How to pick a unique stock image

By Brad Ralph

Senior Director, Content Development and co-founder of iStock

Chances are, you already know that stock photography and illustrations are incredibly useful tools. How else can you get gorgeous, professional-quality images without employing a full-time photographer or illustrator? As another bonus, stock images provide access to pictures that you might not otherwise be able to afford.

Here are five useful tips to help you get your hands on the image that is perfect for you.

1. Get creative with keywords

If you browse the stock dog photos page on iStock today, you’d see a pretty overwhelming number of choices. Many people will either pick the first picture they see or scroll through all 660 pages of dog pictures. While fun to do, that isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.

To avoid having to look at every dog picture we offer, use specific keywords to narrow your results.

You can include specific words in your initial search or add new words to the “Keyword(s)” box to narrow a search in progress. By adding the word “happy” to the above search for “dogs,” you have 22,131 pictures on 111 pages to pick from.

That’s still a lot of results, so we added “puppy” and narrowed it down to 7,565 pictures.

2. Go to page two (or three, or seven)

Because you want to use a unique stock image, but time still matters, a quick way to get a great image that’s been downloaded fewer times is to skip the first page of results. Don’t get us wrong, there are a lot of great images on that first page but there are even more great images deeper into the search results.

3. Consider an illustration

Stock photography is what you’re used to seeing online and in print, but the last thing you want is to blend in with the rest of the crowd. It’s worth a shot to shake things up by using an illustration instead. Illustrations can be an easy way to change the mood on your marketing materials or blog post. They are also great for showing abstract concepts like networking or cloud computing.

4. Look for exclusive images

Some stock photographers will often license their images to several different sites. That means you can end up with the same picture as your competitor even if he or she uses a different stock photo agency than you do.

At iStock, we have two ways of making sure you get more exclusive images.

First, over 30% of our images are exclusive to iStock – labeled as “Only from iStock” – so you know those images aren’t going to turn up on any other stock sites. Second, each image tells you how many times it’s been downloaded, so you have a pretty good idea how much it’s been used.

5. Narrow your choices with filters

Whether you prefer photos or illustrations, filters are a great way to narrow your search results. At iStock, filters found at the left of any page of search results can help you view pictures based on any of the following factors.


At iStock we have two collections: Essentials and Signature. The Essentials Collection has everyday files that makes you look good for less. The Signature Collection brings our best stuff at a great price. You'll find that by selecting Signature, you'll get a more unique image that has been used by fewer people.

License type

If you’re a business using images to sell products or to illustrate a corporate blog, you should be using the “creative” license. But if you’re a non-commercial blogger, magazine, or newspaper, you also have the option of using images and illustrations with an “editorial” license. These images are often of newsworthy events or contain product branding that you don’t normally see in stock images.


You can save yourself time editing by picking the right shape of image to start with. We have filters for vertical, horizontal, and square images.


If you’re trying to adhere to brand guidelines or want to use seasonal colors, our color filter will save tons of time. Either enter a hex code or select a spot on the spectrum bar then simply hit “apply” to find images that fit your color scheme.


This filter lets you find imagery that works with the text in your layout. Just use the grid on the CopySpace feature by clicking the boxes where your words will appear you’ll be presented with results that have space in that area for your text.

Image size

One way to make sure you are getting a unique image is to pick a larger file. Big images are attention-getters, so choose something that’s got enough pixel density to be printed on a grand scale if you’re looking for something to display or print in large format.

We love working with you to make sure you have perfect and unique stock photos and illustrations for your projects. If you ever need help finding the perfect image, try our live chat at the bottom of the page. We’re always happy to hear from you.

About Brad Ralph

As a Senior content director, Brad helps guide the growth and direction of iStock, curates the featured collections, develops and implement policies for the editing team and provides creative direction to the iStockalypse program. Brad has a long background in commercial photography as well as design and branding, working with clients such as MTV, Crankbrothers, Shaw Communications, The Alberta Securities Commission, and The Salt Lake Olympic Committee.

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