5 Best Ways to Use Stock Photos in Your Ads

Fact checked by Vahe Arabian
Vahe Arabian

Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and… Read more

Edited by Vahe Arabian
Vahe Arabian

Founder and Editor in Chief of State of Digital Publishing. My vision is to provide digital publishing and media professionals a platform to collaborate and promote their efforts, my passion is to uncover talent and…Read more

Tips to use stock photos in ads

Ivy Attié is a content manager, researcher, and author in various stock media-oriented publications. She is a passionate communicator with a love for visual imagery...Read more

Marketers are busy people. Especially in the era of social media, you are on a 24/7 call to market products or services with various methods and mediums.

The never-ending marketing campaigns come with an unlimited workload, including copy, visual, technical, and the list goes on. Even getting one thing off your shoulder is a huge relief. 

That is where stock photos come in handy. They can literally take care of the visual aspect of any ad – digital or print – single-handedly. 

What are Stock Photos?

Before jumping right in about using stock photos, let us quickly describe what it is first. Stock Photos are a bank of ‘readily available’ photos for the general public. They come with various licenses that make them applicable for both – personal and commercial use. 

However, stock photos come with it’s set of disadvantages. Since they are widely available, they often appear overused, cliche, and genetic. It is also a good idea that you learn about the different licensing requirements. It may come as a surprise, but stock photos have landed many people in legal trouble. 

Types of Stock Photographs

Stock photographs come with various sets of licenses. And before using the images, you should have a clear idea regarding each type of license:

  • Public Domain (PD): The photos under this category are free for all projects, including personal and commercial. With this type of license, there is no copyright and you do not need to care about a dime.  
  • Royalty-Free (RF): This means you get to have complete ownership of the photo. You are allowed to use it on different mediums and multiple times.
  • Rights-Managed (RM): You pay a minimal amount for one-time use of a photo. If you wish to use it again, you are supposed to repurchase the license.

Unspoken Rules of Using Stock Photos

There are many do’s and don’ts of using stock photos. However, if you can stick to these five, your ads will do great visually. 

1. Setting up a Budget for Stock Photos:

Stock photographs are available as both – paid and free modules. However, most people want to dive into the free aspect of stock photography,  but we ask you to set a small budget for them. Remember, buying a stock photo is still cheaper than taking custom photos. And you will also have the satisfaction of using an unique image as free stock photographs are often overused by the general public. 

Don’t worry! There are ways to find affordable stock photographs that can do the job perfectly and not dent your pocket.

Also, we are not suggesting using paid stock photos for every campaign. However, some signature campaigns deserve highly relevant and exclusive content – be it visual or text. You do not want to give a chance to your competitors to use the same free visuals. 

Here is an example of two prime Indian matchmaking sites that used the same image for the title campaign;


And it just doesn’t happen to local brands only, look what LG and whirlpool did;

So save yourself from this embarrassment. Use stock images wisely, even if it costs you a little money.

2. Human Emotions vs Fake Emotions

Have you seen an ad and cringe internally because it was wrong on so many levels. Well, there are a lot of examples because people are trying to sell on every possible platform. 

In ads, one common mistake we often encounter is unrealistic images that don’t resonate with the audience. The ads are usually overdoing the “happy,” “sad,” “crying,” or “laughing” emotion.

Such advertisements still serve the purpose but fail miserably to leave an impact on the audience. We advise you to use photos that reflect real human emotion rather than focusing on animated versions of a feeling.

For example, look at image A and image B of a sad human being. Which one appealed to you more?

Image A:

Image B:

Hopefully, your answer was image A. The setting is natural, and she seems genuinely sad over getting (potentially) fired. That’s what you want to associate your brand with, not some random image. You can hurt your brand by sticking to superficial and unreal images.

3. Adding your Signature Flair to Stock Photos

One of the most acceptable ways to use a free or paid stock photo is by editing it to look in tune with your brand message. Various apps such as Canva or Photoshop can help you customize stock photos. 

In fact, you can change the picture by:

  • Adding text
  • Changing the contrast
  • Cropping the picture and merging it with another
  • Blurring the background 

For instance, look how this company has used the stock image for a hiring advert. They edited it a little bit and wrote a text on top of it. That’s what we call owning the Stock image and using it to the fullest potential.

4. Crisp and Clean Make Best Stock Photos

We understand each campaign has its own agenda, which helps in formulating its do’s and don’ts. It is preferred to use simpler images that appeal more to audiences than chaotic ones.

Of course, there are exceptions where you need an image where a lot is happening. However, stick to this golden formula (reminder: crisp and clean) for all the other visual messages of your brand or company.

Let us look at a Facebook ad by Sedano’s Supermarket. They want people to stock up for an upcoming hurricane. One can imagine the chaos of the situation. However, instead of cashing on the circumstantial urgency, they chose to exhibit a relatively calm display of emotions.

A swirling cup of coffee to represent the hurricane with a single word call – PREPARATE – to prepare for it – a classic case of how to take maximum advantage of stock photos. Kudos to Sedano’s Supermarket!

5. Stock Photos must be Viable Cross-Platform

Do you realize how many platforms are utilized for advertising these days? There’s print, emails, blogs, and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Pinterest, YouTube, and WhatsApp. And the list can continue forever. 

You have to produce an ad relevant to all these platforms and, more importantly, intrigue users of each avenue. Now that’s an intricate task. Maybe now you understand why marketers require outside help like stock photos.

The solution is to be agile and have access to multiple sources. The greater the number of stock photo resources you acquire is equal to better image selection for ads.

Final Words

Stock photos are a great help, especially if you can learn to use them effectively and effortlessly. Just ensure they are used rightfully and ethically. Also, you may want to look at the license details of each to avoid a legal mess that can tarnish your brand image. 

Stock photos for ads are just the beginning. You can use them for everyday tasks like a blog post or newsletter, or Instagram post. In a way, it’s an endless world of stock photos, so welcome abroad and browse the infinite possibilities.



Learn proven strategies to maximize traffic to your digital publication by leveraging tried and tested technical and content SEO strategies.


Related posts

Latest Membership Insights

online course

Publisher SEO

Learn a technical and content SEO strategy that helps digital publishers increase their organic traffic by 100-500%.

online course

Publisher SEO

Learn a technical and content SEO strategy that helps digital publishers increase their organic traffic by 100-500%.