing

  3. Thank you Amalia,
    Great article!

  4. Thank you, there are so many great tips in this article.

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