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Updated Mar 16, 2023

The Truth Behind Stock Photos: What Works and What Doesn’t

Stock photos can add graphics to your online content without creating the images yourself. Here's what works and what doesn't regarding stock photos.

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Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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It’s easy to click around and find a bevy of royalty-free photos online and, if that doesn’t work, it’s also simple to pay a small fee to use a professional image on your website. This is great, right? Not so much, according to the latest insights from visual content experts.

Cheesy, impersonal stock photos can be a massive turnoff to site visitors because they don’t represent your brand accurately. Here’s what you need to know.

What are stock photos?

A stock photo is an image ― or other visual content ― for which users can buy a license for creative or commercial use. Stock photography is appealing because you can search a stock photo site for an appropriate image immediately. The alternative is to hire a photographer to create original content, which can be expensive.

How do stock photos work?

In stock photography, the artist uploads a photo ― or other visual content, such as illustrations, video clips or vector files ― that they have taken, edited and finalized for creative use elsewhere, usually submitting to a stock photo agency that splits license revenues with the photographer. In other words, stock photos provide users with the images they need ― often without attribution requirements ― and photographers an easier way to generate revenue for their work.

What kind of stock photos are buyers purchasing?

The most commonly purchased stock photos are of people, animals, food and travel destinations. Stock photos that buyers purchase fall into four main categories:

  • Royalty-free image: When you buy a royalty-free image from a stock photo site, you can use it as often as you like after buying the license. Royalty-free images have no right to exclusivity, whereas other stock imagery categories might.
  • Extended license: This is an upgraded version of the royalty-free license that extends your usage rights to any images you purchase. This one-time fee model allows buyers to use the image forever, including in product resale and unlimited print runs. 
  • Rights-managed image: For competitive reasons, the buyer may incorporate exclusivity terms in their stock image license that prevent other entities from using the same photo. Rights-managed images may fluctuate in market value based on size, exclusivity rights and usage.
  • Public domain: This category is free stock photos that you can use without buying a license. The free images in this category have no usage limitations and generally do not require attribution.

What can stock photos be used for?

Stock photos for commercial use can be placed on websites and in marketing materials and editorial work ― some stock photos can only be used for editorial purposes. The one caveat is that they cannot be used in materials related to illegal or morally sensitive areas, nor can they be resold or distributed.

How much do stock photos cost?

Other than free stock photos, you’ll have to pay to use such images. Most stock photo sites charge less per image if you buy a subscription for a number of photos. For example, iStock plans start at $29 per month for 10 images. Stock photo experts point to iStock, Shutterstock and Adobe Stock as the most affordable sites.

What are the pros and cons of stock photos?

Understanding their pros and cons is key to knowing how to best use stock photos. Some of the pros of using stock photos are:

  • You can save the time and money of hiring a photographer.
  • They are versatile enough for many uses.
  • They are easily editable to fit your business needs.
  • Site subscriptions give you access to various high-quality images.

These are also some potential drawbacks:

  • You could unintentionally violate the image license.
  • The aesthetics may be intended for general use and, by extension, feel inauthentic to your target audience.
  • Depending on the image license, there is the risk that other companies can use the same images you purchase.

Learn more about stock images’ pros and cons below. [Related article: How to Compress Photos]

Why people don’t like bad stock photos

Stock images have such a reputation that there’s even a Know Your Meme page dedicated to stock photo cliches. Stock photos are generally viewed as ineffective, inauthentic and out of touch. Unfortunately, stock images have become so commonplace that studies show that site visitors don’t even register the pictures. 

And while they are convenient and can be an inexpensive alternative to custom photography, here are some reasons why people don’t like bad stock photos:

  • The concept, composition and quality are bad: There is nothing worse than looking at bad stock images. They’re cliche and might be poorly shot or downright ridiculous. While they might be less expensive than other stock images, think twice before purchasing them. 
  • They’re impersonal: By their nature, stock photos are meant to be “one-size-fits-most,” which means they weren’t created to fit your brand aesthetic — and bad stock photography makes that abundantly clear. The subject is usually vague and the models may look unnatural, overly stylized or too corporate. The pictures could be from anywhere and of anyone, which won’t help cultivate brand awareness and recognition for your company.
  • They can look like spam: Depending on how far down the stock photo rabbit hole you fall, you may come across stock photos that wouldn’t look out of place on spam websites. Choosing these types of images can cheapen your brand aesthetic and reputation.

Some site visitors may not dislike stock photos so much as they don’t take them seriously. So, if you’re trying to establish an online brand with a refined, elegant aesthetic, be careful about which stock photos you choose. [Learn more website design tips here.]

TipBottom line
If you’re looking for a new way to connect with your target audience, consider soliciting user-generated content as an inexpensive way to find original content while engaging directly with your audience. Create a dedicated hashtag for your followers and consumers to use while posting images of them with your products.

Why good visual content matters

Visual content has powerful conversion potential, so it’s easy to understand why website designers default to stock photos. They’re inexpensive, easy to find and high-quality images are available if you want to look and pay for them. So, what’s the issue?

Stock photos can be recognizable and some are overused consistently. Consider the case of Jennifer Anderson, the internet’s “Everywhere Girl.” She posed for a photo shoot sometime in 1996 and her face was subsequently used in print by some of the biggest brands in the world, including Microsoft, the BBC, Greyhound Lines, Hewlett Packard and Dell. Without meaning to, these brands diluted their unique messaging by using the same stock photo as several other companies. 

While stock photos are more varied now than in the 1990s, any image you choose from a source like iStock or Shutterstock is bound to come up on thousands of other websites. A reverse image search service like TinEye will prove it.

With that said, if you need to rely on stock photos to help make your content more engaging, here are a few tips to keep in mind when selecting your images:

  • Use visual content that is attention-grabbing: Since the onset of social media, our attention spans have dwindled to about 3 to 5 seconds. This means marketers have that much time to capture their target audience’s attention before they lose interest. However, the right visual content can stop someone from scrolling and get them to connect with your content.   
  • Remember visual content is more memorable than text: There’s truth to the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The right image can be worth more than that if it can help complete a conversion or make a sale. Most people retain visual information much better and longer than written text, so investing in the right images can help convey your brand message more efficiently and effectively than a library of well-written blog posts. 
  • Use visuals to communicate more information quickly and easily: Visual messages make it easier to convey your brand message or highlight certain aspects of your products and services. Whatever message you’re trying to deliver, make sure it provides value to your target audience — whether that’s informational, educational or for entertainment. 
  • Choose images that align with your brand aesthetic: Consider if the image will match your brand and website aesthetic or clash with the rest of your creative. Incorporating the right images into your website can also improve your site’s responsive design

How bad stock photos impact your bottom line

Your website is one of your business’s most important conversion tools and cheesy stock photos will only hinder the cause. Bad stock imagery isn’t just generic and cheesy. It can also drive people away from your website and, by extension, your company.

Bad stock images aren’t friendly and inviting. Customers don’t want to be talked at — they want to learn why and how your business can meet their needs. Stock photos can come off as too sales-y and drive potential customers away.

What to do instead of using bad stock photos

Humans rely on other humans to meet their needs and stock photos, much like an automated customer service recording, can be impersonal and uninviting. Fortunately, there are a few ways to solve this problem.

1. Choose better stock photos.

You don’t have to rely on iStock or Shutterstock. Consider using a different stock image site, such as one of the ones listed by Creative Boom. These sites have a more modern, artistic feel, and many images archived on these sites are free for anyone to use.

Wherever you search for images, use specific terms that have to do with the image you have in mind, rather than the abstract concept or blog topic the picture should represent. People connect much more readily with concrete images than with abstract ideas.

Bottom LineBottom line
Whatever stock images you choose, ensure they align with your brand aesthetic and narrative. If you can find stock photos that include an exclusivity use stipulation in the license, it might be worth the extra cost to ensure no other companies can use the images you select.

2. Make creative edits to stock photos.

Stock photography doesn’t preclude you from using Photoshop or other photo-editing software to put your creative spin on the images.

Before you begin, ensure you have the creative rights to doctor your chosen image. Then, you can overlay text or graphics, make tonal edits using filters, crop the image or reposition different elements to shift the focus and help deliver your message. 

TipBottom line
If part of your target demographic is college students, learn how to best market to them here.

3. Use your own photos.

If you want to feature people’s faces on your site, stay far away from stock photos. Instead, show images of your employees. While some great stock photos are available, nothing can replace your unique, custom images. Your brand aesthetic helps to separate your company from competitors, and nothing helps to establish your brand point of view better than images that align with your style, colors and overall messaging. 

Sites that sell stock photos

You can buy stock photos from many sites if you can’t use your images. These are just a few:

  • iStock
  • Shutterstock
  • Adobe Stock
  • Getty Images
  • Pexels
  • Depositphotos
  • Stocksy
  • Unsplash

When it comes to your visual content, always choose authentic, relevant and realistic images. If a stock photo meets those criteria, it could be a good choice ― unless it’s outdated and overused.

When using stock photography, always tread with care. When in doubt, invest in hiring a photographer to capture original images. You’ll probably be glad you did in the long run.

Max Freedman and Anna Johansson contributed to this article. ​​

author image
Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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