Using stock photography on Instagram: when, how and why


If you’re a photographer, you probably think that you should NEVER post stock photos on Instagram. And you’re  right! After all, you’re there to showcase your work. And in a photographer’s case, using other people’s work to promote themselves can be considered false advertising.

If you’re not a photographer but a business owner, using stock photos on your Instagram profile might be just the thing you need to allow yourself some time off.

Let's face it, managing a business is hard enough. The last thing you need is stressing about that perfect photo for your feed instead of spending time with your family. What if I tell you that you can post somebody else's photo and still make it work for your brand? 

What is stock photography?

Stock photos are professional photographs of common places, concepts, nature, people or events, bough and sold on a royalty-free basis. The idea is nothing new - stock photography has been here since the 1920s.

Royalty free means that you can use those photos for almost anything commercial (although it's always good to read the fine print), and common places and concepts mean that their use is broad. Think lifestyle photos, holiday photos, landscapes and attractive travel destinations.

You can buy them, or find free ones. Websites that sell stock photography work on a subscription or per-image basis, and usually have a greater variety of different photos than the free solutions. However, free stock photos will also work: there’s a slight chance you’ll end up with photos that many people are already using, but there’s also a chance you’ll find some nice and out of the ordinary conceptual photography. 

Either way, here’s how to make stock photography work for you! (And keep on reading for my favorite stock photo websites - both free and paid!)

1. Mix stock photography with other content!

You’re never going to find photos of your products on stock photo websites, but they can be a good source of more general images that you can use to tell a particular story. 

If you sell swimsuits, you could always use photos of some paradise beaches; if your product is a perfect Christmas gift, you can undoubtedly find some beautiful images of people gathered around a Christmas tree surrounded by presents. 

Don’t post only stock photos to your account. You still need to showcase your product or service, or your Instagram profile will look generic. Use stock photos for seasonal, more general or the posts that don’t have to showcase your product, but you don’t have time to make yourself. If you also like to post images with text overlays (i.e., quotes), stock photos can be a perfect background for them!

2. Think what works for your brand and overall aesthetics. 

If your visual branding is all about vibrant colors and neutral backgrounds, don’t go for a dark and grungy stock photo, no matter how epic it looked.

Larger companies will often make sure that a stock photo they use features a specific color (for example, the dominant color of their logo or overall branding). That makes their social media feeds look cohesive. Also, this makes the investment even more valuable since it enables them to use the same photos for other marketing purposes (for example, printed ads)!

If this sounds too complicated, you can always make it easier by, for examples, sticking only to photos with pastels or the ones taken with soft, natural light.

3. Plan in advance

If you’re a business, no matter how fun and spontaneous you want to appear, you should always plan at least a bit in advance. 

Life can become quite hectic for solopreneurs, and on busy days, the last thing you want to think about is your Instagram feed. Stock photos can be a quick and easy solution since they are readily available, but even with them, you should try not to do everything last minute.

As I’m writing this, the winter in Amsterdam is slowly coming to an end. Looking forward, if I owned a non-photography business, I could note down a couple of events I’d like to tap into on my social media. First of all, there’s Cherry blossom festival at the Amsterdamse bos. Then, there’s the tulip season in April, and then there’s Kingsday. I can already find all the appropriate photos on stock photo websites, like this one, this one, or this one. 

4. Consider creating custom "stock photos"

If you’d like your stock photos to be still unique, you can get custom created stock imagery. If you work with bigger budgets, take a look at Shutterstock Custom. If not, you can just hire a single photographer to shoot a series of brand-specific images that you can use and reuse, with different cropping and some interventions in any graphics software, for months or years to come. On that note, I'm a photographer. Email me.

Lauren from Elle & Company has a great article about getting the most out of your stock photos. It’s going to be especially useful to creative entrepreneurs and bloggers.

My favorite stock photography websites


Unsplash - A platform fueled by a community of photographers and creatives that have generously gifted hundreds of thousands of their own photos. There are more than 50.000 of free photos to chose from and you can use them however you want!

Pexels - Very similar to Unsplash, but tends to have a greater variety of photos around certain topics (I use it quite often when creating presentations. Nicely tagged, searchable, discoverable and completely free.

Death To Stock - They release only one pack of free stock photos a month. You can view the current one on their website or sign up so you receive the photos every month via email. DTS also has a Premium section, where you can access and browse their archives.


Stocksy – A small but very dedicated photo agency. They curate their photographers manually and work with only a limited number of them. The photos are very Instagram friendly and feel contemporary in terms of subjects and editing.

Adobe Stock - Still fairly new to the market, and also fairly affordable. If you're using Adobe's software, it should integrate nicely into your workflow. If not, it still offers great and affordable imagery (think 10 photos for under 30€).

Shutterstock - This website is nothing new and is often considered one of the top 3 stock photography websites in the world. They literally have MILLIONS of photos available (and still manage to curate them so they're not crappy) and multiple subsription options. 

Do you have any questions about this, or experiences you'd like to share? Leave a comment!