6 Simple Steps to Customizing Your Stock Photography

Designer Amanda Maduri discusses sprucing up your stock photos, with a short tutorial on editing photos with the free Shutterstock Editor.

Stock photos have come a long way from the “model laughing alone with salad” days. However, even with the wide variety of images available now, to make one of them fit your needs you still might want to add a little spice so it’s unique to you.

We spoke with New York-based brand and marketing designer Amanda Maduri to learn easy ways to spruce up stock. The good news is you don’t have to be a graphics whiz to customize images. Instead, you can use Shutterstock’s Editor tool. Once you have the tool pulled up, here are Maduri’s tips to get the most out of your stock. (Hint: The key is layering.)

1. Choose the Right Image to Start

Flower Pattern BackgroundPatterned backgrounds are perfect for a number of projects. Image via Volha Krauchanka.

Of course, determining the “right” image has a lot to do with what you’re trying to do with it. If you want the photo to complement text, look for an image that isn’t busy or doesn’t stand out too much. Avoid using photos that have high contrast, which draws attention to the image. Try to keep the focal point on the person or object in the image, and look for a photo without much of a background, Maduri says. 

If you’re looking for an image to use as a background, instead of the standard image-centered-on-the-page situation, Maduri suggests creating a patterned background instead. “Find an image with repeated objects and put multiples of the same picture, so it’s more of a repeated background to occupy space better,” she says. 

2. Add a Gradient on Top

Gradient LeavesAdd a pop of color. Image via evrymmnt.

You can also use a color overlay to add a pop of color to your image. It’s easier than you think.

First, create a shape to cover your image, then increase the transparency so you can see through it. You can also make your image fade into the background with a white-to-transparent gradient. This tip works well if you choose an image with a less-busy background (for example, one with some white space). 

Overlay a gradient so the image runs smoothly into the white space,” Maduri says. This allows the gradient to transition seamlessly into the blank area. From there, you can add text to the blank side or keep the space clean.

3. Get Creative with Cropping

Woman Sorting Flowers Circle CropExperiment with different cropping shapes. Image via Africa Studio.

Make more with less by cropping your images. You can make your stock more interesting by cropping in shapes beyond the basic rectangle. Conveniently, in the Editor tool you can crop images into shapes like circles, triangles, and stars. Maduri recommends “not just cropping straight, but cropping in a circle, cropping in diagonal, different ways to make it more dynamic.”

If you want a shape that’s not among the preset shapes, you can make it yourself. Create shapes in the same color as your background and layer those over your image, so what remains visible of your image is in your desired shape. And, if you have more experience and can work in Photoshop, you can use the marquee tool or eraser to crop into a more customized shape. 

When it comes to cropping, there are a couple key tips to keep in mind to make sure your images look their best and have the most impact. Be sure not to crop too close and then zoom in because you could lose image quality, causing the graphic to appear pixelated. Along the same lines, don’t enlarge the image unproportionally. (If you do, the image will get distorted.) And when you’re cropping, Maduri suggests, “Make sure you know what you’re focusing on and what the audience should be looking at.” The focus is usually on what’s in the center of that frame. So, as you crop, leave some space around the focal point.

“If you’re cropping a headshot, for example, don’t go too close on the person,” Maduri says. “Give them some room around their head and shoulders. It gives them some more breathing room so it’s not so awkwardly tight on their face.”

4. Overlay Shapes for a Punchy Cut-out Effect

Flower OverlayLayer shapes on top of your image. Image via Ulada.

Instead of cropping your image into a shape, you can also place a shape on top of the image. Create a shape (again, there are presets or you can draw your own) or use typography and layer it on top of your image. For example, Maduri says, “If you make a really big @ or &, put it over an image just to make it more graphic-looking.”

5. Add Copy Directly to Your Image

Make Copy SpaceAdd copy to your image. Image via WAYHOME studio.

Placing text onto the image can add more personality to your image. The easiest way to do this is by finding an image that has some empty space, like a sky or a wall, “Something that’s relatively blank that you can nestle typography in,” Maduri says. “Don’t put any copy over a very busy image, not only because it’s probably not going to be readable, but it’s not going to focus your eye on the message.”

Or, you can go back to layering and add a color overlay over the image, with the copy layered on top. Whether you use a dark or light color, make sure your font contrasts with the background, such as a white font over a dark background. Using a bolder font will also help with readability. This technique is especially effective for graphics that will be posted on social media. “People are scrolling by, so you want a fair amount of boldness,” Maduri says. 

You can use shapes here, too. Add a rectangle to one side of the image, which gives you a solid color for any text. “You can play with the relationship between the font or messaging, and the image,” Maduri says. For example, if there’s a person in the photo, place the colorblock across from where they’re looking. “Usually the eye goes to wherever the person (in the image) is looking,” Maduri says. 

6. Put a Border Around Your Image

Floral-Border-Sample.jpg?w=750" alt="Floral Border" class="wp-image-164446" />Add a border to your image. Image of flowers via Fusionstudio. Background image via Ulada.

Adding a border is nice because it gives emphasis on your image,” Maduri says. “It also can elevate it to make it not look so flat or directly pulled from the website.” You can opt to use your editing program to add a border directly (also sometimes called a stroke border). Maduri recommends using a thicker stroke for more width on the border, drawing more attention to the image.

You could also create your own border by—you guessed it—layering. The benefit to using the layering method is that you can customize the border, making it patterned or even using another image. Just put the desired border graphic underneath your smaller main image. For example, if you wanted to add more dimension to a product shot, you could crop your product photo so the focal point is on the product, then overlay it on a more abstract background, like a sky photo.

“You’re building up different elements, basically,” Madrui says. “It’s a more interesting way to present a product.” For even more depth, add a drop shadow to the top image to make it pop.

Cover image via WAYHOME studio.

For more editing tips and advice, check out these articles:

64 FREE Flower Images to Layer on Your Designs5 Inexpensive Photo Editing Apps You Should Be UsingFree Gradient Pack: 64 Gradient Backgrounds, Shapes, and Swatches12 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Editing Black and White Photos101 of the Best Free Fonts on the Web

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