Image via Unsplash

How to Use Stock Photos to Up Your Social Media Game

If you knew there was a simple way to increase your audience’s willingness to look at your social media and blog content by 80 percent, you’d probably do it. Spoiler alert: researchers found that adding visuals to your content can do just that.

However, with all of the legalities (am I allowed to use this picture? Am I going to get sued?), and the seeming lack of quality stock images, it can be hard to get your visual strategy just right. To make this process easier, we’ve put together the following guide to using stock images so that you can take your social content to the next level.

How to use stock photos on social media

Think about the platform

As with all marketing efforts, you need to pay close attention to your medium. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What kinds of images and photos are being used on Twitter? Facebook? Instagram?
  • How are brands using stock imagery on these networks?
  • Are those photos being customized or altered in any way?
  • How are copyright attributions addressed?

These are all aspects you should consider and reflect upon before you start using stock photos in your social media strategy.

Easily find free images

Once you have thought about the platform you’ll be sharing your image on, it’s time to actually find your photo of choice. Before you head to Google and type in your keyword, you need to understand the various copyright and usage guidelines associated with different types of online photo content.

If you want to find free images that you can use legally, the Creative Commons Zero license is what you should look for. According to the Creative Commons website, the CC0 license “enables scientists, educators, artists, and other creators and owners of copyright- or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance, and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.”

To help you find images that fall under the Creative Commons domain, we’ve compiled 20 Free Stock Photo Sites for Your Social Media Images.

You can also find a collection of stock photos that are free for commercial use in our photo editing app, Hootsuite Enhance. You can then use the app to add filters, borders, stickers, or text to these photos and share them straight to the social networks of your choice.

Think about symbols and connections

As a part of creating my blog articles, I source header images from stock photo sites and other resources. The images I choose are then often used to accompany social media posts promoting the blog content. Because of this cross-platform usage, I have to carefully consider whether the images I choose make sense and are pertinent to the content. Not only do the images I choose have to be relevant but they have to add value to my content.

I try to refrain from using the tired “person + piece of technology” format that will always be relevant—and always boring. To avoid resorting to a picture of a man on a laptop, I use the following process for both blog post images and social media images.

The first thing I do is write down my main topic on a piece of paper. Then, I brainstorm and jot down themes and any associated imagery that pops into my head as I think about keywords. For example, when I was looking for a photo to go along with my post, A Guide to Social Media Listening for Your Business, I wrote down terms such as “listening,” “hearing,” “sound,” “music,” “noise,” and “volume.” I then thought about imagery that accompanies such themes:headphones, gramophones, record players, microphones, ear plugs, telephones, and ears.

After I’ve established these concrete visuals (i.e. physical items that I can actually find photos of), I go to one of the sites I listed in my 20 Free Stock Photo Sites for Your Social Media Images blog post. I search the keywords I came up with, such as “ears,” and see what I find. If my search comes up dry, or if I can’t find an image that makes sense for the post, I try another site from my list. When doing this, audience interest always has to be top of mind. I need to think about:

  • What kinds of imagery will grab the audience’s attention?
  • What kinds of photos will the audience want to click on?
  • Will this image make sense to the audience?
  • Is the relevance of the image to the topic immediately understandable?

Once I find an image I like, I bookmark the page (so that I will be able to easily cite the source when necessary), and download the image at the highest resolution possible.

To sum it up, the thought process for finding an image to go along with A Guide to Social Media Listening for Your Business went something like this:

Listening → Hearing → Ears =


Optimize image size

While I always recommend downloading your chosen stock image in the highest resolution possible, you will need to make some adjustments to optimize the image size for your chosen platform. What are the optimal image sizes for each social network? Download our guide to find out.

Bonus: Get the always-up-to-date social media image size cheat sheet. The free resource includes recommended photo dimensions for every type of image on every major network.

Ensure you pay attention to these image sizes to make sure that the photos you choose appear exactly how you want them to. Nothing is more distracting to great content than having a poor quality, pixelated, or oddly stretched image accompanying it.

Customize your stock imagery

Your brand is unique, so it’s a good idea to make sure that the social images you choose are also one-of-a-kind. With a limited budget restricted to free stock photos though, this can be extremely difficult. However, a little bit of creativity can go a long way.

There are plenty of programs and tools—including inexpensive and free options—that can help you modify stock images to suit your needs. We listed some of our favorites in our post 15 Great Resources to Create Quick and Beautiful Images for Social.

Before you begin customizing stock images though, you need to ensure they are marked ‘modifiable.’ Occasionally an image will be marked as free, but only if it remains in its original state. Again, using images filed under Creative Commons Zero is best here.

Once you have an image you know you’re permitted to change and customize, there’s a lot you can do. For example:

  • Add your brand’s colors, mascot, or logo to the image
  • Add text over the image (such as an inspirational quote, best practices tip, call-to-action, or industry-relevant fun fact) and post it to your social media channels
  • Change the shape to adhere to optimal sizing
  • Make a collage, mixing the stock photo with your own original and branded images
  • Add frames and borders to make your image stand out

Stock images open up a realm of possibilities for your social media content. Use the above tips to make your social posts stand out from the crowd and help you reach your marketing goals.

Looking for an easy way to create better images for social? Find, crop, edit, and share images all from one app with Hootsuite Enhance!

Download For Free