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Picking the Right Size – and Shape – for Your Stock Photo


When looking for a stock photo, you probably already have an idea of where you’ll be using that image. Rarely do you pick out photos and then figure out later where they are going to go – it’s usually the design component that comes first. Once you have a design sketched out, you can then search for the assets that will fill in the blanks and bring the layout to life.

It’s important to think about this when shopping for the next stock photo that you are going to purchase. Having a clear understanding of what you’ll need out of this image in terms of both size and shape is going to help you spend your money wisely. Let’s take a moment to talk about the options you are likely to find and some key points you’ll want to consider.

Orientation is a Good Starting Point

There are two categories of photo orientations when shopping for stock photos – landscape and portrait. If you aren’t familiar with those terms, you can think of them this way –

  • Landscape images are wider than they are tall – they take on the same shape as a standard television
  • Portrait images are taller than they are wide

This is a great starting point when shopping for stock images because it will help you narrow down your options to something that is going to fit nicely in the space you have available in your design. For example, if you are looking for an image that will serve as a large header running across the top of your website, you’ll want something that was taken in landscape format. Most likely, for this application, a portrait image isn’t going to be wide enough to properly stretch across the site without becoming distorted.

Alternatively, you might want to look for portrait orientation when you need to add an image within a piece of content. The taller, slender shape will help this type of photo fit nicely within a blog post, for instance, without going all the way across the page and breaking up the content (although that approach can work when used properly, as well). As the name of this type of image would suggest, portrait layout tends to work well when taking or using pictures of people, since the format of the image matches with the shape of the human body.

Take some time to think about how your page will be laid out and what other elements are going to be included. Once you’ve sketched it out, you’ll likely find that it’s pretty easy to determine if a landscape or portrait image is best for this application. You shouldn’t expect to only be shopping for one or the other each time you need a stock photo – you’ll almost certainly need a mix of landscape and portrait images to bring together your projects nicely.

How Big Do You Need It to Be?

If you are only going to use this photo in a small format on your site, you won’t have much to worry about on this point – virtually every image available will get the job done. Where sizing really becomes an important topic is when you plan on using an image in a large, featured section of your site. When the image is going to take up most of the page, or even the whole page in the background, it needs to be a large file taken at a high resolution. Smaller images just aren’t going to maintain their quality as they are expanded, and you’ll wind up needing to go back and look for a different picture.

Think About Page Load Times

When you are trying to decide how big to make your images, remember that page load times are an important part of the website experience. Assuming you’ll be using your images on a website, think about how quickly you’d like that site to load and what a particularly big image might do to your site’s speed.

That doesn’t mean that you can never use large images, but you might want to be careful about how many you put on the same page. A single page loaded down with several big image files is likely to load slowly, even coming from a quality server. You can do things like optimize and compress the image files, and that will help, but there is only so much you can do when the pictures are big. Map out your page designs to keep huge images to a minimum and your site as a whole will be better off.

Build a Diverse Collection

As you work on marketing projects for your business, building up a wide-ranging collection of stock images is the best way to be flexible with your future endeavors. If all of your pictures are in landscape orientation, for example, you won’t have anything to reach for when you need something that is vertical. Sure, you can go out and buy a new stock image at that point, but it’s ideal to gradually collect various images so you can have something on hand when a need arises.

As you save your stock photos to a drive or cloud service, consider organizing them in folders that help you pick out the right one quickly for a given project. You might have separate folders for both landscape and portrait images, and you could break them down further by things like pictures that include people, certain colors, etc. The more organized you can be from the start regarding your storage of this growing image collection, the easier your marketing life will be down the line.

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