How to find good stock imagery and use it effectively


(7 - 8 minute read)

Stock imagery has developed a bad reputation. Indeed the very words ‘stock photo’ immediately flood our minds with images of cheesy grins and generically posed scenes, most of which cost a fortune to buy and don’t truly represent your brand.

These are not what this article is here to help you find.

Instead we will share with you a list of reliable image sourcing websites that have been used and approved by us. All of the sources in this article provide good quality stock imagery that will add interest and visual value to your websites, social media feeds and business marketing materials. And, best of all, some of them offer all of this for free and without the risk of copyright complications.

Before we start: A note on using original photography

While this article is here to help you locate and use stock imagery, it would be remiss of us not to mention the value of investing in your own in-house photography. This is, of course, not the cheapest or the quickest of options, however it is without doubt the best solution to image sourcing for marketing purposes.  

Taking your own, good quality photography (or hiring a professional to take it for you) ensures that your images are 100% yours to use for whatever purposes you wish. Original photography can also boost website conversions and help make the best possible impression. An experiment carried out by Marketing Experiments showed a 35% increase in a business website’s conversions when a captioned photograph of the business founder was used in place of a generic stock photograph of a smiling woman. It all boils down to trust, familiarity and quality; official, original imagery can act as an advertisement of all three.

What’s more, taking your own images means you end up with photographs that show the exact objects, people or scenes that you had in mind, as opposed to searching and settling for the nearest match.

 We understand, however, that investing in professional photography is not a viable option for many scaling businesses and owners to begin with. This is why we’re here to help you find the next best thing; good quality stock imagery.

Using stock images: Understanding licensing and attribution

Not all stock imagery can be used whenever and wherever you like, and not all of it is free. Some require certain licenses to acquire, and others that are ‘free’ also require certain types of attribution in order for them to be used legally. Here’s a quick run-down on common licenses and attribution you may come across when looking for stock imagery:


Royalty-free - Images are free to use for any purpose and include the likes of Public Domain and Creative Commons sources. Creative Commons images may require attribution; see below.

Rights managed - Images must be paid for and can be licensed and managed by photographic projects, geographic locations or set periods of time. 

Extended or enhanced - Again these are pay-to-use, but the license includes additional liberties including resale, multiple uses of the image and commercial use.


Standard Attribution - You can use the image for free, as long as you credit the owner/artist

Attribution Share Alike - Standard attribution, but any uses including commercial or modified uses must also be registered as Creative Commons - meaning anyone else has the chance to use the image.

Attribution No Derivatives -  You can use and redistribute the image privately or commercially, but you are not permitted to modify or edit the image.

Attribution Non-Commercial - You are not allowed to use the image for commercial purposes or resale; private use only.

Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike -  Same as above, but any modifications or edits must also be shared as Creative Commons.

Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivitives - You can use the image for personal projects but you cannot modify or edit it.

If you come across some stock imagery, always pay close attention to the attributions and licenses to avoid getting into hot water over usage rights.

Now that you’re familiar with the essential legal elements, it’s time to start image searching.

Where to find good stock imagery 

The internet is awash with free and paid stock imagery websites, but not all of them are reliable. We’ve picked out the best stock image sourcing websites to help you find the right images for your needs, without compromising on quality or cost.

The 5 best free stock image websites

 In no particular order, here are five of the best free stock image websites: 

1. Unsplash - This site has rapidly become one of the most popular free stock imagery sites available, and it is home to thousands of high-resolution, eye-grabbing images to search and choose from. All images are free to use under the Unsplash license, making them a quick and easy option for adding great visuals to blogs and websites.

2. Pixabay - Pixabay is home to thousands of high quality images, vectors, short video clips, illustrations and lots more visual content. All content is available under Creative Commons CC0, which means images exist in the Public Domain and can be used for any purpose, free of charge.

3. FoodiesFeed - This site is fantastic for finding stunning food photography, perfect if you’re running a food blog and need some enticing imagery at short notice.

4. Burst - Perfect for entrepreneurs and scaling businesses, Burst was launched by Shopify to help new businesses find good quality images for their websites and marketing. Here you’ll find business-targeted, professional images aimed at all kinds of trending business niches from jewellery and crafts to coffee shops and bakeries.

5. Pexels -  Another gigantic library of images, all conveniently tagged up for easy searching and image discovery. You can even search images by colour and theme, and everything is available for private use, commercial use and editing under the Creative Commons CC0 license.

The 3 best paid stock image websites

If the free websites aren’t giving you exactly what you need, try these affordable paid options: 

1. Getty Images - Perhaps the most widely recognised source of paid stock imagery in the world, Getty Images supplies far more than just photography. Here you’ll find everything from high quality photos to stunning videos and even music and audio clips, perfect for bringing newsworthy editorials, blogs and websites to life. All of this does come at a price, but the lack of download limits and required licenses makes it a worthy investment if you have the available budget. 

2. Shutterstock - Yet another of the best-known stock image libraries, Shutterstock offers a variety of easy and affordable price plans for businesses who need regular access to high quality and specific photography, footage and editorial imagery.

3. Adobe Stock - You may not have heard of this one, but the Adobe Stock resource is home to an incredible array of photographs, videos, templates, backgrounds and 3D-rendered images from the world’s best creative imagemakers. Price plans are available on monthly and annual plans, so you can subscribe to suit your business needs.

A little less ‘Stock’, a little more ‘You’

Most of the images you will find on the above websites are of a good enough quality to use as they are. However, if you want to make even more effective use of your stock imagery (and make them look and feel a little more like your own images) here are our top tips:

Edit your images

Applying quick edits to your stock images can instantly transform them into custom-looking images that nobody will know weren’t yours to begin with. All it takes is some image editing software and a bit of extra time, allowing you to use your stock images as a base for creating something entirely bespoke. For example, you can change background colours, overlay text or add your company logo to put your own spin on things; just make sure the images you are using were downloaded under a license that allows for editing and manipulation.  

If you don’t have access to Photoshop you can use basic tools like Canva and WordSwag to make basic bespoke visual content, and you can always hire a professional design agency to help you with anything more complex.

Mix stock with custom images

When a website uses stock images alone it can begin to look very obvious. The best way to avoid being rumbled and to pass off stock images as your own is to mix them in with your own custom photography wherever possible.

For example, you can combine product photography with a montage of stock imagery to add context and visual value to the product. When mixed together, the stock images begin to look far less like stock images, particularly if you have been able to edit them or add your company logo as we discussed above. Get creative with your montages and establish colour schemes and themes to make your website into an engaging, visual space.

Remember, if you get stock imagery just right, nobody need ever know where it came from. Follow the tips above and your business will have a website populated with perfect-quality imagery that’s legal, engaging and effective.

And, if you’re still not keen on stock imagery and want to give your own photography a try here is a little advice to get you started: 5 Photography tips to improve your visual marketing.