For your purposes, it’s the perfect photo. Maybe it’s one of those keyboard-and-coffee-mug shots. Perhaps you’re into mountains and purple sunsets. Or the photo’s got those energetic poses, flawless cast members, and the ubiquitous half-laughing smile you were searching for.
There’s only one problem. The image is a stock photo, which means you’ve seen it a thousand times.
There’s a high chance clients and customers will recognize it as stock, too, and the competition could be using this exact image. But time or budget restraints are making it impossible to hire a photographer to take custom shots specifically for this project. But this image is seemingly ready to go with just a few clicks. So, is there any way make this one work?
Luckily, with a little imagination, a few pieces of software and a handful of tips and tricks, you can make stock art look more authentic and get it to align more effectively with your brand and visual identity. This blog will help point you in the right direction.
The Nature of Stock
Stock images are generic photos that are designed to be adaptable. They aren’t made with a project in mind, and they vary in complexity, ranging from clipart to sophisticated photography. Stock is sold under license by stock image houses such as iStock, Shutterstock, or Adobe Stock. The licenses usually fall under two categories: royalty-free and editorial. Royalty-free images are less expensive, but editorials are more exclusive.
These images are readily accessible, making them quick and easy solutions for just about any business or professional application that requires visual elements, such as:
Unfortunately, this accessibility is a double-edged sword. Because the internet is flooded with them, stock photos are easy for audiences to identify.
Most stock photos are purposefully so nonspecific that they can come off as ocular white noise. This is exacerbated by the popularity of stock imagery for all types of businesses and both digital and print media, meaning that some photos get reused over and over. Stock is also constantly subjected to the merciless mockery of online discourse for being bland, vague, or cryptic, yet so successful.
However, there’s a catch. While most stock images can be used straight out of the box with zero alterations, it’s common practice to personalize them. There’s a whole toolbox at your disposal to make your image unique, or at least disguise the fact that it’s stock.
Failing to plan is planning to fail. Before choosing and modifying an image, consider these fundamental questions:
- Who is the audience? Demographics, like people, are not interchangeable. Figure out who you’re aiming for and use targeted, converting messaging in your visual elements.
- What is the desired effect? In other words, how should the audience feel? Should the image capture a mood or emotion, accentuate data, or tell a story? Flesh out its purpose.
- What is the genre? Is the image being used in a corporate presentation or a blog? Each setting has its own conventions, and subgenres get even more specific. Try to adhere to them as much as you can.
The answers to these questions will help guide decisions about which images to choose and how to change them. Now, with an idea of what you’re aiming for, you can start looking for the image you need.
At the end of the day, you’re going to be using the internet to locate these images. Finding the right image is half the battle, so try to use browser or stock house search engines effectively. Here are some tips:
- Use multiple keywords. Keywords are how an engine finds items related to your search. Using 3 to 5 keywords will help narrow down the lists these searches deliver.
- Be specific. Searching for the word “boy” will bring up thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of results. Searching for a boy with a red ball will bring up thousands fewer.
- Use filters. Some stock houses have filters built into their websites’ search engines. If present, use any filter relevant, such as category or age, to get the best results.
- Exclude. If unwanted results repeatedly show up, try plugging some of their keywords into your search preceded by a minus (-) sign. This will exclude items containing those words.
Playing with the parameters of your search will make it easier to find something unique, which is especially important when dealing with a market that can see repeated use of the same image. After finding an image, determine how much work needs to be done to make it usable for you.
Not all images or projects are created equal. Some jobs only need one or two changes to make a big difference. Others require detailed knowledge of visual dynamics and sophisticated image editing software. Others still fall somewhere in between.
Disguising a stock image doesn’t have to be rocket science. There are quick fixes that, while they aren’t necessarily transformative, can tailor a photo for your needs. Two simple things you can do to a stock photo are flipping and cropping.
Probably the easiest way to make a stock image look more authentic is to flip it. While flipping alone won’t do much to the “stock-ness” of a photo, it gives a new perspective to the image, and the change in orientation can help with the overall intended composition. Just look out for any left-right oriented elements, such as text, which would be dead giveaways if reversed and left uncorrected.
Where is your attention drawn in each? How does that change the photo’s experience?
Another easy tool to disguise a stock photo is to crop it. Of course, these images are intentionally generic, but you can always narrow things down to the objects, people, or scenes that are important for what you’re trying to achieve. The contents of an image send a message, and cropping can be used to create themes or communicate purpose simply by focusing on a few key elements.
Note the cropped photo has a different feel, like being in a closeup shot.
Which Is Better for Me?
The techniques described in this blog will require superposition of elements or alteration of core aspects of the original image, so it’s time to bring out software that allows you to make alterations that are more significant than merely using the selection tool. Be sure to save often and have a spare copy of the original.
Programs that can manage layers will be a necessity. Of course, Photoshop sets the standard for the field. Its price, however, can be a massive barrier, as can the program’s sometimes perplexing interface.
Workable alternatives do exist. Gimp is probably the best example of a free image editor, but it does not have the CYMK display options important for print media. Freemium programs, such as Canva, are more common, and though they may be easier for new users to understand, getting access to their full range of abilities can rival Photoshop’s price for a less professional look.
If your job is more complex or your photo is super generic, then you’ll have to do more to the image. Sometimes, this includes enhancing the rhetorical value of your image. Whether this needs to be done through written or visual language is up to you and the demands of your project.
Add text if it works with your goals. The words can be straight, they can arc, or they can wrap around something in the original photo. And don’t be afraid to make space.
Sometimes, there’s no better way to say it than to say it with text.
Image enhancements also possess rhetorical value. Filters or overlays provide an emotional charge to a photo which can and should be exploited. Think about how a grainy or monochrome look can instill moodiness or nostalgia. Normal photos can be given a new, stylized look with watercolor or oil painting filters.
Warm and textured vs cool and stylized. Same shapes, completely different takeaway.
Enhancements can direct attention as well. For example, blurring a photo and using it as a background will compete less with brand or advertising copy. The main image may be out of focus, but the text gives purpose. Alternatively, you could blur part of an image to draw the viewer’s eye to a specific object or element.
With the blur, our eyes focus on a precise location. Without it, our eyes wander.
Advanced techniques require the greatest skill and knowledge of image manipulation. For stock alteration, this generally means combining stock images by taking elements from multiple stock photos and assembling them in a single composition. This involves somehow copying and pasting the components you want.
If you’re blessed enough to be using a sophisticated program like Photoshop, then you can mask and separate pieces of an image with superhuman precision. If you are not so endowed, well, be careful while you use that selection tool.
Collages are an easy, unique way of gathering together relevant elements in a presentable manner. Simply crop out the sections that you want to include from their original images and put them into a separate arrangement and decorate as needed.
The original photo has its own message, but the collage changes the visual story.
Backgrounds often can benefit from some image editing. Just separate what you want to be in the foreground and substitute what’s behind it with something that holds more appeal or fits better with the feeling you are trying to convey.
Give the color palette a makeover. This new background is more subtle.
Sometimes, you need a subtle touch. Fading a secondary image can bring out those more abstract ideas, such as thoughts or possibilities. Take an image or color, put it on a layer above the image you’re mixing it with, and lower the transparency.
The original image steals attention from other elements, such as headlines or navigation links.
The more you change about an image, the more you’ll have to think about it as a whole. It’s easy to make changes look out of place. The elements should work together, not against each other.
Consider the shape of the image you’re trying to make. The possible compositions for your new art are endless. A gradient can accentuate elements of a photo while adding negative space. So can patterns and shapes of color. As long as all the necessary elements are visible, you can crop and color the photo as needed to make the text fit and to keep it readable.
Visible disparity is a common problem, as most photos won’t be easy to blend. Once pieces of an image have been inserted into another, you’ll need to do some tweaking. Often, this involves shifting the colors to keep with a theme or to match the tone of the photo you’re adding to. Be sure to keep lighting in mind, as well as how warm (red/yellow) or cool (blue/green) the colors are.
In general, color is an important factor to consider. You could be trying to employ color language, or perhaps you’re fitting an image into your branding scheme. Either way, color is impactful for the viewer. Play with the parameters — hue, saturation, balance, brightness — and get the tone just right. These tools are a bit fussier, so take as long as you need.
Additionally, many of the tactics mentioned in this blog build on each other. If you can master the art of cropping and flipping, you’re halfway there to combining images. Filters can help mask color discrepancies. You can use some light blurring/smudging to soften mistakes with the cut tool.
How to Make Stock Art Look More Authentic: Resources
You can talk about editing pictures all day, but at some point, you’ve got to sit down with a mug and mouse and get to work. Here are some image processing programs to help you get started: Canva, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Adobe Lightroom, PicMonkey and Pixlr.
Stock images come in both bitmap and vector formats. Bitmaps are essentially mosaics of pixels, while vectors are comprised of mathematical formulas for the various lines and curves of which they are comprised. Because vectors are generated mathematically, they can be rescaled, broken apart, and used as separate pieces. Bitmaps, though, do not respond well to any of these alterations. They’re also much more common than vectors, which are not generally used for realistic images.
Separating bitmap objects from their original photos is far easier if they are silhouetted on a background of solid color, preferably white. It’s probably a good idea to factor format into your search when browsing a stock website. For example, if you were looking for an apple to add to another image, you could type, “Green apple on white background.”