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This post is a follow up to Royalty-Free vs. Stock Photos: Differences and Benefits

The reality of tight budgets is that many of us rely on low-cost images when designing brochures, web sites or other marketing materials. If you do find yourself working with less-than-perfect photos or illustrations, make sure you work carefully within the restriction of those images.

Make the Design Work with Low Cost Images

It may take more time to find a good image. There are many web sites boasting low-cost of even free photos. You’ll notice a large variance in the quality of these royalty-free photos. That means it often takes longer to sort through pages and pages of poor quality results. The larger, more reputable stock agencies offer free research, so they can do a lot of the leg work for you. Factor in the cost of your time. For example, does it make sense to search for 6 hours to find a decent $25 image or should you search for 45 minutes and pay $400?

Understand the resolution of the image. Most royalty-free sources charge based on the size of the image sold. A small, web-resolution image is going be less expensive than a large-scale, high-resolution image ready for poster-sized printing. Read this post, if you need more information about resolution. However, you will not be able to put a web-resolution file into a printed piece without it looking blurry, bitmapped or both.

Don’t make poor-quality images the focus of your design. What makes something less-than-great? Poor lighting, stiff actors/models, out-of-focus images, cheesey poses, trendy (ie soon to be out-of-date) clothing and hair styles, out-of-date looking people, places or accessories.


As a graphic designer, I have certainly found myself having to work with less than ideal images. Sometimes a tight budget only allows for royalty-free photos, other times one or two poor quality photos are the only images available.

Educational Endeavors printed marketing materials. When we worked with Educational Endeavors we had to rely on low-cost royalty-free images to stay within budget. Silhouetting all the photos helped to unify them graphically, and made the layout less boxy. Making the images duotones diminished inconsistencies of color palette, lighting, and style.

Print Marketing MaterialsCommunity Energy Cooperative printed marketing materials. When Visible Logic worked with the CEC on the Energy-Smart Pricing Plan, we used primarily all royalty-free images taken from just one or two photo CDs. Because all of the images were energy-related, it was easy to find images. But, they varied greatly in the angle, depth of field and color spectrum. So we kept them small, and enhanced them in photoshop through judicious cropping and some color effects.

Print Marketing MaterialsCambridge Human Resources Group Web Site. Finding low-cost, but high-quality photos of adults can be particularly hard. Clothing, hairstyles and accessories can look out-of-date quickly. Think of it like investing in a good suit: focus on timeless styles. For Cambridge, we purchased a group of photos and then made them duotones of gray and purple to work with their branding systems we were building. We made sure to purchase high-enough resolution versions to work in both their print and web campaigns.

Web Site Design Using Royalty-Free Photos

Cover design for Boycott. Boycott is about the athletes who were unable to compete in the 1980 Olympics because of the Moscow boycott. The stories were based on interviews with the athletes and we wanted to show the athletes at that time. So, we had to rely on images supplied to us by the author and publisher. Rather than use only the photos, we made sure major design elements and parts of the concept were made up of other graphics. In this case the red-white-and-blue motif and the distressed type.

Book cover design: Boycott

There is no denying that high-quality photos can improve your design. But if you know that there are limitations because of what is available or what you can afford, design around it. Make images small, use other graphics, manipulate and pull the images together with an effect like duotoning or silhouetting. In the end, you may decide that no photos is a better solution than poor photos.

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