I should point out that I have never actually sold any of my own photos for stock photography. I do however work as a graphic designer and I probably make over a dozen designs per week, using mine or other people’s photographs.

Please understand this is just my opinion, however it is based on many designs using many photographs.

The big secret! The best photos aren’t necessarily the ones that sell.

I don’t think stock photography is like regular photography. I don’t look for the best photo or the most dramatic, I look for photos that I can work with. Don’t get me wrong I am not looking for boring photos but I also don’t look for stunning creative masterpieces. A stock photo needs to work in unison with the design and not overpower it. – Basically it is an asset.

Some stock images are of course used by other bloggers and webmasters etc, these people will probably just download a typical pretty photo without too much thought. However, a large portion of stock photography is used by designers who have very different needs.

Here a few tips that are inspired by the design work I have done over the years.

Space to Put Things

A very large amount of stock photos will be used with the intention of putting some sort of text over the image. If there is no space to put anything the image will not get used and the designer will pick something else. The message and the call to action will always take priority in an advert. Plenty of great photos get ignored because the composition doesn’t allow for any text to be added.

I can demonstrate this with a quick design. Let’s imagine I was tasked with creating a front-page ad for a guide on beaches in the UK. I did this in 5 minutes – please don’t judge me on my awesome design.

The above photo is what I would have been looking for. A massive empty space where I can add a bit of text. The composition is not too distracting and the rock structure doesn’t fill the image. As a designer I love a big empty blue sky with no clouds, it’s so easy to work with.

You don’t need a big empty sky in every photograph. Often all I look for is an area of low contrast – something flat to place the text over. Usually, the text will take up no more than a third of the image so you don’t need to fill the entire photo with empty space.

Multiple Shots

Try to imagine what a designer might create.

Just a few examples to think about:

  • An ad with text in the centre
  • An ad with text on the right
  • An ad with text on the left
  • An ad with lots of text at the top
  • An ad with lots of text at the bottom
  • Book Covers
  • Lifestyle shots

The list goes on…

As I demonstrated previously a lot of photos get used with the intention of laying text over the image. This is only one application so I would recommend multiple shots of the same subject.

Not all Photos will be used with text in this way, but a large percentage will be.

As a photographer, you probably have your own style and taste. This may not be compatible with what a potential client is looking for. So your favourite shots may not get picked but the other shots you took to get more angles etc, might be just what they are looking for.

This also applies to action shots, your favourite shot might not be your clients favourite.

You don’t need to spam the stock site or your clients with every photo you took, but one or two options would be appreciated. In the above sequence of photos my favourite shot is when the surfer is standing tall. Somebody else might prefer one where the surfer is squating down.

Don’t forget to mix it up with some portrait orientated photos, even if you shoot landscapes.

Clean and Simple

Clarity over Creativity!

This may sound harsh but, the photo is often the least important part of the design. The clarity of the message and how easily it can be understood is the most important part. The less clutter and the less distractions the better.

Try to think of a stock photo as a tool for design. A stock photo might be cropped, cut, masked stretched – you name it. Sometimes the designer will need to completely replace the sky or remove a tonne of objects.

Too Much Editing

Notice the ugly edge glow on the cliff, this is the result of increasing the shadows too much.

When I get a stock photo it is nearly always in a Jpeg or a Tiff format, not RAW. If the photographer has done too much post-processing, I will be unable to undo the editing. Even worse if the editing is poor and over processed nobody will want to use it. I would much rather get a photo which is nice and natural looking without too much contrast.

Don’t forget nearly all designers can edit photos themselves, most are probably using Photoshop.

If I come across a photo with poor editing like way too much contrast or an unnecessarily dramatic sky I often ignore it.

Don’t Convert to Black and White

If the designer wants a black and white image they will do it themselves. If you really want a black and white photo then upload the colour version too. This way you can appeal to both a designer and a standard advertiser or marketer.

The same applies to any crazy effect or colour tone you may want to apply to the image. Always offer the original clean version too. People have very different views on creativity what one person loves, another might hate.

Copyright Infringement

Assume everybody is out to sue you

Try to avoid any brands, controversial elements and famous buildings. When you enter the realm of making money, every man and his dog is looking to sue. Play it safe and try your best to avoid brands and famous buildings. You as the photographer are not at much risk but whoever uses your photos might be.

Letters from lawyers are not uncommon.

Nail the Technical Stuff

If I am looking for a stock photo it is a given that the photo will be high quality, properly exposed and sharp. If the photo isn’t sharp and correctly exposed it is highly unlikely that anybody will use it.

Make sure the horizon is aligned. Sometimes when you line up the horizon in post and apply the new crop you end up losing bits of the image.

Getting a good sharp photo is extremely important.

All designers expect the highest resolution image the photographer can produce. A high-resolution image gives us the most options to work with. Most stock websites offer the option of downloading smaller file sizes so there is no disadvantage to uploading the biggest file you have.

We might crop the holy crap out of it!


I have created hundreds of designs with stock images over many years and this article was my honest opinion.

I only work in one retail industry so my requirements may be vastly different from other graphic designers. It is not my intention to deter you from taking creative exciting photos but rather to consider stock photography as a separate field.

The purpose of this article was to give you a little insight into the way one designer actually uses stock photos.

If you find yourself having to compress and resize a lot of photos in one bulk check out my tutorial using Adobe Bridge and Camera Raw.


Works part-time as a Graphic Designer and Website Designer. Studied Animation and has been using and learning design software for over 15 years.