How to Find Fantastic Photographs on iStock

Photography plays a huge role in design. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. A good photograph stirs up emotion, conveys a message and inspires us.

We’re not always lucky enough to have a client with a budget for custom photography. In such cases we turn to stock photo sites. The concept seems flawless – there are thousands of photos to choose from and they’re mostly inexpensive! How hard could it be to pick out some pictures?

Actually it’s harder than most people would think as there are many “bad” stock photos out there that can really shatter your design. Here are three things to consider in your quest for amazing stock photos:

Consider Color and Exposure

Color can add a wonderful impact to your design. The same is true in photos. Yet one of the most common trends among stock photos is overexposed backgrounds, or, as my boss likes to say, “Photos that look like they’ve been shot in an imaginary land most likely located on the sun. “

Consider Color and Exposure with iStock Photography

Overexposure makes photos look sterile and unrealistic. Some people think that blowing out the backgrounds to nearly white is an easy way to make photos seem like they would fit any design. “White goes with everything, and that non-specific background can work for any client!” Nope. Like using a predesigned business card template from Kinko’s, it’s a lazy way to go. Find the photo that best suits your need and use your design tools and expertise to make it work.

Steer Clear of Cliché

Even when you don’t have the budget for a custom photo shoot, you want to find photos that appear custom. Stay away from over-used imagery (we’ve all seen the business men shaking hands, the smiling call center girl wearing a headset, the ethnically diverse business team standing in a V formation).

iStock Image Comparison

Photography should be treated as part of your design – the sour cream to your homemade pierogi. You took hours perfecting a pixel-perfect design, so why grab a cliché photograph off the first page of results on iStock? Using a cliché photo is the fastest way to kill your original designs, it screams “cheap, cookie-cutter, and unoriginal.”

Comparing iStock Images

Another pitfall from using cliché images is the inevitable possibility that another company, perhaps a competitor, is using the same one. Take this image for example:

Overused iStock Image

iStock tells us that this image has been downloaded over 12,000 times! So much for that unique impression your client is trying to sell.

Forgo the Fake and Posed

Look for photos that look natural, and appear to be shot in a real setting. Avoid anything cheesy or staged. A big no-no is the very popular thumbs up pose (you’ll probably come across a ton of these during your search – don’t use them!).

Forgo Fake and Poste iStock Images

Photography plays a big role in design and it should be selected with care – not slapped on as an afterthought. Remember, even after you find a great stock photo, your work is not done! Crop, colorize, clone, and edit the photo to make it work for you.


In her free time Alex likes to step away from the computer and use her handy skills DIY-ing everything around her. When she’s not using power tools, she spends her time fostering rescue kittens from the local animal shelter.

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