Learning how to work with stock photos: Can you help me?

The advice these days is to include a large image in your blog post, somewhere “above the fold”, so that it can attract attention, visually break up the page, and make your blog post more interesting. That way, blog themes that use featured images can include that as the thumbnail, and magazine-style feed readers (I use Feedly) can make your posts look cool. The image should be relevant. If you’re using someone else’s image, observe copyright and attribution requirements.

There can never be too many cat pics on the Internet.I like cats, so I’m going to bend the rule about relevance and add a cat picture here.

If I want to learn more about visual language, stock photos and Creative Commons images might be good ways to do that. Less work than taking pictures of things myself, and more realistic than drawing.

One of the reasons I dislike stock photos is that they can feel fake. You know, the bunch of all-white (or, rarely, obviously diverse) business people who are way too excited about a meeting. See Corey Eridon’s post on 13 Hilarious Examples of Truly Awful Stock Photography. I don’t think the examples are awful, but you’ll recognize the clichés.

What does “good” look like? Of the blogs I read, which ones use images consistently, and what do I prefer?

Lifehacker uses images well, and it looks like they customize their photos or make original ones too. Dumb Little Man, Priceonomics, Wise Bread, Blueprint for Financial Prosperity, and Under30CEO include images with every post, although sometimes the images look a bit… stock-y. So I have role models.

What do I want to learn from using stock photos?

I want to be inspired by the way human emotions and situations can be translated into different contexts. I want to expand my collection of visual metaphors. I want to get the hang of matching ideas with comics (or making my own).

What’s getting in my way?

Thinking of the right keywords, and being happy with the search results. For example, let’s say that I want to express the concept, “being frustrated with search results.” Needle in a haystack? Frustrated person?

This is kinda what I mean. Sometimes it’s easier to draw than to search.

image

It’s this odd combination of too many choices, and yet not quite what I’m looking for – but I think that has more to do with skills I need to develop, ways I need to learn how to see and think.

image

 

How do you learn how to use images anyway? Most of the blog posts and web pages I’ve seen just harp on copyright, assuming you’ve got the sense to pick out images on your own. If I want to get better at this, I need to get better at brainstorming concrete images for abstract concepts, coming up with keywords for more efficient searching, piling up sheer exposure – stuffing lots of stock photos into my head until I build my “stock photo vocabulary,” or my visual vocabulary in general.

TIPS

I filtered through more than a hundred pages of Google search results related to how to choose stock photos. Here are the best resources I’ve come across so far:

WAYS I CAN LEARN

A. Write the post first, then look for images.

More topical and closer to my existing workflow, but can be frustrating because of my criteria. I don’t want fake-looking models or situations. I don’t want meaningless fluff or

On the plus side, if I spend half an hour searching for an image and still can’t find it, I probably have a better idea of what I want and how it’s different from what I’ve seen. Then I can draw it.

B. Browse for images first, then follow the inspiration to write posts (maybe with my outline).

Possibly fun, possibly a time-suck. Randomness is my friend. There’s always plenty to write about, so I’m not too worried about finding a topic – although I do want to make sure that each post is fleshed out enough so that it’s not just an excuse to share an image.

Have you taught yourself how to work with stock photos and blog posts? Can you help me figure out how to build my stock photo vocabulary?

Cat image based on this one by vita khorzhevska, Shutterstock
Stream of images based on this one by kangshutters, also Shutterstock

Update 2013-08-16: One of the ways I’m coming to terms with stock photos is to mix them up in some way – add speech bubbles, doodle, and so on. It’s fun. It turns it into a game. If you use stock photos on your blog, what do you do to stop making it look generic?

  • http://derailleurconsulting.com/ Chris R. Chapman

    Avoid using any of the stock photos catalogued on this site:

    http://awkwardstockphotos.com

    Or, maybe just use them anyway. It could lead to some unexpected yet pleasant results.

    • http://sachachua.com sachac

      Indeed! Thanks for sharing the hilarity. =)

  • Justin Heyes-Jones

    Hi Sacha. Great post. I use pics at the beginning of blog posts for the reasons you mention. I go to flickr and do an advanced image search making sure to select Creative Commons Licensed images that are available for free use. Then I put a link to their flickr page under the image and send an email to let them know what I’m using it for.

    • http://sachachua.com sachac

      Yup! I’ve used a lot of CC-licensed images from Flickr because they feel more real. Compfight has a much better interface – give it a try! =)

  • Douglas G Pratt

    Thanks for excellent post. I use the Microsoft clip art site for photos, but try to select realistic ones. More recently, I have started creating my own stock photo library. I try to step back though and ask, “what does this image contribute?”

    • http://sachachua.com sachac

      For sure. =) No sense in putting an image there just because! (Unless it’s a picture of a cat. ;) )

  • Gabriel Saldana

    On my posts I usually go to Flickr’s CC photos when I can’t use my own images (which are also CC licensed). Since I love photography, I try to use my own more often or create new ones for posts. I think that if you use your sketches its better because it will be your “stamp” or style, also you can quickly sketch up something relevant for your post faster than searching or creating a good quality and relevant photo. You can also try PhotoDropper WP plugin http://www.photodropper.com/ for searching stock photos easily and within the post composer window.

  • http://www.blurbeat.com Divya Khan

    Sometimes i really find hard to find a perfect image for my post. Finding images is an art. Hope some day i learn the tricks :D