It’s no secret that stock photos aren’t exactly representations of the real world. According to the stock universe, no one ever has a case of the Mondays. In fact, everyone is part of one big happy and diverse family of friends, co-workers and commuters.
Obviously, this culture leaves itself open for ridicule. Even Vince Vaughn and his Unfinished Business co-stars had a go at stock photos.

So, if stock photos are a cultural joke, why does everyone use them? Certainly “cheesy” isn’t the adjective a marketer wants applied to his marketing materials or campaign.

The truth is, original photography is expensive. The price tag is so high that even Stock Photo Joe might toss himself into a fit of ridiculous-looking rage.

While original photography is essential in many content marketing scenarios, it isn’t always possible. Alas, stock photos must be the boring soup and pasta staples of your content marketing pantry (which is a good thing if you love soup as much as this woman apparently does).

Yet we refuse to believe that stock photos have to be the lamest of endeavors. There are simply far too many options for beautiful, unique (and free) stock photos out there. What’s more, there is a growing culture of self-serve graphic design and photo editors that are also — yep, you guessed it — completely free.

Here’s a step-by-step look at how to remove the cheese and add a little class to your stock photo strategy:

Number 1Find the right photo.

If everyone reading this blog accomplished just this step, we’d sleep happy tonight. In fact, we’d argue that the right photo is 90 percent of the journey.

In order to find the right stock photo for your blog, you have a couple options. First, look at your budget. If you realistically have a budget of $0, never fear: There are a few under-the-radar spots that can fill your needs. Our favorites are:

What we love: A single five-second glance should be enough to see this is an above-and-beyond photo site. It’s simple to use but contains free stock photography that puts some of the most expensive stock photos to shame.

Price: Free

What we love: We love this free stock photo site because of its excellent search functionality and high-resolution photos. The content is to die for, as well. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a cheesy “thumbs up” stock photo here.

Price: Free

Yet as fabulous as the above sites may be, they are fairly limited in scope. Many content marketers use stock photos on a daily basis. If that is the case, the above sites may run dry before too very long.

Honestly, if stock photos are a daily thing for you, then it really is time to consider investing at least a little cash for a stock subscription. Sure, you can buy one-off photos, but a subscription will almost always pay dividends.

We like these budget-friendly options:

What we love: This up-and-coming stock photo site offers beautiful photography that doesn’t feel recycled. We love its flexible (or custom) plans for one-man-band marketers to Fortune 500 teams.

Price: $225 (25 images per month) to $1,999 (500 images per month)

Look familiar? We designed our website with images from Twenty20.

Look familiar? We designed our website with images from Twenty20.

What we love: This brand is a staple of the stock photo industry, and for good reason. It offers flexible pricing for one-off buyers and subscribers alike. Not to mention, its photo library is 70 million strong.

Price: They have some royalty-free images, but the paid plans are where it’s at. Image packs cost $29 (two images) and run up to $229 (25 images). Subscriptions start at $169 per month (350 images for one user) and peak at $499 per month (750 images shared among four users).

Number 2Filter and edit

While #nofilter photos may be a badge of honor on Instagram, they aren’t ideal for your content marketing photos. Hopefully, your selected photo will be up to snuff in terms of brightness and contrast, but there are other edits you may want to make.

We recommend investing in a license for Adobe Photoshop ($19.99 per month). It is well worth the investment, in our experience. If the budget simply isn’t there, check out some of the free photo editors in the next section.

If your anxiety over Photoshop is what’s holding you back, never fear. Even this author has trouble drawing more than stick figures. However, Photoshop has some incredibly useful shortcuts that’ll make your stock photo pics sing.

  • Undo: You didn’t think we’d show you Photoshop without offering a lifeline, did you? This tool will salvage any silly rookie mistake you might make.
  • Crop: This can be done in almost any editing software, but Photoshop allows you to save custom crops. Aren’t you ready to abandon that Post-it note reminding you of the dimensions for your blog header, website mast image or Facebook post?
  • Magnetic Lasso: This tool will help you accomplish unusual crops. This may seem advanced, but it’s actually hugely helpful for professional-looking copy-and-paste jobs.
  • Curves: Think of this as advanced Instagram filtering. We dare you to not spend 30 minutes playing with each option.

For a full list of tips from our resident photo editor, check out our blog post.

Add text or graphics

Just a few years ago, the previous two steps would’ve been the end of this blog. After all, a gorgeous photo is all you need, right?

Luckily, this is no longer the end of the line for photo novices. Thanks to the growing need for eye-catching photos on social media, there has been an explosion in graphic design software.

What does this mean for your stock photo strategy? First, graphic design software allows you to increase the sleekness of your final photo by adding graphics and text. These programs also offer original (albeit simple) infographic creators.

Most importantly, these programs are incredibly easy. Almost every version we’ve seen contains cookie-cutter graphics that are easy to alter and paste.

Believe it or not, most of the best options out there are free. There are opportunities to upsell, but most of your basic design needs can be completed with a simple login.

We recommend:

What we love: Everything. No, really! We’ve bragged on Canva at least half a dozen times on this blog. The graphic text options are gorgeous and the library is impressive. Plus, Canva’s infographic builder offers everything you need to build a simple visual that looks professionally made (think charts, pyramids and even country graphics). Finally, it’s easy and cheap to purchase additional elements, such as stock photos.

Price: Free for the most part. Photos cost about $1. Upgraded accounts offer easier team sharing, customizable templates and brand kits for $119 per year.

What we love: Much like Canva, this plug-and-play software makes it simple to add text

and graphics to your stock photos. It’s extremely easy to drag in photos (or purchase from Stocksnap directly in the software). Its templates are one of Snappa’s best features, since it allows non-graphic designers to build a beautiful visual or backdrop from scratch.

Price: Free, but only offers five downloads per month. Snappa’s Pro version offers unlimited downloads and templates for a reasonable $15 per month.

This may seem like a mountain of work just to post a simple stock photo, but the start-to-finish process shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes once you get the hang of it.

And when you think about it, isn’t 10 minutes a small investment of time to avoid becoming the laughing stock of the Internet?