How to Effectively Use Stock Photos in Your Design

Posted on October 19, 2017 | Updated on January 25, 2023

Using unique photos in your designs can set the tone for the entire look of a website or publication. Design is such a visual medium anyway and helps to make a great first impression. So designers are always looking for ways to add even more elements that are one of the kind.

Stock photos are one way to add images at a reasonable cost. Instead of having to hire models, pay for everyone to get to a photo shoot location, and a myriad of other costs, you simply buy a photo that already has all of these elements without the cost of hiring individuals to model or paying for a photographer, etc.

While you can very easily buy stock photos, there are many elements that go into using them effectively and legally that you need to be aware of.

1. Use Your Own Photos

One of the best options is to take your own photos. This works particularly well for bloggers of food or fashion. You simply create the item or look you want to show readers and take photos of it.

The photos should be professional quality. Invest in a camera with a high pixel capability and some digital image editing software. Take the time to learn about lighting, backdrops and camera settings and angles. There are many free online classes that can help you learn the basics.

Once you have the equipment, using your own photos saves you the costs of buying stock photos and allows you to have truly unique images for your designs.

2. How Stock Photos Can Fill the Gap

While using your own photos is always preferred, it isn’t always possible to get to the location you need a photo of or to set up the photo shoot to create a specific look. This is where stock photos can come in and fill the gap.

Stock photography is often best used for “quick win” tasks, such as an image to use in an article or for a post on social media. Overall, a good stock photo enhances your overall design and topic rather than pulling attention only to itself. Consider how any image fits with the overall design and content of your page before adding it to your overall design.

3. Legal Aspects of Photos

There are so many free images available and sites that claim images are free. It can be hard to know what you can and can’t use legally. On top of that, the licensing options can be somewhat confusing. There are a few rules of thumb that might help you figure out what you can and can’t use.

  • Items in the public domain are typically free to use. There are copyright laws that apply and you should research to make sure the image truly is in the public domain. Many photos taken by the government or military are in the public domain, for example.
  • Licensing typically allows you to use the photo at least once in a publication, blog post, website design, etc. Where it gets tricky is if you are reselling your designs. Then, you might need an extended license, which typically allows you to resell your overall design (not the image itself), but also is much more costly. Carefully read terms before deciding which license you need.
  • It is illegal to just take an image you like and use it. This can fall under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and a violation could be filed with Google if you use an image without proper permission.

What you can and can’t use legally can vary from site to site and artist to artist. If in doubt, contact the artist directly and inquire about permissions.

4. Properly Crediting Sources

Even if you use a photo in the public domain, you have a moral imperative to source where that image came from. It isn’t your own image and you shouldn’t try to make it seem like it is by not mentioning the source. Instead, a small caption under a photo, or a note at the bottom of the page, can give credit where credit is due.

The way you go about crediting sources can vary, but you might write something like this:

Photo Credit: Deer Panting After Water, licensed from John Doe of ABC Designs

Note how you describe the image and then the photographer and the company you bought the rights to the image from. You can vary this wording. Just make it clear where the photo came from and that you licensed it, got permission from the owner, or that it is fair use or public domain.

5. Keeping Stock Photo Costs Under Control

Buying photos for your website can add up quickly. Some stock photo sites charge upwards of $10-$20 for a single stock photo. There are a few things you can do to keep these costs under control.

  • Search for free images first. If you use a service such as Pixabay, follow the links to the original source of the photo (typically Flickr) and double check that the owner of the photo has set it to creative commons usage. It is probably still best to credit it but to refer to the fact that it is free to use and a link to the page that shows this.
  • Reuse images more than once if your licensing agreement allows. If you purchase a stock photo of a baby for your parenting site, and you are allowed to use the image more than once on your site for that licensing fee, reuse the image over and over in different blog posts, social media posts, and other advertising. Get the most bang for your buck possible.
  • Watch for sales. During Black Friday, for example, some stock photo sites will offer discount packages that allow you to download images throughout the year.

Set a monthly and annual budget for stock photos so you don’t overspend.

6. Where to Use Stock Photos

You can use stock photos in a variety of places to enhance your designs and materials.

  • Slideshows: Use as a faded background image or to illustrate a point.
  • Social Media Memes: Create sayings and sharable quotes to enhance your social media reach.
  • Header Background: Make a monochromatic background with a faded out image in the background and the title of your site at the top.

Obviously, there are many other places you can use stock photos. These are just a few of the occasions you might want to use one. Stock photos can enhance your design and make finding the perfect image easy.

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at


  1. Rebecca Tyler on November 22, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    Oh I agree in the end, it’s best to just use your own. It’s easy to get a hold of a great camera or if not, get with a great photographer. Their rates are for the most part very reasonable. But in your initial design, you should always use whatever free stock images you can get your hands on. If anything it’s just to give you a good idea of what you’re looking for.

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