Boost your visual marketing results: 15 trusted tips to choose images that sell

free stock image visual marketing

The right kind of imagery is the difference between social media graphics and ads that convert, and those that make little or no impact.

Instagram and Twitter accounts can make just as many sales as a standard web page. They can also turn customers away if the images aren’t handled just the right way. We’ve all seen it: Blank, glossy eyes, stretched smiles, forced, friendly interactions. The tell-tale signs of a stock photo. Over the years, consumers have become professional stock spotters, and they typically don’t like them.

The thing is, there are times when stock photography is absolutely necessary—and with a few tips and tricks, you can differentiate your photos from those pictures of the generic smiling businesswoman standing in front of a conference table (you know what one I’m talking about).

If you’ve used Canva before, you’ll know that our image library is filled with over 2 million amazing stock images. For successful visual marketing, it’s important to have the skills to know how to choose images that will sell and convert.

To help you out, we put together this handy guide with 15 epic tips that will help train your eye and transform you into a visual marketing pro.


01. Never compromise on quality. Free stock photography can be high-quality, too.

Low quality, pixelated images are a no-no. Many viewers will click away from a web page if the images are grainy. Make sure your images are clean, crisp, in focus, and have a good resolution (images online should be no less than 72 dpi).

Canva has a great selection of free, high-quality stock photography to choose from.


A high-quality photo is used in this campaign for education in war-torn countries.

In this ad by Save the Children, you can see just how clean and crisp the image is. The quality helps to drive the message home of the power of education, and gives it a strong voice.

stock images free photos visual marketing

Free stock images from Canva.

Here are some stock images from Canva. The quality of the photos is clear. Everything is sharp where it should be, and you can get a feel of the textures in all of the images.

02. Your images should be powerful enough to express the message of your ad, even if your audience doesn’t read the text.

The images you choose should apply well to your message. Make sure they support what you’re trying to say, whether that’s visually representing your message, or acting as an accent.

stock photos free visual marketing

McDonald’s represents a bad mood visually.

Here’s an advertisement that visualizes a message. They acknowledge the fact that many people aren’t very happy in the mornings, and they show a visual representation of that.

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In these free photos from Canva's stock image library, you can see other ways to represent moods visually, whether it be angry, sad, happy, etc.

03. Picture the people you want your advertisement to reach. They should see themselves in your design.

If you’re targeting millennials, don’t show images of middle-aged people. Show the people you want to have as customers. Put them in situations that your viewers can relate to, and try to make them feel as real as possible.

free stock photos visual marketing

Centennial College targets young people with a relatable image.

You can see here that Centennial College put exactly who they were targeting in their imagery. They are trying to appeal to young adults about to enter post secondary education. They show a young man in a unique light, which makes the viewer feel as though this college doesn’t view everyone the same.

free stock photos visual marketing

Free stock photos of young people, from Canva's image library.

If you were to target young adults in another way you would use other imagery. You could show them interacting with each other or alone, in moments of reflection.

04. People connect best to ads that evoke strong emotions. Play to this truth.

Humans are emotional creatures. A great way to connect people to your brand is through striking an emotional chord. The emotion you portray should be the one you want your brand to make people feel. If they feel something towards your brand, they’ll build a stronger connection.

visual marketing examples

Cordaid ad highlighting wealth inequality.

This image plays on irony and empathy. You’re curious why a man in the middle of a desert would be holding a glass of beer, and when you read the text you make the connection. You feel empathy for him, and even guilty about drinking your beer while he has little fresh water.

free stock photos

Free stock photos from Canva's image library,

Here you can feel different emotions within each image. It’s important to know you don’t need to show a human face to create an emotional connection.

05. Optimize your images for search. Think of hashtags and popular search terms.

This is one of the most important things you can do with your images. If you optimize your images, you can create more traffic to your website through search engines (like Google Images). It’s almost like a hashtag in a sense and can be done rather easily.

visual marketing stock images

This Aloe Cholestop ad has a clever approach. #health #tips #clever #advertising #lookafteryourself. Clever ads have the greatest appeal.

This image could be optimized in a number of ways. You can tag the product, the subject matter, the brand, and the message. That’s four different search phrase someone could use online, and your image could be a result for it. Not bad.

Free stock photos images visual marketing

Free stock photos from Canva's image library

Here are some photos of some commonly searched subjects: Love, parties, babies, and exercise. Try to think about what search terms you frequently use online, and how that could apply to your image optimization.

06. Instagram can be your marketing campaign’s best friend. If you haven’t already, experiment with snapshots.

Instagram can be your best friend. Snap a quick photo with your phone (the quality is often as good as some digital cameras) and post it online. Take a few more seconds to create an interesting composition, slap a filter on it, and use a few hashtags and you’re on your way to tons of likes.

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Topshop's Instragram features user-generate images

There are a lot of brands that are heavily active on platforms like Instagram, and they have a huge following, like Topshop. Not everything they post is necessarily a product they sell or related to the company, but it still fits in with the overall theme they have going on.

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Minimalist photos from Canva's stock image library

The Instagram aesthetic is incredibly popular and can be found in a lot of images taken with professional grade cameras. They’re very easy to construct and edit, and you can see some good examples in the imagery above.

07. Never use an image just for the sake of it. Your visual content should always have a purpose.

People can smell a generic photo from a mile away. Make sure you’re not just using an image for the sake of using an image. Sometimes you’re strapped for time and can’t shoot your own specific image, but if you have to use a generic one put it into context.

An example of a successful ad for prescription medicine

An example of an image used to a specific purpose in an advertisement.

Here’s a good example of what could have been a really generic ad for prescription medicine. A blank staring pose and empty frame, yet it was customized just enough to pull it out of that generic, medicine feel.

08. If you want to sell to your users, engage them. Get them to generate their own photos with your product.

Another instance where Instagram can be your best friend (along with other social media platforms). You can encourage people to snap their own photos and post them online. Give them a unique hashtag to use and you’ll have people from all over stockpiling images for your brand.

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Benefit Cosmetics often features people who use their products on their Instagram page, and that’s a great way to get people to build a relationship with your brand. Essentially they’re doing the work for you, you just have to sift through the images and decide what ones you want to feature yourself (but always be sure to mention the original owner).

09. Jazz up your best images with some basic edits.

Don’t feel constrained to the image you have. You can do whatever you want with it. Try cropping it, adding text and filers, and adjusting the colors. Feel free to utilize the image in whatever way works best for you.

stock photo manipulation

This Glassex ad is a great example of clever photo manipulation

This is a good example of photo manipulation. This is a little more advanced, but a lot can still be learned from it. Odds are, they had the picture of the goldfish sans helmet, and they added in a separate image of the helmet to create the ad. Feel free to put multiple photos together if it suits your needs.

10. Don’t limit yourself to photographs. Get smart with your visual assets.

While people are highly visual, this doesn’t limit them to photographs. If applicable to your business use charts, graphs, infographics, illustrations, and typographic images to supplement your brand.

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Airbnb shows how infographics are done.

Here you can see that Airbnb created an infographic for a company milestone of one million nights booked. There is very little imagery, but the way it was designed and handled typographically makes it feel like an image.

Here is an example of an infographic template available in Canva.

11. Look for striking colors in photographs that really pop.

Color appeals to your senses. Try to keep your images bright and vivid unless you have a specific purpose for dulling them down. Bright pops of color excite the eye and help keep them moving, which keeps the viewer interested.

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Bright colors draw the eye, like in this Calgary Farmers Market ad

The bright color in this image lends to the freshness of the product as well as the season. It looks pleasant and appetizing, and encourages you to visit the market and purchase what you’re seeing.

You can see the color in all of these images is exciting and reverberates off of each other. If these images were dulled down or in black and white they wouldn’t have as successful of an effect.

12. Create a persona. Are you funny, or a social activist? Choose images that relate to your cause.

The things you post personally on social media won’t always be the same as what you post on your business’ social media. It’s important to know where that difference lies in order to avoid issues.

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Taco Bell's brand voice is cheeky and playful

Taco Bell is very humorous and carefree. They can get away with posting a lot more radical stuff because that is who they are as a brand. Make sure you know what your brand stands for, and reflect that in your social media and imagery.

Here are some things that are good to avoid (unless you’re someone like Taco Bell). If you’re not a liquor brand, you probably don’t want to be posting drinks and parties. Keep it professional and keep ‘rants’ on your personal accounts.

13. Find creative ways to prioritize images over text.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so save your breath when you could use an image. If you don’t need to spell something out for someone, don’t. Choose to do it visually.


Show, don't tell – like in this Nikon ad

Here’s a good example of communicating a message visually. You know exactly what Nikon is trying to showcase: facial recognition. The ad shows different faces being highlighted in a humorous fashion.

14. Use actionable photos to create a sense of energy.

Show action in your photos, it excites the viewer. It doesn’t matter what the people in the photos are doing as long as it relates to your brand or message, it could be talking, eating, dressing, shopping, etc.


You can feel the movement in this image even though it’s still. The energy creates an emotion and fuels the message underneath. It is so much more powerful due to the action, and wouldn’t have the same effect if they chose to show the impact of two vehicles another way.

15. Choose images that feature people to build a visual narrative.

We are all people, so there’s nothing we relate to better. Show real people doing real things, it helps make your brand seem more attainable and down to earth.

An ad telling a story with people

An ad telling a story with people – which makes it easier to relate to.

Here the story may be a bit exaggerated, but idea of two people in love running away together is a very real thing that many people relate to or hope to do.

If you implement these tips while choosing your images you’re sure to help build your brand. Just be sure to keep it real. Use people in context, relate to your target audience, and try to connect with them emotionally. Don’t force an image if it’s not working, and make adjustments where they’re needed.

Inspired? Test your skills!

If you're a DIY marketer or a social media pro, these skills will be invaluable for your next marketing campaign.

Got 5 minutes? Give it a crack for yourself! Try Canva (it's free!) and see how easy it is to choose images for an awesome revenue-driving visual.

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