Just Say No! to Stock Photography

Sample stock image of people meeting

Here’s an example of an image that is clearly a stock image. Do these people look real to you?

Whenever I meet with clients about their websites, the conversation inevitably turns to the topic of stock photos. Most companies are photo challenged, so they ask us to help them find good stock imagery. My answer? Just say NO! to stock photography, especially of people!

I feel hypocritical even writing this blog post because this blog is full of stock images. Heck, I’ve even blogged about Matrix Group’s favorite stock image websites.

So when and why do I encourage my team and my clients to say NO! to stock photos?

  • When the web page is about a place or an idea, then I think it’s okay to use stock images. You can use a stock image of New Orleans, or use a stock image to convey an idea, like food safety or computer security. Of course it’s preferable to use your own images, but you almost need to be a pro to develop photos of concepts or ideas.
  • But when the page or website is about your organization and what you do for your customers and members, it’s best to use images of your own staff and customers. Otherwise, it’s like bringing a fake boyfriend to a wedding; the relationship isn’t real! (I know I’m going to get in trouble for this analogy.)
  • When you are talking about what you and your employees do and stand for, the pages just ring false when you use stock images.
  • When talking about your customers, who they are, and why they matter, the pages lack credibility because you are using other people’s customers! And God forbid the image you chose winds up on a competitor site!

“But Joanna,” you say, “it’s hard to get good images of real people, my staff, my customers, my partners.” Yes, I totally agree, but I absolutely believe the effort is worth it. Here are some tips for developing a stock-free mindset.

  • When you can, hire a professional. We recently hired a pro to take photos of the staff and office. We wanted a collection of photos to use on our website, our proposals, and social media. We compiled a list of the shots we wanted (head shots of senior staff, meetings, lunch, etc.) and we made sure we owned the images outright so that we can use multiple times on different platforms.
  • For the times you can’t hire a pro, invest in a good DSLR camera. There are really great DSLR cameras for under $1,000. I absolutely love my Lumix camera, which I purchased about three years ago for $899. This camera made our Creative Director wonder if I had recently taken a photography class because my photos looked worlds better once I started taking photos with  my Lumix.
  • Have your camera with you at all times and take lots of pictures. I believe that if you take enough photos, you’ll take at least a few good ones. Moreover, a good designer can take an okay photo and make it better through cropping and touching up.
  • Learn the principles of taking good photos by taking a class, reading the manual and reading blogs. Even a few tips can help you take much better photos. For example, I learned a long time ago to get close and to frame my photos so that people aren’t smack in the center of the image. Here’s a great list of photography blogs.

Matrix Group is in the midst of a website redesign. (It’s amazing how painful it is to design a website for your own company.) Creative Director Alex Pineda said, “there will be NO stock images on this site.” So the team has gone about making it so. The images will not be perfect, but in a sense, that’s the beauty of using real people: you can tell they’re real precisely because they are not perfectly dressed, made up and staged.

I hope I’ve inspired you to take the NO stock photos pledge, at least on company pages where you should really be showcasing your staff, customers and partners.

7 thoughts on “Just Say No! to Stock Photography

  1. I agree 100%. In the past, I was forced to use stock photography fairly frequently. It got to a point where I would start to recognize the models and see them on other people sites, ads, etc. and it always made me cringe! The only thing worse than having to use a bad stock photo is seeing the SAME bad stock photo used on a competitor’s site.

  2. For clients, it’s probably a nice touch to see images of people they actually know on the website. If you have a long-standing relationship with a client, they will be able to spot stock photos immediately b/c they know all the people that work at the organization.

  3. The issue with stock photography is that the vast majority of it is bland, characterless, and just cheesy. We all the know the classic “two smiling businessmen shaking hands” cliche of stock images. All our clients are trying to establish a distinct online presence that makes a strong brand statement and truly reflects the personality of their organization. In addition, with trade associations, which make up a large percentage of Matrix clients, their websites/apps are meant to represent a whole INDUSTRY or TRADE. It’s hard to create this kind of unique representation with stock images.

    As Joanna pointed out, we always recommend to clients that they hire a professional photographer, use member photos, or pick images from their Flickr feeds vs. using stock photography. Quite often its more cost-efficient to hire a photographer then pay a license fee for stock imagery, and these photos are far more authentic, and more accurately represent the character of their organization.

  4. Yes! to stock photography. The problem is that people use the universal term stock photography for RF model (practiced by microstocks) only, without knowing that there are others. Licensing photos under RM (Rights managed) eliminates all those issues.

  5. When telling their stories, we always encourage our clients to invest in original assets. Without a doubt, it’s far more powerful than stock. If your organization provides any kind of service that benefits a population—whether it’s your employees, business community, extended community, stakeholders, or the world, you have to show what you’ve done, not just say what you’ve done. That is where stock rings false. The bounty of meaningful and relevant images, from even a half day shoot, is well worth the cost of a location photographer. I’ve hired hundreds of photographers, from all over the country, and you learn how to sort out the ones that get the message—of course, you must be able to articulate the message, otherwise it is a waste. All you need is solid art direction, good editing and, occasionally, some decent industrial light and magic. Believe me, you can get the shots that will tell your story, make you stand out from the crowd of hundreds (thousands?) and truly represent why you—or your client—show up to work everyday.

  6. I echo Joanne’s sentiments but for a different reason. There are so many visual distractions; sharing visual content is now ubiquitous. But it’s the authenticity of the photo or video that gets it re-tweeted, shared on multiple platforms and going viral. People know, and respond to authenticity, and dare I say, vulnerability. Think of some of the videos you’ve re-shared on Facebook or photos you’ve posted that get the biggest response–it is those that show a person or people from the inside out. Even though we communicate through the flat screen, we all crave intimacy at some level. If you can make pictures that are frank, open, and honest, your firm or cause has a much higher likelihood of getting the engagement you desire…and maybe even more attention than you expected.

  7. While custom photography is nearly always preferred, creative firms like us (fixation.com) do rely on stock photography to fill in around the edges…when a photo shoot is just not in budget. BUT I agree that it’s a last resort for a website. A website presents an opportunity–one that didn’t exist until a couple of decades ago–to let people get a glimpse into our world, a virtual tour of sorts. The staff page on our website is by far the most popular. Why? Because it’s a voyeur’s dream, revealing a little bit about each one of us: our passions, how we spend our free time and, of course, what we look like. By the time we meet a prospect, we are rarely strangers. A website with stock photos is a little like buying a picture frame for the living room then leaving the fake photo in it.
    Think custom photo shoots are not in your price range? I’m curious about sites like this one: app.snapwi.re
    that promise crowd-sourced custom photos, presumably at a reasonable cost. Interesting idea. Has anyone tried one yet?

Comments are closed.