Lisa Valuyskaya September 14th, 2011

How to Make Images Unique

We all use images -- photos and illustrations -- in our daily design work. Lots of them. And while the best way to make sure your images are unique is to have custom photography or illustration done for you every time, this is not very realistic. Often, due to time and/or budget constraints, we have to use royalty-free images. And, royalty-free images, by definition, are available to anyone who pays their fee (very reasonable, compared to the fees for rights-managed images that grant you exclusivity). The first time it happens to you, will forever be etched into your memory: seeing the same photo which had been carefully chosen for a particular client's project (when they did not have the time or the budget to set up a photo shoot), used in an advertisement by another company. If you are lucky, it will at least be in a different industry. But what happens when it is a direct competitor? This is a rather unsettling thought. Here are some tips, tricks and examples of what you can do to make sure your images are slightly more unique than what everyone else is using -- even if you do purchase them from a royalty-free site.

Don't Go With the Most Obvious Choice

Before you choose the image, keep in mind that often search results on the royalty-free sites are sorted by popularity -- meaning that the images that have been downloaded the most times will show up first. This, of course, increases the risk of someone else using the same image. Sometimes simply browsing a little longer can help you find something relevant, yet not quite as popular. Also, before you even start searching, think of less obvious ways to illustrate your point. You don't have to always use computer and code images to illustrate a website or a brochure for an information technology company. Maybe something completely unexpected can work just as well? How about using pie or toast to illustrate the ease of use, or dogs to illustrate friendliness and loyalty? You get the idea; there are many ways to make a point with a picture, and they don't always have to be the same images everyone else uses to convey the same kinds of ideas.

Choose a Detail

Once you have chosen your images, there are any number of ways that you can alter them to make it more unique. Sometimes just focusing in on one part of the image can make it very different from the original. Crop and zoom in on a detail that is very relevant to your message, and the let the rest fall by the wayside. [caption id="attachment_88430" align="alignnone" width="540" caption="Instead of using the photo of many fallen leaves, why not focus on just one?"][/caption] Or you could even go one step further and actually extract an element from the image that works well for your project purposes (clipping paths in Photoshop will be very helpful with this). [caption id="attachment_88433" align="alignnone" width="540" caption="Instead of using the typical cookie tray, you can extract a couple of cookies and integrate them with the title."][/caption]

Color Shifts

Sometimes in order to put a more unique slant on your images simply playing around with the colors can produce striking effects, and even enhance the message you are intending the images to communicate. For example, creating a black and white version of an image, with just one element remaining in color will place a strong focus on that element. So instead of cropping to make a certain element stand out you can use the colors to highlight any one aspect that really speaks to or with your message. Other ways that you can use the color to your advantage here is by adding some colors that are not normally found in nature. This is a fantastic way to attract attention. Furthermore, adjusting the saturation, contrast and luminosity levels of your images can do a lot to transform them from subtle to striking.

Try Different Effects

Depending on the style that you are looking for, sometimes enhancing the image can be as easy as running a filter. This is not necessarily recommended just because they look pretty, but when you have a project that calls for a particular style, they can be handy for getting the image to the place you need. For example, using a poster-like effect for an art gallery brochure can be very impactful on its viewers, and compliment its theme and message in ways the image unfiltered could not. Another example would be to use a filter to add a hand-drawn look to the imagery included in a project for a family-run bakery. This effect can really add to the home-made feel and ideas the bakery wants to convey to their customer base.

Combining Images

When taking this route, the possibilities are virtually endless. With the right amount of work and retouching you can almost guarantee that the images you use for your client will be unique, even on a more limited budget. Blending mediums can be an effective way to make your point here as well. An example of this would be to combine a photo and an illustration for a fun, not quite real effect. Another example of this would be like using a part-photo, part-illustration to better demonstrate the process of a home remodeling company. You can also add your client's logo to a scene or object that emphasizes their benefit. This is a really easy way to tie the two together. When combining images, you can also play with the size and perspective to alter them from their original, and to better serve the message you need to convey. For that larger than life quality. You can further use this technique to emphasize custom-made objects by showing them "in the making" -- even if it isn't quite the real process.

Don't Settle for the Same Old Image

There are numerous tutorials and techniques available to designers these days to really take our images to the next level. What we often forget, is that this can serve much more of a purpose than just demonstrating our skills. It can allow us to deliver much more unique imaging to our clients.

Further Resources

Below are a few useful posts and resources for helping you put the advice offered here into action when your next client comes calling. (rb)

Lisa Valuyskaya

In addition to Italian, Russian and Dutch, Lisa speaks fluent Advertising and Design, and is happy to translate any concepts and terms into plain English. Lisa is on a mission to reduce the amount of ordinary, mediocre communication and marketing materials. And -- why not? -- to make the world a happier place. One beautiful communication piece at a time. Lisa has 10+ years of design and advertising experience, both in Europe and the US. In her free time, she rescues puppies, grows her own tomatoes, dances, and hangs out on Twitter.


    1. I have to agree…most of these effects can be achieved with a few (annoying) filters in Photoshop. Not the standard of images/techniques I was expecting, has to be said…

    2. While yes, the images are very basic representations of some of the effects talked about, I believe that the advice stands and sticks as solid information, and gets people off on the right track. Sorry you do not feel the same. :)

      Noupe Editorial Team

  1. There are no degrees of comparison for unique. IT IS or IT IS NOT unique. There’s no shades of uniqueness.

    Rename to “how to make your images stand out” or something and save face.


    1. You are absolutely right, of course, and I was going to make the same comment. It is a very silly but strangely common error that shows a lack of thought.

      Regarding the photographs: I must agree with the other negative comments. It is a reminder that the removal of Noupe’s RSS feed from my reading list is overdue, I am sorry to say.

    2. Actually, 5ubliminal, I would disagree with that statement. If you have two images and apply the same single effect to both, then I would say that you have two images that are both unique, especially when compared to their originals or to images that say have no effects applied. But if you were to compare them to one another, the effect being the same would connect them in a way they were not before. So while they are still unique compared to others, they are somewhat less unique to one another as they now share similar properties. So if you were to tweak one of the images more, say by adding other effects, then in comparing the two images once again, I would say that more enhanced image is more unique than the other as their similarities have been built onto.

      But then perhaps, I am overthinking the issue. (Now that’s just my two cents.)

      @ Ad, sorry that you feel that way. We know not every post is for everyone.

      Noupe Editorial Team

      1. I would not normally stick with a comparatively minor point, but…
        “Unique” is an absolute term: an object is unique if it is not identical to another object and uniqueness may be regarded as a binary state. Therefore, an object cannot be more or less unique and it should not be used as a substitute for relative adjectives such as “unusual”.
        However, since it appears to be much more common in American English, I assume that it has acceptance over there, at least in informal use. In any case, I see far worse than this in my role as a technical editor, so I would not worry too much, Robert!

      2. -Unique- it is an absolute term, thus, a pixel changed makes all the difference that is required to make it unique.

  2. Yes you are right N.R,the above example are far below to the standard of noupe,those example can be achieved with a very less effort.

  3. As the pictures are not perfect quality, the idea you get with this article is really good.
    Don’t use stock images, but if you have to try to make them stand out and don’t just copy them into your website.

  4. This does inspire me with creating images. I like how these are pretty unique. And yea to the above comment I love the twitter bird being eaten! I HATE TWITTER lol

  5. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to add that I was very surprised with this post as it doesn’t seem to follow the usual high standards. If someone presented those ideas to me, I would be extremely disappointed. Very puzzled.

  6. How about trying to be unique by masking or manipulating the images and then having them blatantly STOLEN from your website? Then the thief tries to use “well, it IS a stock image”. And the theft is so obvious because there are leftover pixels from your changes and additions.

  7. Thanks for the article. I’ll use it as a quick reference for those pesky “make it creative and get it done yesterday” projects. =)

  8. This article is not intended for designers that have time to take their own pictures and create images for a particular company. This is for the company who is strapped for time, who has to use a stock image, save face an not have the exact same add as another company in their target market. Zoom in, change a color or two, etc. The general public will not be able to tell it is the exact same image as on another site, they think its “new”.

    Great post for small / medium business advertising teams with limited time, etc. These are ideas we need to get out there so ads in the real world are not as stagnant as they are online.

  9. I found some of the ideas interesting.
    I assume that this article was aiming to give some basic tips to those who are not experts and professionals in this field.
    And to that end, it was a useful article.
    What I don’t understand is the reactions of some of guys on this site.
    We don’t have to be so aggressive and offending in our critiques.
    If we really believe in the true spirit of ‘feedback’, these sort of comments are NOT CONSTRUCTIVE.

  10. Good points made in this article. Often it doesn’t take too much time to adjust an image to make it unique rather than just using the standard one obtained from stock images.

  11. I enjoyed the article. Fast read and good tips for people who might not spend a lot of time doing this type of work but find they need to from time to time. I rely on articles like this to flip a switch back on when long projects or client needs have kept me busy in some other space and then find I need to switch gears and bounce back into a different mindset. Thank you.

  12. This article will help me rank in Google, i was looking for some tips that will make images unique and that is what exactly i got here Thanks for the share.

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