There’s no excuse for using bad stock photography

Despite many blog posts espousing the virtues of custom photography, it’s not a sin to use stock photography on your website as long as you make good decisions regarding selection and application. Many service organizations such as financial institutions, consultancies, and tech service companies do not have a product to display or a portfolio of work to showcase but still want to enhance their written content.

This is when stock photography can help. But, like most things, you get the quality that you pay for. Many business owners or marketing VPs don't want the headache of playing art director to spec photography for their websites so they take the path of least resistance towards bad stock photography. In this post I'm going to address three of the biggest excuses and, in the process, provide some good reasons and good resources for quality stock photography.

What’s the big deal? It’s just an image.

Why would using one particular stock image over another make a difference in marketing your services? First impressions. If you were making a personal sales call to a client you would show up in the appropriate business attire, right? How your website looks is judged even before someone reads your content. The images on your website provide a valuable first impression and a bad stock photo could send the wrong message, and trust me, most people know the difference between a bad stock image and a good one.

Which one of these stock photos says "teamwork" and which one looks like some sort of weird corporate seance? Natural lighting, natural placement of people in space, and natural interactions make all the difference between these two examples.

Which one of these stock photos says "teamwork" and which one looks like some sort of weird corporate seance? Natural lighting, natural placement of people in space, and natural interactions make all the difference between these two examples.

Your website’s images are part of the “attract, inform, engage” content metric that produces a successful marketing website. The average amount of time a new visitor spends assessing your home page is about 10 seconds, scanning images, reading headlines, and determining if the content is relevant to their needs. A well-chosen image can convince them to slow down and engage with your written content.

Images should reinforce your written content, so give them the same consideration and time as you spent writing your marketing copy. If you can replace your website's images with gray squares without diminishing the overall impact you should reconsider your image choices.

I don’t have the budget for this.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money for quality stock photography. You can get a great image that will help sell you and your services for about the same price as a week’s worth of Starbucks runs. In fact, there are some quality stock sources that are free (see my list below). 

You may be thinking, “I’ll just grab the image I need from Google.” I understand the temptation to do that and I’ve done it myself when I needed a placeholder image to present an idea to a client. However, most of the images you’ll find on Google (the quality ones, anyway) are protected by copyright because they’re either stock images that someone else purchased or they are part of a professional photographer’s collection. 

Purchasing a license to use this image will cost you the equivalent of three trips to Starbucks. Using this image without purchasing a license may cost you ten times as much in fines. 

Purchasing a license to use this image will cost you the equivalent of three trips to Starbucks. Using this image without purchasing a license may cost you ten times as much in fines. 

Just about every stock photo company will allow you to download a low-resolution “comp” image to use for client approval purposes but don’t forget to replace it with the high-resolution licensed image before you upload it to your website. Using a watermarked comp image in your final presentation shouts to the world, “Hey, I was too cheap to buy this image so I just stole it instead.” A few years ago, I received a $1500 invoice from a stock photo company because I forgot to remove the placeholder stock images from a client mockup. My company used those mockup images on the design services page of their website. The placeholder images were very small (about 100 x 60 pixels) inside of a larger image. Even so, the stock company had been scanning the internet for unlicensed images and my placeholder images showed up in their crosshairs. It was an innocent mistake but a costly lesson.

I can’t find a good stock source.

There are plenty of quality stock photo sources, depending on your needs. Companies like Getty Images and Masterfile cater to a broad audience with thousands of images to select from with great search filters so you can zero in on just the right image. Other stock collections narrow their focus in order to bring you the best quality and largest selection of a single topic. Citizen Stock offers portraits of everyday people, not professional models, against seamless white backgrounds for easy silhouetting. 

Some stock companies have curated collections focused on particular subject matter. Citizen Stock has a great selection of real people, not models, silhouetted on a white background for easy use and placement in layouts.

Some stock companies have curated collections focused on particular subject matter. Citizen Stock has a great selection of real people, not models, silhouetted on a white background for easy use and placement in layouts.

Sometimes an illustration is more appropriate, especially for editorial needs such blog posts and articles. Please don’t be tempted to use the clip art collection that came with your word processing program. Spend a few dollars to purchase the rights to a professional-quality illustration and deliver a strong message through your visual content.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite stock sources. Most of them offer royalty-free (RF) licensing, which is great if you want to purchase an image once and use it just about anywhere.

Masterfile and Getty Images - Both offer an enormous selection of quality stock photos with premium, rights-managed images as well as royalty-free images.

Offset and iStock - Curated collections of high-quality stock photos and illustrations. All royalty-free licensing.

Citizen Stock - Offers portraits of everyday people, not professional models, against seamless white backgrounds for easy silhouetting

Unsplash - Crowd-sourced collection of high-res professional photos. License-free images that you can download and use anywhere. Subscribe to the newsletter to be notified when new images have been added to the collection.

Death to Stock - Non-conventional stock photo resource started and supported by the creative community. A basic subscription will deliver a pack of royalty-free images to your inbox every two weeks. A premium subscription will give you access to the entire collection with unlimited downloads.

Pexels - All images in this collection are in the public domain and free to use under the Creative Commons Zero license.

There’s really no excuse for not using good quality stock photography when crafting your website’s content. The right image can enhance your marketing message, make your organization look professional, and set you apart from your competition (who’s probably still using images they found through a Google search).