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Updated Nov 06, 2023

Are Stock Photos Still Worth Using in 2024?

The stock images companies use can weaken their content and branding. Help your content perform better by using alternatives and understanding what makes good photos.

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Written By: Chad BrooksManaging Editor & Expert on Business Ownership
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Are you making the mistake of using stock images in places where original, high-quality visuals should be used? If you’re posting the same stock images appearing on countless other websites, it’s costing your business credibility and almost certainly money. Here’s why you should move away from stock imagery.

What is stock photography?

Stock photography is photographs and images that are created by third-party professional photographers and designers and intended for use by other companies. You can buy stock photography on marketplace sites like BigStock, Shutterstock and Envato. Most stock photographs are cheap – on BigStock, you can buy 500 image credits for $399, the equivalent of $0.79 per web image (higher-resolution images cost more credits). Canva and Adobe include access to stock imagery in their monthly software packages, and many of the best text message marketing providers even have stock photographs for clients to use in MMS messages. 

If you want something truly original, you can buy very high-quality stock photography for exclusive use on your site; no other company would be able to use that image without your permission. However, licenses for single images can cost thousands of dollars, and since the image wasn’t taken specifically for your company, it will still be generic and possibly undesirable.

In this digital era, online visuals really matter. Research continually shows that social media posts with images get more clicks. For e-commerce companies, photos can be a bigger factor in purchasing decisions than both product reviews and descriptions. Yet despite this, many companies plaster cold stock photography and regurgitated images onto their websites when unique visuals and customer photography would benefit their businesses more.

FYIDid you know
Commercial licenses allow the use of stock photos in marketing and promotions, whereas editorial licenses (primarily intended for news and information sites) often prohibit such use. You may have to pay more to use an image on a physical product (like a T-shirt or poster) or for offline marketing (such as direct mail, newspapers or packaging).

What are the problems with stock photography?

Most stock photos don’t attract customers or prompt engagement because they are often impersonal and generic. Making matters more complicated is that knowing how best to use stock photos, and which stock images can still work well for your business, isn’t an exact science. That said, companies should generally avoid using stock imagery for the following reasons.

It’s cliched.

While the stock imagery you see in photo frames at the drug store is intended to make you imagine your own family photo in the frame, these types of pictures can inspire laughter and mockery because of how unnatural and unoriginal they seem. When searching for stock images to use in business contexts, it’s all too common to see white men in suits shaking hands or huddled around a computer. These pictures lack the uniqueness required to grab people’s attention in a positive way.

It’s overused.

Meet Jennifer Anderson – if you haven’t already. After posing for a photo shoot in the 1990s, she became known as “The Everywhere Girl.” Why, you may ask? Because she literally started showing up in advertisements everywhere. She was seen on ads for Dell, Visa, HP, Microsoft, AAA, the BBC, the U.S. Navy, a handful of colleges and universities, and more. In other words, she was overused. While this may seem like an extreme case, it demonstrates that you have no control over where else the stock imagery you use appears unless you pony up for the exclusive rights. Oversaturation significantly dilutes a photo’s intended purpose.

It’s out of touch.

Photographers and designers don’t create stock images for the specific purpose you may have in mind. They create images to have just enough of a connection to a basic idea. The smiling faces of two men shaking hands in a corporate boardroom may seem good enough to represent your general point, but the problem is that it doesn’t capture the subtle nuances and additional factors that make your company different. It can’t convey your business’s specific message because it wasn’t created for your business. Stock images can rarely do any content you create real justice and instead can make your company seem dated and out of touch.

It looks fake and inauthentic.

Someone looking at the website of a financial advisor in Ohio will likely know the picture of the New York skyline on their Contact page is not the backdrop of their office. So why use it? There is nothing to gain by misrepresenting your business, even in a background image. Regardless of their demographic, consumers want honesty, authenticity and transparency from companies. The juxtaposed logos, forced cropping and overdramatized facial expressions endemic in modern stock photography just don’t resonate with audiences.  

It misses the mark on diversity and inclusion.

Business owners wanting to show how their company values diversity and inclusion will likely struggle to find suitable stock photos. For decades, such imagery has largely focused on white people, even when the photos are cartoon-like graphics and not actual real-life humans. Fortunately, more and more inclusive collections are popping up these days, and Getty Images has begun a campaign to diversify the people in their stock imagery. If other photo agencies follow suit, businesses will find it easier to get stock photos that represent modern America, but until then, it remains a challenge.

Did You Know?Did you know
You can negotiate a "rights-managed" agreement with a creator (or online asset platform) if you want to be the only company to use a particular stock photo. Try to choose an image no other company has used before; otherwise, you'll spend a lot of time contacting every webmaster whose site is using the image to demand its removal. Prices will vary for exclusivity, depending on a number of factors.

What are alternatives to stock photography?

Investing in quality imagery is one of the keys to getting the best return on blog posts and your website as a whole. You can leverage the power of visual content by creating a strategy that prioritizes the use of unique visuals and custom images. Here are some alternatives to using stock photos.

1. Hire a professional photographer.

Let a professional photographer create the perfect pictures for advertising on Instagram. They can also take photos for your email marketing campaigns, company website, and even any printed materials or packaging you distribute. To limit the costs associated with using a professional photographer, draw up a content plan at the start of each month that outlines every piece of photographic content you’ll need. Schedule your photographer to do the work all in one day, if possible. The end result should be high-resolution images taken with professional techniques and equipment.

2. Hire a talented graphic designer.

Graphic designers are experts at creating images from scratch and blending various elements from high-quality stock photos to create unique visuals that properly represent your brand. Turning basic stock images into custom visuals can effectively breathe life into your content and show your value as a company. A graphic designer can also help you determine the visual language you want to use for your business, from colors and fonts to perspectives. Having a visual style that’s entirely your own will make your company appear distinctive and authentic, two advantages competitors using unedited stock photos won’t have.

3. Use customers in your images.

User-generated content is an increasingly popular way to feature customer-driven content. Few things are more authentic than something your clients have submitted themselves. Encourage fans of your brand to send in pictures of themselves with your products, and post them on your website and social media platforms. Provided you have their permission to share the images, this is a great way to showcase real people at virtually no cost.

4. Find a stock photo no one else is using.

As mentioned above, there are times you can get away with using a stock image – specifically, when it’s visually appealing and isn’t being used elsewhere. If you come across a stock photo that would work well for your business but want to be sure dozens of other companies aren’t using it already, you can use Google Images. After you upload the image or paste in the image’s URL, the search results will let you know how many times the photo has already appeared online. Then you’ll know whether you should buy the exclusive rights for that picture.

What makes for good images?

Not all commercial photography is the same. Fashion photography, for example, is very different from food photography. To get inspiration for your company, look at how your competitors are using imagery, and consider what you can learn from them. What is common in your industry, and what would stand out in a good or bad way? Follow these tips when trying to craft the best images for your business:

  • Remember who the star of the photo is. Whatever else is in your image, make sure attention is not drawn away from the product or the person performing the service. For example, if you’re advertising your company’s plumbing services, the focus should probably be on the plumber or your advanced plumbing tools.
  • Put products into context. Take photos that capture the lighting and background of the locations where customers would typically use your product. A consumer would expect to see a crockpot on a kitchen counter, for instance, or an outside table on the backyard patio.
  • Take professional photos of your staff. Your company is made up of real people, so you should aim to showcase those people as they are instead of relying on stock images of nameless strangers who don’t really have any association with your business. It’s worth hiring a professional photographer to take both portraits of your employees and photos of them engaged in work activities.
  • Ensure everything is in the frame. Of course, we don’t really mean everything, but everything that’s relevant. The photo should capture all of the product, person or scene. For example, with a portrait image of someone, their head, hair and clothing should stay within the frame instead of appearing cut off.
  • Collect more photos than you need from lots of different angles. You can take photos for your business yourself, but if you’re not a professional photographer, know that many of the images will be duds even if your camera is mounted on a tripod. Take more pictures than you think you’ll need, and from varying perspectives, for a better chance of ending up with something worthwhile. 
  • Expand your own skills. Add to your skill set as a business owner by taking a course in photography and image manipulation. You’ll then be able to take good photos yourself instead of needing to hire a photographer or graphic designer. You can even take a class on using Photoshop, which can help you produce professional imagery relatively inexpensively.

Anna Johansson contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. 

author image
Written By: Chad BrooksManaging Editor & Expert on Business Ownership
Chad Brooks is the author of "How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business," drawing from over a decade of experience to mentor aspiring entrepreneurs in launching, scaling, and sustaining profitable ventures. With a focused dedication to entrepreneurship, he shares his passion for equipping small business owners with effective communication tools, such as unified communications systems, video conferencing solutions and conference call services. A graduate of Indiana University with a degree in journalism, Brooks has become a respected figure in the business landscape. His insightful contributions have been featured in publications like Huffington Post, CNBC, Fox Business, and Laptop Mag. Continuously staying abreast of evolving trends, Brooks collaborates closely with B2B firms, offering strategic counsel to navigate the dynamic terrain of modern business technology in an increasingly digital era.
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