Finding the right image is a constant challenge for designers, writers, freelancers, photographers — and just about anyone else who works on visual projects. Wading through the myriad of images and websites that are out there is tough, and picking a single one of those photos can be even harder.
In this article, we’ll show you a simple 5 step process that can make finding the right image much easier. It’s a process that’s been used to find hundreds of great images on this site, and it’s been used to find thousands of images for various other projects.
Step 1: List Your Constraints
Before you can begin looking for the right image it’s critical to gather and list all of the constraints you’ll face when using this image. Almost every project has certain limitations on the imagery that will work best in the final use, and it’s important to know these limitations before you begin to spend time searching.
Here are a few common constraints to watch out for:
- Exact Dimension (e.g. must be 3″x5″, can’t be wider than 600px)
- Aspect Ratio (e.g. must be 8:10 aspect, must be portrait orientation)
- Quality and Type (e.g. must be > 300dpi, must be in vector format)
- Color (e.g. image needs to be predominantly blue, image should be light)
- Misc Other Limits (e.g. image must be cut-out of background, etc…)
Once you have the exact details and requirements for your project, put them into a list or some other format that’s good for quick reference. This will help to easily cut out images that won’t work, as well as help you save time and guarantee that the final choice is perfect for the project.
Step 2: Find The Exact Purpose
Every image should have a specific reason or purpose for being included in your project. Some images are there to grab attention, others are included to make something more friendly. Some images need to set the mood of the audience, others just need to look pretty and take up space. Whatever your project, it’s important to figure out what this image needs to do.
Really think about the final resting place of the image, carefully consider your audience and placement, and then do your best to come up with a detailed purpose for it being there. The more details you can decide on for the image’s purpose, the better — it will make finding an image much easier and will significantly improve the final result.
If you can’t find any specific purpose for including the image, then it might actually be worth leaving out.
Step 3: Turn Abstract Ideas Into Concrete Search Terms
Now that you’ve got a very good overview of the requirements and purpose of this image, it’s time to translate this information into concrete terms that you can actually use to find some images. Trying to find an image that represents ‘difficulty’ is going to be a lot harder than finding an image of a ‘rock climber’ or even ‘hurdles’, so you want to brainstorm as many concrete terms as you can.
Some good things to consider are objects, actions, specific situations (e.g. ‘business meeting’), places, or anything else that could be used to label an image. You want to do your best to convert the abstract requirements of this image into concrete ideas that other people might use to label a stock photo, or that you could use to send a description to a professional photographer.
Here are a few examples of this translation:
- Luck can become four-leaf clover, gold, or bingo
- Freedom can become sitting on the beach
- Difficulty can be hurdles, narrow staircase, or rock climber
- Inviting can be open door, outstretched arms, or embrace
- Growth can be a little plant, plant in hands, or a financial chart
As you can see, there are many different specific terms that can represent a single abstract word or feeling. It’s up to you to find as many of the specifics that could fit, and from there to choose the terms that best fit your project.
Step 4: Start The Search
It’s finally time to start looking at images — and now that we’ve done all of the prep-work, this stage will go a lot faster and should be a lot easier.
From the last step you should have a list of very specific terms that describe the image you’re looking for, so now the goal is to find as many images as possible that fit those terms. The easiest way to do this is by searching various stock and image websites. Here are a few good options:
Free stock/image websites (be careful of copyrights)
Premium/paid stock image websites
The best way to handle the image search is usually to create a lightbox or other way of gathering the images you’ve found together. This way, you can look very quickly and save anything that could possibly work for review later. The object of this step is to find lots of potential images, and not necessarily to find the perfect image. We’ll get to that part in a minute…
Step 5: Review Options and Select The Final Image
It might seem like a good idea to combine this step with the last one, and just review and critique the images as you’re looking through the search — but that can actually hurt things. If you combine the search with the review it’s easy to miss images that could work, or to select an image that isn’t really that good. Splitting the search and review into two separate steps will make sure you can compare all of the good possible images together at once, and then make the overall best pick for the project.
When you search and review at the same time, what you’re actually doing is grouping the images in your mind, and then comparing each one to the selection you’ve already seen. This does sometimes work well for small image searches, but for any larger projects it will actually slow you down as you’ll end up looking over the same image group multiple times to try and remember everything you’ve seen. So, always remember to split the searching stage and the review/selection stage.
When you’re reviewing your images, it can sometimes be very difficult to select one because so many would work well. In other cases, it can be tough because none of the images really fit what you’re looking for. In both situations, I recommend one thing: give yourself leeway in image choice. The image you select doesn’t need to explain everything exactly, that’s why there is text. Let yourself pick an image based on feeling, abstract ideas, and overall impression — not necessarily on very specific details.
In the end, the final selected image should be the one that closest matches your purpose for this specific image. It should convey the right feel, it should attract the right amount of attention, and it should get across the point that you need it to make. If you can do that, then chances are you’ve found the perfect image.
How Do You Find Images?
That’s it for this process — but there are still a lot of little things that we didn’t cover. Do you have any tips you’d like to add? How about horror stories about trying to find the right image?
Let us know what you think in the comments.