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Stock Photo Dos and Don’ts

Mike Schertenlieb

It all seems so easy – do a quick search through any of the zillion stock photo sites on the internet, find an image that fits your blog or company, upload to your site, and call it a day… But what are your stock photo choices saying about your company or service?

We’ve all seen those bland photos of people shaking hands over a desk, perfectly costumed in corporate attire, or a smiling young woman on a laptop displaying nondescript business graphs… And while we mean no offense to the models and photographers who create these images, they don’t do much to show personality or build trust between a business and a potential client. Instead, they make company websites and social media posts look just like everyone else’s – which might as well make them invisible.

On the other hand, many businesses (especially the small ones) don’t have the time or budget to hire professional photographers, curate their own images, and build out their websites and social media accounts with 100% original photos.

So, where’s the middle ground between impersonal stock photos that might dissuade potential customers and totally original, self-made images? Fortunately, the right stock photos, used the right way, are wonderful for websites and marketing materials – but there are some important things to know before you start selecting images.

With that in mind, we’ve put together these stock photo “Dos and Don’ts” to help you make more informed choices.

Do #1 – Know the Clichés

The biggest problem with stock images is that they can be disruptive. If they don’t match the look and feel of your brand, have been seen by your site visitor in other places, or the worst, are part of a cliché or joke, they take a potential client right out of the experience. In fact, some varieties of stock photo have been fully “memed” – as illustrated by this category on Know Your Meme.

If you know the clichés, you’ll know how to avoid them… And by doing so, avoid the disrupting effects of bad, overused, and “joke” stock photos.

Do #2 – Make Edits

Depending on the licensing (you can find everything you need to know here), you can actually edit and make changes to the images you purchase! With royalty free/licensed for modification images, you don’t have to just leave them as is!

That means that stock photos can be a starting point, not the final results. Add overlays, filters, logos, and anything else that will help make them more personalized. Depending on your Photoshop skills, stock images can simply be ingredients of a wholly new creation!

Do #3 – Consider Your Company’s Voice

Even unique, non-cliché images can dissuade potential clients and customers if they don’t align with your companies overall voice and aesthetic. Whenever you’re selecting images for your website, social media posts, blogs, and so on, remember that a cohesive look and feel helps build trust and give people a strong sense of your values.

If your whole vibe is relaxed, friendly, and a casual, photos of businessmen in multi-thousand dollar suits don’t really make sense. If your brand is elegant and chic, you probably don’t want pictures of kids playing in the dirt or people wearing sweatpants. Only you can truly know the voice you want to put out into the world, but it’s important to keep in mind across the images you use, the language you use, and everything else you present to the world at large.

Do #4 – Use Your Own Photos

Whenever possible, original photography is going to send a better message. The photos need to be good, of course, so it’s worth taking the time to get things right – but even if you can’t hire a professional, you can still take decent pictures with a smartphone. Maybe iPhone photos aren’t ideal for your website, but they’ll usually suffice for social media posts. For employee headshots, products, and so on, you’ll likely still want a pro to do the work, but set a budget and ask around – you might already know someone perfect for the job!

The point is to be personal and authentic. Real photos of you, your people, and the products/services you provide are always going to do that better than a stock image.

Don’t #1 – Settle for “Good Enough”

There are LOTS of stock photos out there. From Google’s royalty free search results to services like Shutterstock, all the way to sites like Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay, and even more licensed for use around Flickr and other image hosting sites… Your choices are all but endless. This can be a bit overwhelming, but it’s important to resist the urge to just choose the first image that loosely meets your needs.

Not only do you run the risk of selecting from the same “top results” as everyone else, you’re also neglecting the pages and pages of results that may serve your needs far better. You don’t have to scour every site to the very last image, but put a little extra time into your searches to find a unique stock image that fits your exact purposes – not one that’s just “good enough.”

Don’t #2 – Ignore Licensing Information

Image licensing can be a bit confusing. Instead of trying to unpack the whole thing, here is another good resource for how licensing works. Whatever option you go with, make sure you know exactly what you’re purchasing (or agreeing to if the image is free). You probably won’t get sued, but the more you know about stock photo licensing, the more likely you’ll be to avoid potential problems – it’s as simple as that.

Don’t #3 – Use Too Many Stock Photos

This one’s open to interpretation, but as a general rule of thumb, only use as many stock photos as you need… And maybe use a few less than that. It comes back to that idea of disruption: images help a site visitor know what your company is about, but too many can take them out of the experience and present your business as generic and fake.

There’s no exact right number, and every organization’s needs are going to be different, but take an honest inventory of how many stock images you’re using on your site, in ads, around social media, and so on. If you’re showing generic images far more than your company’s actual personality, you might be turning people off from doing business with you.

Don’t #4 – Use Fake People

One of the WORST offense in stock photo taboos is using third-party images as the faces of your staff and clients. Whether that’s on company profile pages, livechat avatars, or anywhere else… It’s just plain tacky. A quick reverse image search will let any curious person know that you’re not presenting your real employees or customers, and that can immediately call into question what else you might be less-than-honest about.

If your staff members don’t want their real photos on the company site or in social media, it’s better to omit them entirely than use someone else’s (read: a stock photo model) image in their place. Little comes off as more inauthentic than a “staff photo” or “happy customer” that isn’t actually either of those things. Don’t do it.

Stock photos, graphics, illustrations, and the like definitely serve a purpose. They’re a great way to convey an idea without hiring a professional photographer, and they help support the creative people that make them… But like anything else, they also have plenty of pitfalls. Keep these “dos and don’ts” in mind as you choose images for any endeavor, and remember that good business is built on trust first.

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