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  • Ed Skwarecki

Should I Really Be Using Stock Photos On My Website?

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

The answer is not as clear-cut as you might think. There are a number of things to consider.

Stock photography has developed somewhat of a bad reputation in the world of website design.  The meme of “women laughing alone eating salad” is a case in point.  Shutterstock has over 149,000 images of a woman eating a salad. If you google “woman eating salad” you get 78 million hits.  Stock photography can be cheesy, fake, and repetitive.

The Origins of Stock Photography

The term “stock photography” dates back to the 1920’s.  Because of technological improvements in printing processes,  newspapers increasingly wanted to use photos to make their articles more engaging and interesting than just the text and line-art common in earlier newspapers of the late 1800s.  But hiring a photographer to do a custom photo shoot, and ensuring that all the people in the photo had signed model releases to consent to have their image printed in a widely circulating newspaper was time consuming and expensive.   Enter stock photos.  Independent photographers would take generic but high quality photos of particular subjects ahead of time and license them for a fee to newspapers who wanted to use them in articles related to that subject.

According to Wikipedia, one of the first such stock images was “Group in Front of Tri-Motor Airplane” taken by H. Robert Armstrong around 1920.    You can still license this exact image today over at Getty.   For several hundred dollars.    So if I wanted to legally use a copy of that image in this blog post, without the risk of getting sued by Getty, I would have to pay their asking price of $450 dollars.   Which, for this particular free blog, I can’t afford to do.  (Sorry).  But you can click the link above to see it.

Traditionally, large magazines and newspapers, or billboard advertisers who are making a lot of money, can afford to buy the rights (sometimes exclusively) to use a particularly unique or high quality image.   However, in the digital age, the economics of this have changed.  There are millions of small-to-medium-sized-website owners that want to have attractive photos but can only afford a few dollars per image.  There is always the option of hiring a photographer to do a custom photo shoot, but that too is often outside the budget of many website creators.   Instead website developers can buy (technically “license”) an image from one of the many online “micro-stock” sites for very reasonable prices, often just $2-$10 per image.  These companies sell in high volume for low prices to cater to exactly this market, splitting the revenue with the photographers who submitted the photos.   According to Datanyze, the market-leading micro-stock vendors are Shutterstock, iStock by Getty Images, Unsplash, and Adobe Stock.

Why can’t I just do a google search to get some free images to use on my website?

Well, you could…  But typically if you copy and paste an image from some arbitrary site on the internet, you won’t necessarily have the rights to legally use it.   And the owner who does have the rights to it can sue you.    Will they?  Maybe not.  But do you really want to risk that just to save a few bucks?     You could try to track down the copyright holder and get the legal rights to use it, and there are smaller companies like Catch & Release Photos that will try to help you do just that, but that can be time-consuming process.   Unsplash lets you use images from their website for free, but encourages attribution via a link back to the photographer.

Besides cost, what are the benefits of using stock photography?

Not all stock photos are dull and boring.   They are usually visually quite good, with excellent lighting, composition, focus, etc..   Micro-stock vendors have people that are paid to look at every single image that is submitted to the site from photographers and will accept or reject those images based on certain quality and interestingness criteria.  And any photos with recognizable people must have legal model releases from the photographer.   With most stock photos from the top agencies, you know you are getting legal images that at least superficially will look good.

The top websites literally have hundreds of millions of images to pick from, with images of almost any subject you can think of.  For example, if you want a picture of a llama you can go to, say,  Shutterstock or Adobe Stock and search for ‘llamas’ and you will find over 40,000 high-quality photos of llamas to choose from that you can license.   That’s a llot of llamas.

How can I find stock photos that don’t suck?

The problem with stock photos is that they often look too good.   Your website visitors can instantly tell that an image is a stock photo.    Users are looking for interestingness and authenticity, not the ubiquitous “happy workers in business suits” photos.

But good stock photos do exist.  Consider the following stock photo, licensed from Adobe Stock.

Source: Adobe Stock

It is not only visually striking, but it is taken from a somewhat unique angle.  Imagine using this picture on your vacation rental website.    The excellent photographer Gray Malin, for example, prominently features a similar sort of aerial beach imagery and sells trendy products with those photos on them.  This style still has a bit of novelty and visual appeal that sets it apart from more standard, tired stock photography.  No doubt, with the ever-growing number of inexpensive photography drones, these sorts of photos will become more common and less unique and less captivating over time. Consumer trends change rapidly.  Take a look at some of today’s top popular websites and see, generally, what sorts of imagery they are using.

And don’t be afraid of modifying the image a bit to make it more interesting. Although this amusing commercial by Jeep uses stock video  rather than stock photos the principle is the same.   Augment the photo or video with tongue-in-cheek additions, like Jeep did with the animals howling, or clever captions.  Your audience and you will be “in on” the same humor.  And intersperse the stock elements with actual pictures of your business or product.

As another example, take the following stock photo, that you could use on a dating or matchmaking website.

Source: Adobe Stock

It is whimsical, creative, and well-photographed.    And notably there is a lot of blank space on the left where you can add your own text or ad copy.  Stock photo sites let you search by a variety of criteria, including predominant color, space for ad copy, and presence or absence of people.   And the top sites also have sections of a small number of editor-curated picks that represent particularly striking and more modern subject material and styles.

Can your viewers tell that this is a stock photo?  Of course they can, in a matter of milliseconds.  But these photos are more likely to engage users emotionally than tired old imagery.

Rule of thumb:

If you can imagine that the image could appear proudly in a photographer’s gallery opening, then it may be a good choice to use. 

So should I just spread stock images around my website like peanut butter?

No.  Well, not unless you really like peanut butter.  Stock images, sparingly placed can liven up a website, give it visual appeal and enhance your brand.  But you should also include genuine photos of your business, the products and services you provide, and the people that work there…candid photos of your staff doing what they do best. 

 Although try to avoid the awkward “family group photo” of your employees stiffly standing in front of your business’s front door, like you often see in ads in local newspapers.   Given the high quality of today’s smartphones, a few pictures you snap on your phone could look great, without a lot of time or money investment.

Isn’t this what I’m paying my web designer to do?

Your web designer can help guide you but you should be an educated consumer and know what questions to ask.  Moreover, your end result should reflect your brand, and no one knows your business better than you do.  You need to give some thought upfront to the theme and branding of your website.   You will get a much better result if you first find imagery that reflects the subject and mood of what you are trying to convey.  Don’t just search for some random pretty stock imagery and build your website around that just because it looks slick.

I know a woman who owns a hair salon.  She wanted to get some advertising imagery and a logo.   I gave her the name of an experienced logo designer I had worked with in the past.   She contacted him and asked him for a design.  What he came back with was a stuffy drawing of a coiffured-style woman.  The salon owner was not pleased.  She ended up googling some retro-style photos of haircutting scissors and using those (without verifying license) and calling it a day because she was under a deadline and ran out of time.   If she had first done a little googling and given the designer the google photo as a starting point to convey the idea of a vintage salon that she was going for, she likely would have had a better (and more legal) outcome.

Stock websites also let you download preview versions of corresponding high-res images for free.  These versions typically also have a watermark with the name of the micro-stock site embossed in the photo.   But if you end up using the image, don’t forget to license the real, non-watermarked version.   I’ve personally seen a case where a consumer food product used a preview image, complete with watermark, on their retail packaging.   Don’t be that person that gets the angry call when someone finds out.

What are some of the pitfalls of using stock photography?

Unless carefully chosen, your stock photos may bore or alienate your users more than engage them.  But there is another downside to using high-resolution, beautiful stock imagery.

Imagine that you’ve just paid $5 for that perfect stock photo that relates to your business.  You want to use it in all of its glorious high resolution detail.  You preview it on your big monitor and it looks striking.  So you add it to your website at full resolution.  Whoops, you’ve likely just slowed the loading time of your website a lot.    Why does that matter?  For every one second delay in site load time, conversions fall by 12% (Google, 2018).   Your users will just give up and go somewhere else before they can even see your cool photo.

It is even more challenging when it comes to users on mobile phones who are visiting your website.  Mobile users today make up about 50% of website visitors.  And phones user are typically on slower networks and have smaller screens.   The details in a high resolution image are literally invisible on smaller screens without a lot of pinch-and-zoom.    High resolution images, unless sized carefully, can waste user’s time and network bandwidth for no gain.

There are lots of ways to mitigate these performance problems.   Some of the terms for these sorts of optimizations include

  1. Lazy Loading.  Only loading the image when the user scrolls to them.

  2. Responsive Design.  Using different images or different placements on small devices (or eliminating some entirely), when your user is viewing your website on a phone or tablet.

  3. Image scaling. Dynamically resizing the image to be the dimensions of the screen it is being used in, or the current width of the browser window.

  4. Image compression.  Converting an image into a different electronic format that preserves almost all the detail but uses less space and network bandwidth.  Webp is a modern, high performance compression format targeted for browser delivery.  However, most stock sites will license photos only as .jpg images which is usually not as efficient as the webp format.  You need to use a program to convert jpeg’s to webp.

These sort of technical optimizations are something your web developer should be aware of and able to help you with.    There are a lot of things which can cause a website to be slow, so even if your images are well optimized there maybe other non-image-related things making your site slow.  But one thing is almost certain: if your mobile user is downloading 6MB hero images on your website, their experience is not optimal.   And note that performance is something you need to consider when using any photos, not just stock imagery.  It often tends to be worse with stock photography, though, because the glorious photographic details in professional stock photos are tempting to want to show to users at full resolution.

No one is expecting you to have an expert-level grasp of  ins and outs of the technical details of image performance optimization.  But you should generally understand the concepts and ask your developer what strategies they will be using to make sure your users have the best possible experience with the images on your website.

Best Practices

So should you use stock photography on your website?  Probably, particularly for icons and symbols.  Well chosen stock photos can enhance your website’s appeal and better promote your business.  But be careful of some of the pitfalls and try using some of the following best practices:

  1. Start with your brand first and find imagery to match it.

  2. Gather some free images, through google or previews on micro-stock websites, of the general theme of what you are going for, but be prepared to iterate on the choices with your web designer before settling on which ones to actually license and include on your website.

  3. Make sure your website designer spells out whether the cost of licensing the stock imagery is included in their fee or if it is a separate add-on charge.

  4. Use curated editor’s pick collections on the stock websites for inspiration.

  5. Try to pick stock images that are concrete, visually dynamic, and taken from unique angles.  Something that would be difficult for you to just go outside and snap with your phone.

  6. Don’t hesitate to make modifications to stock images, such as adding captions or creating image collages.

  7. Be authentic.  Don’t try to pass off a stock image as real.  Be “in on it” with your audience.

  8. Use stock imagery sparingly.  Intersperse it with real images of your business, products, services, and staff.

  9. Keep mobile users in mind and if necessary use separate images or sizing for phone users.

  10. Be careful not to slow your website down by using lots of images or by not optimizing how they load.

What do you think?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.   Do you see a place for stock photography on your website?  What sorts of approaches do you use to avoid the “laughing woman eating salad” syndrome?

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