How to Choose More Authentic, More Engaging Stock Imagery

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Stock imagery can give you great visuals that bring creativity and authenticity to your work, all without the need to shoot that image. But sometimes, it can be easy to fall into patterns where those images feel staged, forced, and overly “stocky.”

So, we put together some tips and tricks—enlisting the help of Kat Hargrave, one of our own art directors—to help you find stock imagery that feels real and makes a connection.

Search for specific actions, not just emotions

It’s easy to write “happy couple” into a search term box and hope to get the right image. But to get more natural‑feeling stock images, be more specific with the actions that couple is taking. Think of situations where a happy couple would be, like “couple lunch outdoors” or “sharing a cup of coffee”, and you’ll find more candid, more genuine shots.

“It’s important to remember that emotion isn’t binary and will look forced at the extremes,” says Hargrave. “If someone is trying to look very happy, it’s likely your audience won’t believe that image, compared to someone looking naturally content.”

Think critically about your specific industry

The specificity of search terms will apply differently depending on your industry. “I find that business and financial images can often feel staged and forced,” says Hargrave. If you’re searching for business images, try searching for people working in a café rather than an office. Instead of searching just for general travel images, try getting very specific, searching for unique locations—like a beach in Thailand instead of the Statue of Liberty.

Try using pets, babies, and young people as your subjects

The number one reason a stock image can feel fake is because the subject is trying to look a certain way. Babies and pets don’t know how to act in these ways, so you’ll often get a more genuine‑looking image.

For object imagery, be honest about what’s authentic

It’s not just imagery of people that can be forced. If you’re looking for an image of an object, say a bowl of cereal, be sure to find one that depicts that item in its natural environment. But remember not to choose an image that is too stylized. Kitchens in real life often have a bit of messiness and won’t have objects laid out perfectly. Find that bowl of cereal in its natural environment, but don’t be afraid to show some natural clutter.

Abstract, stylized imagery can be effective if chosen correctly

If you do want a very stylized stock image, it’s best to go with something that’s clearly abstract. The cereal from above, for example, could be depicted on a bright pink surface with nothing else in the shot. For lifestyle imagery, Hargrave recommends searching the term “lifestyle colorful background”, as it will give you color‑blocked backgrounds. Though these are technically staged, the image will actually feel more effective.

Use simple illustrations to drive your point home

When it comes to illustration, the irony is that the more realistic and “authentic” that illustration is trying to be, the less emotional impact it will have on your audience. Be sure to pick illustrations with small color palettes (perhaps with one bright contrast color) to tell an effective story—and avoid any attempts at over‑shading and hyper‑realistic depictions.

Use the word “concept” in your searches for interesting results

Searching for an overused situation, like businessmen shaking hands, can yield tired results. Instead, think of the figurative concept you’re trying to portray. In this case, it might be collaboration, friendship, or resolution. “If you add the word ‘concept’ after your search terms,” says Hargrave, “you might actually find interesting, metaphorical depictions of the situation that you hadn’t thought of.”

Ready to find more compelling stock imagery? Dive into a search on iStock now.

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