You’ve likely got a great way to search the web for the best free stock photos.

And once you know where to look, how do you decide which photos to choose?

Should you go with abstract or specific?

What is the best color profile?

What is the best orientation?

There are so many great sources for free photos. I find myself asking these questions most every time I pick a photo—how to identify the right stock photo for a project. There’s a good bit of research and advice out there on how to make the best choice when it comes to stock photos. Take a look at what I’ve found here.

Choose the Right Stock Photo

1. Know where your image is going

How will you use the photo? Where will the photo appear?

There’re a million different places an image could appear, based on the million or more types of projects that involve stock photography.

Let’s consider online content for a moment.

When we look at the different places that a stock photo may appear, there’s often a handful that come to mind most often:

A full-width image in the header

Examples of this include stories on Medium and popular blogs like Crew or Zapier.

Medium screenshot

A background image as part of a graphic, behind text or icons

Examples of this include the images we create for Buffer blog posts and some great designs on blogs like Copyblogger and Agora Pulse.

Copyblogger screenshot

Right-aligned images inside blog posts

Examples include The Social Times blog. (The image could also be left-aligned, too, though the far more common usage is right-aligned.)

The Social Times blog

Full-width images inside blog posts

Examples include the Unbounce blog and the Quick Sprout blog.

Quick Sprout blog

Social media featured images

Examples include Facebook and Google+ when you share a link and Twitter when you’ve enabled Twitter cards.

Facebook example

Slidedeck backgrounds

Lots of great examples on SlideShare.

SlideShare example

In each of the examples above, it’s possible that a different stock photo would be considered an ideal fit, based on what looks good with text on top of it, what looks good splashed on Facebook, or what looks good at the start of a blog post.

In my experience, I’ve seen stock photos commonly used in one of two ways. Either

  1. On their own as standalone images
  2. With text or graphics placed on top, as designed images

Both are great routes forward, especially considering the unique places these images are used online. Once you figure out where your image is going and how it will be used, you’re certain to have a greater sense of what’s right stock photo for your project.

2. Understand the contrast of your image

Identify areas of low contrast if you plan on adding text or graphics to the image

Let’s say you want to add an overlay onto your image—a catchy quote with Pablo or an announcement blurb and graphic over a cool background.

The ideal stock photo for these projects would be one with areas of low contrast so that your text and graphics have an even, consistent backdrop.

The SlideShare blog has a good example of how contrast affects the design of image. SlideShare refers to those images with areas of low contrast as text-friendly images.

Good example:


Bad example:


Put another way, these ideal stock photos with areas of low contrast make it possible that your text and graphics will have high contrast with the photo.

For instance, an image with many shades of blue could be said to have low contrast. If you were to add white text on top, the white text would have high contrast with the blue image.

If you always add white text to your images, look for images with darker colors.

If you’ve grabbed a black icon from a site like The Noun Project, you’ll want to place it on an image with lighter tones.

One way to look at contrast in this sense is to picture the color wheel. Selecting colors that are opposite one another on the wheel creates a contrasting effect. You can choose an ideal stock image that focuses on one color and text and graphics that focus on an opposite one.


Legibility and clarity are key here. Typically when you create an image with text, graphics, or other elements overlaid onto a photo, the most important visual aspect of your image will be your enhancements, not the stock photo itself.

You don’t need to think much about the content of the picture—especially if you’ll be adding strong effects like blur or darken/lighten.

You’ll just want something that has the right contrast to make your added elements pop.

Another trick I like to try, when possible, is to add an image to my photo editor (Canva, typically) and change the image to black-and-white. Usually quite quickly I can tell if the image has high or low contrast within its colors.

(You’ll also grow to notice the right contrast rather intuitively over time.)

Where this becomes important is when you begin to place elements on top of the image. Text, for instance, has the chance to be difficult to read if you’re placing it over contrasting colors—white text could disappear over the white parts of the image yet still look just fine over the darker colors, for instance.

3. Choose colors that elicit a visceral response

Attention-grabbing colors & images will stand out on social

Visceral reactions are some of the strongest connections we can make to visual content.

Biologically, when we feel a visceral reaction, we tap into the part of the brain responsible for survival instincts and fight-or-flight responses. The response is subconscious. It originates from the central nervous system whenever we’re stimulated by vital factors like food, shelter, danger, or reproduction. We might not be able to explain why we love a beautiful design because our conscious thought hasn’t yet caught up with our subconscious.

And one of the ways to drive these visceral reactions is with color choice.

A study from Georgia Tech looked at 1 million Pinterest images for the color trends between the highest and lowest shared images. They found:

  •    Red, Purple and Pink promote sharing
  •    Green, Black, Blue and Yellow all stop people from sharing

The thinking was that the three highly-shared colors—red, purple and pink—are tied to visceral emotions. And the overall takeaway is that color makes for a huge portion of an image’s success.

To find an ideal stock photo that’s rich with attention-grabbing color, you can again turn to contrast—in particular, the seven color contrasts identified by Johannes Itten.

  1. Pure (hue) contrast
  2. Light-dark contrast
  3. Cold-warm contrast
  4. Complementary contrast
  5. Simultaneous contrast
  6. Contrast of quality (color saturation)
  7. Contrast of quantity

(For more detail on each of these seven, I’d highly recommend this blog post from Love of Graphics.)

Two of Itten’s seven color contrasts that stand out to me when choosing stock photos are contrast of saturation and contrast of hue. The Color at Play blog created some great examples of these contrasts in action.

Contrast in saturation




Contrast in hue




4. Find an image that supports your message

Attention-grabbing images are great, so long as they don’t distract

In most cases, stock photos are generic and abstract enough that they can grab attention without diverting too much focus.

There are, however, exceptions.

Simply, when choosing a stock photo, find one that does not distract from the main message of your article, update, or headline.

Typically, distracting images would be those that have one or more of these qualities:

  • Controversial
  • Loud, garish
  • Too specific
  • Recognizable
  • Meme

Here’s an example of one that I used in a story. The image was probably a bit too specific—a football game, fans dressed in white, lettering in the end zone—and on looking back at it now, my mind immediately begins trying to figure out just who those teams are (instead of focusing on the cool article).

Facebook example post

5. Take care to pick a person

What to consider when picking a photo with a person

There’s been some neat research about this question. What effect is there, if any, should you choose a photo with a person?

Turns out, there are a lot of different ways to include a person in your picture.

  • Looking away from camera vs. looking at camera
  • Back of head vs. face
  • Shadow/silhouette
  • Pics of arms, legs, or bodies

A brief overview of some case studies on the topic reveals these findings:

37 Signals Person Page test

eye tracking study stock photos with people

6. Be mindful of the size and shape

Which orientation do you want? Tall vs. wide vs. square

One factor that might sway your decision one way or another is the size and shape of an image. In general, these are the ideal image sizes for each social network:

The commonly-held best practice is to aim for something like this:

  • Facebook & Instagram — square images
  • Pinterest & Google+ — tall images
  • Twitter — wide images

What happens if you fall in love with an image that isn’t the right size? 

There’s a fun tip we use here at Buffer for how to crop easily.

When you double-click to open an image on your Mac computer, you enter Preview, which contains several useful tools.

To crop, place your mouse over the picture and click and drag to select the area you want to keep. Then go to Tools > Crop (or press Command+K).

You can also resize large images from Preview by going to Tools > Adjust Size.

In this way, you can fall in love with just about any image and crop down to the size and shape you need.

7. How to perform a search

The best way to search for abstract photos

Many of our favorite free image sources have robust search features to help you dig through the photo archives.

Sometimes there can be a bit of an art to finding what you’re after.

If you’re writing an article about brand management, for example, it could be difficult to know which terms to use in your search; if you were to search for “brand” or “management,” the image results might be a bit lean and off-topic.

What we like to do in searches for the Buffer blog is to enter terms that have to do with the image we have in mind, rather than the title of the page itself.

  • For social media posts, we often look to find pictures of computers, laptops, mobile devices, or keyboards.
  • For analytics posts, we look for transportation, things with forward motion.
  • For research posts, we might search for books or pen and paper.

We also find that crowd shots or interactive photos with two or more people together make for good social media images.

What this might look like in practice:

  1. Search according to the verbs in your headlines or page titles, rather than the nouns
  2. Go to the thesaurus to find variations of your search terms (a simple thesaurus: Google search for “[keyword] synonym”)
  3. Search for nouns related to your verbs, e.g. “launch” could mean rockets or race cars

Over to you

What are your favorite tips for finding a great stock photo?

I’d love the chance to learn from you! Leave any thoughts here in the comments, and I’ll respond right away.

Image sources: Pablo, IconFinder, SlideShare, John Barsby Photography, Color at Play, UnSplash37 Signals, Eyequant


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Written by Kevan Lee

Director of marketing at Buffer, the social media publishing tool for brands, agencies, and marketers. We’ve got a new podcast! ?

  • Awesome list. Lots of great points made.Taking a bit of extra time to think about what goes into the graphics used in our blog and social media posts can have a huge impact on their success. It’s certainly worth the extra effort.

  • Thanks for showing that there’s a science to go with the art of picking great stock photos! Do you always use free and open source stock photos, or do you have access to Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, or others?

    (and if you’d like a laugh, go on Shutterstock and search ‘watermelon helmet’)

    • Hey Kieran! We mostly use Death to the Stock Photo (we pay for membership there); I don’t have much experience with the more “standard” stock photo options. 🙂

      • Death to the Stock Photo looks rad! Their photos look like they have more life and soul to them than a lot of other stock sites. I had never heard of them before! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • I really like the part about colors. Some of this has become instinct to me too Kevan! Have a wonderful Wednesday man! 🙂

  • Modern Career Advice

    Great post! It’s very difficult to find the perfect photo for a post. There’s definitely a blend of science and art.

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  • George Tyler

    Wonderful examples and studies. Learned about the use of colors.
    Very helpful advice. Thanks!

    • Thanks so much, George!

  • These are some great and very valuable tips 🙂
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Awesome, so happy to help here, Patrik! 🙂

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    Hi Kevan,
    I love your blog. I have tried several times to use Pablo but without success. The page loads ok but nothing on it is clickable. It is just dead. Do you have any idea why this would be the case?

    • Oh no, so sorry we’re creating this frustrating situation for you! Would you possibly be up for emailing us at [email protected]? I’d love to get Pablo going for you!

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  • Great info! You cover a lot of the rookie mistakes people make (and sometimes pros, too!).

    • Thanks, Hector! Yes, I’ve made most all of these mistakes here before! (And still do, often). 🙂

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  • I thought Instagram just upped their photo resolution to 1080 x 1080 px

  • Dave Paradi

    Thanks for the valuable tips on selecting & using images. When selecting an image that you want to put text on top of, you have more options than you might think. The attached example takes the image you used and puts text on top that is easy to see, no matter what the background. No fancy image processing application required – this is done in PowerPoint. How? Add an outline and glow to the text in a contrasting color.

    • Thanks so much for the tip, Dave! Love how easy that is! (Great picture choice too) 🙂

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  • Great post Kevan. I recently read this post by Shirley Pattison (that was published as a guest post on the Roojoom blog):

    In the post, Shirley goes out against using stock photos altogether. What do you think? I noticed you also mentioned that when using a photo with a person it’s best to use a picture of a colleague or client instead of a generic stock photo, but it takes more effort than simply browsing an image online. Do you think Shirley is right about the need to stop using stock photos or is this a bit too extreme?

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  • Before posting or publishing your image. Try to check it on Google if it has a similar image already used. Open Google images, then drag your image to the search bar. Uniqueness still stand out.

  • Allison Haag

    Great post, Kevan! Love the depth that you go into, it’s great to see all of the things I think about when looking for images written out so well. Thanks for all of the sizes for social. I’m constantly googling that. I’ve recently created a list of the best stock photos sites too that I think’s relevant to this post:, if you/anyone wants to check it out. Keep up the awesome work!

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    Thanks for sharing. Very insightful and helpful tips. Eye-openers for many like me.

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