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How to Make Free Stock Photos Look Unique

Using free stock photos for your website, blog, or social media? Here are some easy to use apps that can give them a unique look.


If you’re in charge of marketing, you are probably aware that nowadays, it’s easy to get high-quality photographs that can be used freely from websites such as Pexels, Pixabay, and Unsplash. Every day photographers from around the world add new photos and release them for anyone to use free of charge. These sites each also have corresponding mobile apps which makes it easy to find pictures and download to your phone or tablet.

It’s fantastic that you can use these gorgeous professional level photographs for any purpose without spending a cent. Use them on your website, landing pages, in blog posts, and social media.

One Problem with Free Stock Images

“Great minds think alike.” This means you’re not the only one who has discovered these great resources. For a specific kind of photos, there is often a limited range available. Try downloading your favorite one and running a reverse image search. If the picture has been around for a while, you’ll find that it has been used on a large number of websites and blogs already.

For example, if you search for “typing,” you’ll likely come across this photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash. It was sponsored by Google Chromebooks.

Young woman typing on laptop on her bed.

My client, Xtra, Inc., would love to use this photo to promote their freelancer crowdsourcing service, Conyac. However, by uploading it to Google Image Search, we can see that it has already been used on countless blogs and websites.

The Unsplash license states,

“Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.”

This means that every contributor to the site agrees to these terms when they upload. Most free stock photo sites have similar conditions.

Since modification is allowed, in this article, we’ll look at easy ways to change a photo to give it a unique look. If you’ve taken the time to learn sophisticated image editing software such as Photoshop, great - you probably don’t need to read further. However, for the rest of you, I’ll share a range of apps that are either free or low cost and are very easy to use.

Note that some photographers who upload portrait shots to these free photo sites have not had the model sign a release contract. The free photo sites usually mandate that the photographer only uploads photos of people who have signed release contracts or given the necessary permissions. However, not all photographers pay attention to this, and the model may not have thought it through either. Furthermore, the uploader might be using an old photo, and the model may not be aware.

You should thus probably contact the photographer to confirm before using the photo for anything significant.

1. Flipping

One way to quickly change the look of a photo is to flip it. Usually, a horizontal flip will look best. Most basic image editing software and apps can do this. If you’re not sure what to use, check out Snapseed (Android, iOS).

Here’s a basic horizontal flip of our photo:

Horizontal flips won’t be appropriate for all images. For example, if this photo showed the laptop closer, it would be apparent that it was being shown the wrong way around. However, in this case, at first glance anyway, you wouldn’t notice.

However, since a horizontal flip is so quick and easy, many other sites and blogs have done the same, and a quick search for this flipped version confirms this. Furthermore, the image hasn’t been significantly altered, so it’s still obviously the same photo.

Next, let’s see what we can do with cropping to adjust the photo's composition.

2. Cropping

Most image editing software includes cropping functionality. Snapseed lets you do it freeform or to a particular aspect ratio. Having manual control over it in this way can let you experiment with different crops.

If you’re unable to find a crop that you like, try Polarr Deep Crop (iOS only for now). This might come up with a crop that you wouldn’t think of. Assuming that you want to use the photo for a blog post, or sharing on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, you’re probably going for a horizontal aspect ratio. Here’s a subtle crop by the app that gives a slightly different look.

We’re now starting to get further away from the original photo in terms of aesthetics. However, it’s still easily recognizable as being the same photo.

3. Removing Items

The next thing you might try is eliminating some items from the picture. Snapseed has a tool called “Healing” for this purpose. However, my favorite app for this is TouchRetouch (Android, iOS, Mac). Have a look below and see if you can notice what I’ve removed.

The changes here are quite subtle, but for some images, you can make a big difference by removing a large and prominent object. We’re slowly getting further from the original image.

4. Auto-Enhancement

If the photo you start with is quite dark, you might like to experiment with one-click/tap “Auto-Enhancement.” You can find this feature in photo managers such as Apple Photos and Google Photos. Stand-alone software such as Photolemur (Windows, Mac) is a bit more sophisticated and lets you adjust the intensity.

Here’s a subtle enhancement by Photolemur:

You can see it brought out a little color in the model’s hair and clothes. If the photo was a high-resolution landscape picture that was a bit dark, then the difference could have been quite dramatic.

5. Basic Filters

We all know about Instagram filters. There is a wide variety of software and apps that offer various filters including SnapSeed. Go ahead and experiment to see if any give a look that you like.

Here’s a basic filter applied with the Polarr app (web, Mac, Windows, Android, iOS):

I chose a reasonably subtle filter, but if you scroll back up to the original image, you can see that we have now progressed to a photo that has a noticeably different look.

6. Artistic Effects

The following versions of the photo may not suit the style of your brand or match up with your taste but are useful to see what can be achieved with one-click artistic effect filters.

Below are a few made using the BeFunky web app. They also have Android and iOS apps, but filter availability is somewhat different.

If you don’t find any effects you like in BeFunky, then check out Prisma (Android, iOS), which has a vast range of filters. Here are a few made with Prisma. These are all just one-click/tap - no need to mess around with anything; although it does let you adjust the intensity of the filter.

7. Portrait Photos

The apps I’m going to suggest below only work well with faces that are front-on to the camera and of a reasonably high resolution. These edits wouldn’t have worked on the photo above.

Let’s see how we can alter a portrait-style photo. Here is the original picture by Christopher Campbell downloaded from Unsplash:

Portrait of young red-haired woman in front of a lake.

First, let’s flip it horizontally with Snapseed:

Next, we’ll crop it with Polarr Deep Crop:

Now, we’ll manipulate the face a little with BeautyPlus (Android, iOS):

There wasn’t much to do here, but with some models, you can make a dramatic change.

For the last round of alterations, let’s use FaceApp (Android, iOS) to make her smile, add a bit of makeup, and adjust her hair color:

Now, we’re reaching something considerably different from the original.

Next, we’ll use Photo Lab (Android, iOS) to add some artistic effects. Photo Lab tends to work better than Prisma on faces. These may not match your brand or taste, but you can get an idea of what the app is capable of. It has a vast number of effects available, some of which you might like.

As you can see, these are quite different from the original photo.

8. Giving Credit

When you download a photo from one of the free photo sites, it will usually prompt you to provide credit to the photographer with a link to their profile on the site. On their mobile apps, however, they don't so it’s worthwhile making a note manually of the photographer so that you can give credit. Usually, the model’s name is not available, but if it is, you could add it.

Furthermore, if you have significantly modified a photo, you should also mention something such as “plus edits with ____ app(s).” Otherwise, you would be insinuating that the photo's modified state was from the photographer.


Image editing is no longer something that only people who have mastered photoshop can do. A broad variety of apps and online services now allow everyday people to add professional looking edits with one click/tap. This means that, if you have the time and inclination, you can make the free stock photos you downloaded look considerably different from the original and stand out from the herd of other downloaders.

Of course, if you’re too busy to do this kind of work yourself, you could outsource it via a site such as Conyac, but it’s so simple that you may as well do it yourself. That way, you can get the exact look you want without a lot of back-and-forths.


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Written by DLKR


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