Stock photography is a commodity—not art. As such, it receives great criticism from within the design community. Most arguments centre on originality: how can one photo represent the values of one hundred brands? Well, the answer is quite simple—it cannot. But that does not mean stock photography serves no purpose.
The Demand Stock Photography Fills
Stock photography plays into convention. Think about it: who doesn’t expect hero banners on landing pages and featured images on blogs? But buying custom pics for such pages costs a lot of money. Alternatively, snapping pictures with a phone takes too much time and looks rather amateur. It is here stock photos satisfy a demand.
Paradoxically, although a product of convention, stock photography undermines the very reason said conventions exist. For example, featured images should emphasize above-the-fold calls-to-action and break up blocks of text. Functionally, they work to evoke emotion and bolster the message. Yet when selected wantonly, they reduce this potential and waste space.
Grant Epstein from Intechnic.com calls our attention to this point. He describes a situation we’ve all been in before:
“Think about the last time you visited a website and clicked on Customer Service, Contact Us or something similar. Was there a picture of a customer service agent? Did it look like the person actually worked for the company or could you tell right away that it was a generic stock photo? Think about how you would have felt if you had seen a picture of the person who was assisting you. How much better do you think you would feel about that experience if it was?”
A website that falls into this trap boasts a poor user experience. It lacks authenticity and creativity—it actually feels really cheap. This is because stock photography used simply to adhere to convention fails. And here we arrive at the root of the issue: qualms over stock photography have nothing to do with stock photography. Contrarily, it is the selection and context of photos.
Avoiding the Pitfalls of Stock Photography
As with any creative work, photography possesses a vision. The artist who shot the picture framed it for specific reasons. Likewise, you commissioned an agency to design a website with your vision and that rhetoric comes through in the content. When the visual vision juxtaposes the textual, though, the user experience disjoints. So generic customer service pictures are too vague to be of value. They may not contrast, but they do not complement either.
For stock photography to work, always assess it in the following three ways.
As a rule, do not use an image unless it adds to the meaning of the page. If it helps users understand the subject matter, then it’s purposeful. If it attracts a user’s attention, then it segues nicely into another portion of the screen. If it looks pretty but does nothing useful, then cut it.
This principle relates to Edward Tufte’s data-ink ratio: “A large share of ink on a graphic should present data-information.” Weigh the pixels of your site that offer value and those that place-hold; make the gap as wide as possible in favour of utility.
One way to enhance a data-ink is through modification. For instance, we can remove non-essential pieces from the photo through cropping and filtering. We can even superimpose text and other graphics. Essentially, to fit the context of the page, a stock photo often needs tweaking.
The right stock photo should unify the message. If the image does not relate to the content or relates too broadly, then its association with the message weakens.
For instance, let’s judge the following two images based on our own headline, “Do Stock Photos Really Belong in Your Website Redesign?”
The first photo incorporates a whack of generic stock photos. It could fit the post, but it’s super obvious. However, the second image is a little less expected. Although puzzle photos are overused, this one taps into the theme of belonging—pieces that don’t fit. Theming photos leads us into our next point.
Good stock photos make us curious—they stand alone in convincing us to continue reading. This means they must make an impression. Reverting to our example, photo one has zero emotional appeal. Conversely, the puzzle photo conjures images of mashing pieces together as a child. It might also entice us into seeing the finished puzzle—the bigger picture.
Largely, curiosity is memorable. The quickest curiosity killer is an image pre-defined elsewhere. And that’s a big risk when it comes to stock photos. Thus, you must always conduct a reverse image search to see who else uses the photo and how.
ConversionXL.com brings up a comical example of one pervasive photo. A model from the ’90s, Jennifer Anderson, began cropping up all over the net in the 2000s. She appeared on H&R Block and Dell’s websites, plus various e-book covers. She became the face of too many brands that the brands themselves became faceless.
As an aside, there is now a Jennifer Anderson forum where people record sightings of her online…
Where to Find Good Stock Photos
The design agency you choose will hold a subscription to a stock photo service. Nevertheless, you may need to hunt down your own photos for blog posts after launch.
Not every image you see online is free. In fact, using a photograph without permission can land you into a heap of legal trouble. Therefore, stick to a known source of copyright free photos. In particular, I recommend the following four.
The creatives behind Unsplash post photos regularly that are free to use without restriction. All photos are high-resolution and expertly taken. In fact, I sometimes go here for pictures before checking the sources that we pay for.
Death to the Stock Photo delivers new photos via email to their subscribers. Like Unsplash, the intent is to reinvigorate the digital world, staled by cheesy, tasteless stock photos.
Flickr is an excellent source of artsy underground photography of places, things and people. It’s an excellent community to tap into for extra emotional intelligence on your website.
Through paid services, some photos are available only for “editorial use.” As a business, if you need a shot of a city, this stops you from finding a photo. Thankfully, WikiCommons has plenty of geographical photos, along with other historic and product-related pictures.