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

Stock photos are everywhere.

It’s easy to click around and find a bevy of royalty-free photos online, and if that doesn’t work, it’s even easier to pay a small fee to use a professional photo on your website. This is great, right? Well, the latest from visual content experts is—not so much.

As it turns out, cheesy stock photos can be a huge turnoff to your readers because they’re impersonal. Simply put, most stock photos don’t do a good job on their own of representing your brand.

Related Article: Top Free Resources for Creating Images and GIFs

woman laughing alone with salad

Why the Internet Hates Bad Stock Images

Stock images have such a reputation there’s even a Know Your Meme page dedicated to stock photo clichés. This page details some of the most bizarre standouts of the internet’s multifaceted stock image repository.

It all began at the kickoff of 2011. On January 3, the Hairpin featured an image set entitled “Women Laughing Alone With Salad.” The post went viral without any written context, which just goes to show how many words a picture truly is worth.

The humor this image series elicits is based in eccentricity and the questions it raises. Why are there so many seemingly arbitrary images of ladies guffawing as they eat their salads? Where did they come from? Why are they so happy? Are their salads that delicious?

After the stock photo stint on the Hairpin, the Huffington Post ran a series entitled “This Week in Ridiculous Stock Photos.” The archives from this series include categories like Business People Using Megaphones, Distracted People Chopping Vegetables, Women Ignored By Men Over Tech Gadgets, and a myriad of others.

Okay, so in this case, maybe “hate” is the wrong word. Online connoisseurs don’t dislike stock photos, so much as they don’t take them seriously. The widespread appreciation of these images is based entirely in irony, especially among millennials. So if you’re trying to establish an online brand with a refined, elegant aesthetic, goofy stock photos aren’t going to get you there.

college girl

Why Good Visual Content Matters

Visuals are driving content creation these days, and there’s a reason for it. A Hubspot aggregation of statistics offers the following insights:

  • The human brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than textual information
  • Optimizing an article with visual elements will have an average of 37 percent more engagement
  • Press releases with photos will generate around 14 percent more views than those without photos.

With the conversion power of visual content, it’s easy to understand why website designers default to stock photos. They’re inexpensive, easy to find, and imminently recognizable. So what’s the issue?

Because stock photos are so recognizable, they’re overused. 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 Bus Lines, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and countless others.

While stock photos are more varied now than they were in the ’90s, any random image you choose from a source like iStockPhoto or Shutterstock is bound to come up on thousands of other websites. A reverse image search service like TinEye will prove it.

Here’s a scary example. The first search result for “freedom” on Shutterstock is this “Free Happy Woman Enjoying Nature.” When you plug the same image into TinEye, it comes up more than 20,000 times on other websites—not the best way to represent your brand’s individuality.

bad stock image

Bad Stock Images and Your Bottom Line

A website is one of the most important conversion tools your business has, and cheesy stock photos will only hinder the cause. According to a web design analysis from Marcel Digital, bad stock imagery isn’t just generic and cheesy; it’s also driving people away.

Stock images are anything but friendly and inviting. Customers don’t want to be talked at; they want to learn about why and how your business can meet their needs. Stock photos are too salesy.

As a metaphor, consider what happens when you call a customer service line. In one scenario, a human being politely answers the phone and helps you solve a problem. In another scenario, you hear a pre-recorded voice and have to slog through the process of dialling a series of numbers to reach that same representative.

Wouldn’t you prefer the first option?

What You Can Do Instead

Humans rely on other humans to meet their needs, and much like an automated customer service recording, stock photos are impersonal and uninviting. Nobody wants to talk to a wall. Fortunately, there are a few ways to solve this problem.

Related Article: Cheap Marketing Cheat Sheet: 7 Affordable Tools for Every Digital Entrepreneur

fashion shot

Choose Better Stock Imagery

You don’t have to rely on iStockphoto or Shutterstock—and, in fact, you probably shouldn’t. Consider using a different stock image site, like one of the ones listed by Creative Boom. These have a more modern, artistic feel, and many images archived on these sites are free for anyone to use.

Wherever you search for images, Buffer recommends using specific terms that have to do with the image you have in mind—rather than the abstract concept or blog topic that image is supposed to represent.

For example, if you want a stock image to represent “social media,” search for an image of a keyboard, computer, laptop or mobile device. People connect much more readily with concrete images than with abstractions.

artful photo edits

Make Artful Edits

Using stock photography doesn’t preclude you from using Photoshop or other editing software to make the images your own. Before you begin, always ensure you have the rights to doctor your chosen image.

Then, you can overlay text or graphics, or make tonal edits using filters. Feel free to crop the image or reposition different elements to drive home your point. 

coffee cup landscape

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. Remember the phone call metaphor? A customer service robot is to a stock photo as a human representative is to a genuine employee photograph.

Take a look at a Marketing Experiments study, which compared conversions from a stock image to conversions from a photo of a company founder. Almost 35 percent more visitors signed up when they could connect to a real person.

Final Thoughts

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

When using stock photography, always tread with care. When in doubt, hire a photographer. You’ll probably be glad you did.

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