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.
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.
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.
The most commonly purchased stock photos are of people, animals, food and travel destinations. Stock photos that buyers purchase fall into four main categories:
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.
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.
Understanding their pros and cons is key to knowing how to best use stock photos. Some of the pros of using stock photos are:
These are also some potential drawbacks:
Learn more about stock images’ pros and cons below. [Related article: How to Compress 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:
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.]
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can buy stock photos from many sites if you can’t use your images. These are just a few:
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.