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7 Essential Stock Photography Tips From a Graphic Designer

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Read Time: 11 min

Stock photography is an essential part of the design process: it inspires graphic designers and artists to create wonderful artwork.

Like many artists, I have seen thousands of stock images over the years, from the amazingly good to the frustratingly bad to the downright weird. Coming from both a design and art perspective, I've definitely learned the difference between useful and not-so-useful stock photography.

If you're looking to get into stock photography, or even if you are a practicing stock photographer already, here are some quick tips to help you create the kind images designers and artists need.

1. Always Tell a Clear Story

The way I see it, people will use your stock for one of two reasons: as the source material for some form of digital artwork (like a photo manipulation or digital painting), or as an image in a design. When evaluating potential images, stock photography customers are looking for photos that both communicate a visual message and fit with their project. This means your pictures need to tell a clear story.

Always consider storytelling in your compositions. How do you want people to feel when they look at your photo? Whatever story you choose is the story that we inherit as designers. So please, craft your messages carefully.

2. Variety is the Spice of Life

All artists develop certain composition habits. Look through your own work and see what your habits might be. Could you use a little variety to spice things up?

Using Different Angles for Stock PhotographyUsing Different Angles for Stock PhotographyUsing Different Angles for Stock Photography
Bartender stock from Envato Market.

Remember to move your body, and try to make images from as many different angles and vantage points as you can. Stand on a step ladder, get down on the floor, or get up close and personal with your model. And that goes for poses too! Everyone loves a good straight-to-camera pose, but eventually that too gets a little tried and tired. Adding more movement to your shooting style will not only make your compositions more interesting: designers and artists will love you for the variety!

3. Body Language Is Incredibly Important

Believe it or not, we all naturally give off cues as to how we're feeling about ourselves, certain situations, or other people. And we do it constantly. As a photographer, understanding body language will help you tremendously in creating better stock images.

According to Wikipedia:

"Body language is a kind of nonverbal communication, where thoughts, intentions, or feelings are expressed by physical behaviors, such as facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space."

If you have a firm grasp of body language you'll know how to direct your models better. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Facial Expression and Body Posture Should Work Together

Despite the millions of stock images available to us, all designers complain about not being able to find the right one. So why is that?

Even when we do find great stock images it's common that there's something we wish we could change. For me, it's usually that the face and body don't match.

Matching Body Language and Face Expressions with StocksMatching Body Language and Face Expressions with StocksMatching Body Language and Face Expressions with Stocks
Let's take this boxer for instance. If his expression was a bright, cheery smile instead, it wouldn't fit our ideals of how a boxer should look. Don't be afraid to be a little cliche, because often times it's exactly what we're looking for. Boxer Stock from Envato Market.

From a photographer's perspective, minor alterations in body language and facial expression are a great way to quickly add variety to your shoot with zero cost. Like variety in camera angles, giving designers variations in poses is helpful, too. When I'm looking at images for a design and I think I've collected a few pictures that might work, minor alterations in expression between similar images can make all the difference between a hit and a miss.

4. Not Everything Needs to be Sexy!

Call me biased here if you like, but there's a lot of over-sexualized stock out there. Now we all know that sex sells, but from a design standpoint hypersexualized imagery is also very limiting. Broadly speaking, design is usually about balance and good taste. Sexualizing every image is like adding a big dollop of mustard to every dish you cook.

The fact is, sex just isn't needed or appropriate for most conventional design. Overtly sexual images have a role but, at least when it comes to stock, it's a relatively small one. Sex is not a shortcut to creating useful stock images.

The Relationship Between Stocks and SexinessThe Relationship Between Stocks and SexinessThe Relationship Between Stocks and Sexiness
Seductive woman stock from Envato Market. Regardless of the model's gender, sometimes provocative poses or expressions just don't fit the overall context of the image. In the example above, you might actually get away with this pose in the right context. Though it might seem like a weird way to eat a strawberry, maybe it could fit an article about natural aphrodisiacs.

A model's inclination, especially if they are inexperienced, might be to take their poses to the sexual realm rather quickly. Part of your role as a photographer is to keep an eye on the overall picture and to direct that energy into more constructive expressions. It's perfectly OK for the subjects of your pictures to feel and look sexy, confident, and embodied. In fact, keeping your models present is a great thing! Sexual energy is a natural way that people express a sense of presence and connectedness. The challenge is to make room for this energy without letting it overwhelm your images. In other words, it's fine to include sexual elements, but try to do so without making all your images about sex itself.

When it doubt, try asking yourself: where might someone use this photo and in what context? Always come back to what you know about creating a definitive story and match that with appropriate body language.

5. Style Your Model

Use Appropriate Fashion and Props

Style plays a huge role in the impact of your photograph. Not only that but the model's themselves will feed off the energy they get from their wardrobe or props. 

There's a lot of weird stock images out there. We've all seen it. Part of the reason they come off this way is because the details conflict with the story of the photo, if there is even a story at all. So when it comes to choosing the fashion and props for your shoot, make sure they all go together. Pick a theme or a color scheme and try your best to follow it.

How to Use Fashion and Props for Stock PhotographyHow to Use Fashion and Props for Stock PhotographyHow to Use Fashion and Props for Stock Photography
Soldier Stock from Envato Market.

Also be knowledgeable about what's being used. Models are notorious for incorrectly holding a gun or a sword, so look up some quick videos online to show you how it's done.

Use Makeup (Yes, Men Too!)

Makeup is also a tricky issue. Professional makeup artists aren't always in the budget for a photo shoot so you might have to do it yourself or have the model do their own makeup. Keep in mind, too, that photography makeup is fairly different from everyday or party-going makeup.

However, unless you are going for a very stylized shoot, it doesn't take much makeup to make a big difference. Simple things like foundation, chapstick, mascara, and powder go a long way to reducing the amount of Photoshop work the designer might have to do to make your image useable. So work with what you have available in order to create great stock.

6. Less Is More

Keep It Simple

For the most part, I suggest you keep your images simple and let your compositions breathe. This is really just basic photographic hygiene, but all kinds of stock photos out there suffer from cramped situations or staging, awkward framing, leave no room for text, leave no room to crop, or have distracting patterns and details. I did just recommend to move your camera around, but don't get cute: just make nice, clear, well-composed images as consistently as you can.

Keep It Sharp

Maybe you've just made the perfect shot, but upon further inspection you realize that it's blurry. Photos like this are a tease. Now, as a digital artist using the photo as a reference (for a painting or illustration) I'll still be able to work with it. But if I put my designer hat on then I have to nix the image straight away, just on technical grounds. It's really that simple.

Don't tease us with blurry stock! Learn what it takes or what equipment you may need in order to create sharp, in-focus photos.

Again, don't get cute! Shallow depth-of-field is great when it works, but here's the rub: shallow focus is one of the things that's relatively easy to fake in post. When it comes to stock images, it's better to go for deep focus. Let the designer decide if they want to control the viewer's eye with depth of field. Stock photography is not the place to be an auteur.

On the flipside, please don't over-sharpen your images, either. Let your designer decide how much sharpening the final product really needs.

Keep It Clean

Photographic hygiene again, but this time in post-production. You should correct your images, but stay away from too much creative adjustment. It's essential to white-balance and correct exposure, do minor lens corrections, and so on, but beyond these basics I recommend you leave as many possibilities open as you can.

We all want a polished result, but it's very easy to go too far. Don't rely on your post-production process to create your style: this only ties your designer's hands. Instead, try to make the best photos you can while photographing.

If you do want to make something highly stylistic, do it photographically: with lighting, staging, framing, and lens choice. Your results will be more interesting, more unique, and easier to use in a wide variety of situations.

Using Desaturated Photo Stock ReferencesUsing Desaturated Photo Stock ReferencesUsing Desaturated Photo Stock References
As a Photoshop instructor, I can tell you it's actually pretty hard to find photos that aren't heavily retouched. Maybe the skin is blurred to death, the photo is de-saturated, or the overall contrast is way too intense. These are just three examples that I run across very often. City stock from Envato Market.

If you destroy an image with too much retouching the work can't be undone. My favorite images are the ones that leave me a little room to edit myself because they truly allow me to be creative.

So I suggest you try to find a balance. You can experiment with uploading pristine, polished photos, as well as photos that could use a couple more edits. See which ones perform better and decide for yourself.

7. Don't Just Give Us the Throwaways

Finally, sometimes it's a little obvious when you upload stock just for the heck of it. These are the "throwaway" types of photos that you wouldn't give to a client but you think you could make a couple bucks from. And you might make a few bucks. The downside to this practice, however, is that every image you upload is a reflection of your overall portfolio.

Whenever I find a great stock photographer, I either follow them or go through their entire collection looking for more great finds. But if you're uploading sub-par photos in quality or composition, a designer might not be inclined to see what else you have.

So be decisive and do justice to your brand and our relationship as collaborative artists: only upload stock images that you'd be proud to use yourself.

Have Any More Tips?

Stock photography can either make or break great design. What are some tips that you would give stock photographers? Feel free to let us know in the comments!

And if you're a designer looking for authentic free stock photos, check out the awesome collection over on Reshot.

Free stock photos on ReshotFree stock photos on ReshotFree stock photos on Reshot
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