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The Use And Misuse Of Stock Photography In Websites

A few years ago I was designing a website for an Italian Restaurant. The budget for the website was pretty tight and there didn’t seem to be any funds to hire a photographer to take photos of their dishes so I went about choosing some stock photographs from The photos I choose were good quality and they were the same style and type of food that I knew the restaurant served. I was pretty happy with my selection and put them into the draft of the website to show the client. Was I in for a shock at the response I got from the restaurant owner? To put it mildly, she was appalled at my choice of photos.

Firstly, the photos I had choose showed processed pasta. This restaurant hand-made their pasta from scratch every day and apparently people who know their pasta can tell the difference from fresh and processed pasta in a photo. There were similar problems with other photos I had chosen of pizzas and even the salads. To cut a long story short, she knew her restaurant’s food and I didn’t and these stock photos were not a good representation of the food that they served. The stock photos were not genuine and since the restaurant was genuine about the food that they served, these stock photos could not be used on the site.

From then on I was much more careful when working with stock images for websites and now use them very sparingly and cautiously. One of the biggest problems I find with using them is that they often fail to make a connection with the target customer of the website. Many stock photos are very obviously that and for this reason the customer finds it hard to identify with them and therefore is less likely to trust the company of the website they are looking at and take that next step to becoming a customer. Someone visits your website wanting to know about you, your company and what you can do for them and instead they see is a lot of bought images of people that obviously don’t work there.

If you are going to put a photo of two business people shaking hands up on your website then why not take a photo of YOU shaking the hand of one of your current customers and put this up on your website. This would send a really positive message to your potential customers. People identify with real people not with clichéd stock photos. Don’t be afraid to use your own photos on your website. Go one step further and instead of using photos of yourself posing in front of the camera, use photos that show you doing what you do as part of your business. Then people can see you in action and actually imagine you doing that work for them.

overstockTake this as an example of an over used stock photo. This girl on the left is so popular that I once had a customer specifically request her for his website. He had seen her on another website and wanted her for his. What does this photo say about your company if you were to use it on your website? I think it says you are generic and not very special and that if I call your company I won’t get you on the phone, I will just get some girl in a call centre. Or it could be interpreted as saying that you are not happy with your own company image, as if you were why would you need to put this girl forward as representing your company?

Having said all of that, there will be times when you need to use stock photos. I use them a lot for my own blog but I try to choose wisely. If you must use them, here are some tips:

  1. Choose photos that are not clichéd and could look as if they could have been taken for your company specifically.
  2. The background and setting of a photo and the style of clothes people in the photo are wearing often give hints to the country it was taken in so try to choose one that looks most like it was taken in the country you operate in and mirrors your target customer as much as possible. Mirroring will allow your target customer to identify with your company and will make them more likely to contact you or purchase your product or service.
  3. Keep them consistent with each other and with the brand of your company and overall style of your website.
  4. If you have the budget, hire a photographer and have your own collection of stock photos that relate specifically to your business and have subject matter that your audience can identify with.

Most people don’t read very much text on websites so the photos you choose really matter. What’s your experience?

Social Media and Content Specialist at Sage Ireland.

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  • Hi Beatrice, great piece and great advice! I am certainly guilty of some of the sins above. I love your advice around taking a photo of you. I would also extend this advice to cover video. Video is accessible, can be produced inexpensively and to a high standard by anyone. Businesses don’t have to produce TV advertising standard stuff or Oscar performances, but customers will love to see and hear the about the people behind the business and it’s a really effective way to stand out.

  • Good one Beatrice. I guess the very problem starts with certain type of customers that don’t even see the value in a good website or simply having one. Many still think/treat it as a brochure hanging online. From that perspective, it’s tough for this segment to see the value on quality images and therefore hiring a photographer. If they did understand it just a bit, I bet they would hire one and that piece of the budget would appear magically 🙂

  • Facundo

    Good points Beatrice. Those that can give a photoshoot a go will find it very rewarding and also value for money. We did a Team photoshoot about a year and a half ago, out of which we got several pics (only took an hour or so). We are still able to use those pics in our website and other collateral today and for the good or bad, together with our videos, people feel they know us before they meet us.

  • Beatrice

    Hi Niall,nTotally agree about the video and I am seeing a lot more websites using videos like that. What is funny is that some website owners that go to the trouble of making a video still use stock photos on the same page as the video – why oh why?

  • Beatrice

    Thanks Facundo,nnYes and it really is not as expensive to hire a photographer as most people think.

  • Beatrice

    Thanks Facundo,nnYes and it really is not as expensive to hire a photographer as most people think.

  • Beatrice

    Hi Fred,nDon’t I know that customer type only too well. Even a great web designer can only achieve so much if they don’t have the effort and backing of a customer that sees the importance of a good site and is willing to put some funds into the project for things like photography and good branding.

  • Hi Beatrice (and waving at you from the Curragh)nnI love your post, it is so fresh and funny (because it is true!) nnThis is a topic quite close to my heart as I really do not like the use of stock photos and to be more precise, I do not like the use of stock photos for people. Years ago, I was a management consultant in charge of the communications team and working on a change programme affecting 60k employees; one day, I was reviewing posters (it was a culture programme) and the messages were great, the design and layout were great but and to use your expression, why of why, did the designers use “fake” people for the pics. The reason why I mentioned the number of employees above is that 60k, is a lot of people to choose from 😉 To cut the story short, we did end up using “real employees” and the communication campaign was a real hit, the rapport and connection factors were brilliant.nnTo expand, from pictures and move onto video, there is a chain of DIY stores, over here and they are actually using employees of the month for their in-house posters and even on their TV ads — I think that is brilliant; and a great win/win, a win for the company as they do not have actor fees and a win for the chosen employees, who surely must be very flattered to be publically recognised for their outstanding work, and it also allows the company to tie in these activities as part of their recognition achievement programme. Also, I was in Orlando, FL, last month for some meetings and we went on a Walt Disney Business Behind the Scenes tour and there were using very similar strategies; all in-house pictures used “cast” only captures (that’s how WD wanted to refer to his staff).nnHaving said, I do think it can work, and you give great advice on how to pick the pics; personally, when people are involved my preference is for the use of real photos and the use of their face; this is particularly applicable with my market as I work with entrepreneurs and business owners. Like Bob Burg said “people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust” and a real photo (and a video to echo Fred’s comment) will tremendously help with that. (On a personal note, a funny anecdote, my husband is a photographer and he takes all of my pictures and at the beginning, I was using a “posed” picture of me on some of my pages and people thought it was stock photo 😉 ahahannTalking about business owners, the primary objection I get, which can be understandable is when their long-term vision is to sell their business, then they don’t want to attach themselves too much and tend not to want to use their face as part of their branding and positioning efforts. I don’t have this problem as it is very clear to me that in my business, my clients are working with me because of me and even though, at the beginning, I was shy (yes!), I am now fully recognising that my best brand is me, and it also suits my personal development niche.nnWow, you see Beatrice, I don’t think I’ve ever written such a long comment, you got me going!nFrederique

  • Beatrice

    Hi Frederique,nnBig wave back to you and thanks for the comment :)nI can see what you mean about why some business owners really don’t want to use their own photos. Checked out your site and the photos of you are great.

  • Another great post Beatrice. I do use stock photos, I do however choose them carefully, I used not do when I first started blogging, they do have to portray the message you are putting into words too. I used not like having my photo up anywhere and up to recently I would not have considered asking a client to let me use them in a photo due to the nature of the work I was concentrating it. In that particular niche I still wouldn’t, however in all other areas I think it’s a great idea.nnAs to video, I’m still not a fan of it….yet.

  • Lorna

    Great post, and the same probably goes for using videos on sites too – great if businesses can use their own videos.nJust reading thru the comments made me think of those Halifax ads where real members of staff were used and they were a really popular advert.

  • We agree Beatrice! There’s nothing like putting what you think is a great image on your website, only to see the same picture advertising a competitor or something you don’t necessarily want your company associated with. At our company, we use staff members and take our own photos. It’s not professional photography, but it’s real. And it’s exciting for staff to see their face in “print.”

  • Ageorgi

    We just started testing using our own employees in photos, instead of stock photos. (You can see the first sample on our home page: We are planning on launching our new website this summer, and hope to use our own photos almost exclusively. It has definitely been an adjustment getting others in the organization (outside of marketing) on board with this idea, so hopefully this article will help convince everyone!

  • Hi folks, will be great to see and surely encourage others to follow suit. It’s great to see organisations buy in to, and sell the message to customers how much they value their team. I for one, want to see the people behind the business represented, and including them in your web photos is a great way to do so. Let us know when the new site is launched & well done, Niall

  • Well done, I think that’s brilliant; as I said in my below comment, I really do believe in the value of using real people and from an organisation’s point of view, the advantages are fantastic, so it is such a win/win/win! Out of curiosity, what were the objections raised by “the others in the organization”?

  • Hi Ageorgi,nThat is great, I think the photos of your own emplyees will work especially well in the support section of your site as real people seem a lot more approachable than ‘stock’ people.

  • Thanks Mairead,nnI’m still trying to come on board with video too. It seems to be what people want, or at least what businesses want to put on their websites as I am getting more and more clients asking me about videos. I think what put me off is that when I first saw video on some websites they were quite bad examples and so this has stuck with me. One area where I love videos is on the demo or tutorial sections of websites. I really like videos that explain how something works or show me how to do something. I’m not as much of a fan of videos that are just people talking to camera about their business.

  • Thanks Lorna,nIt worked exceptionally well for Halifax as they wanted to be seen as not like traditional ‘bankers’ but regular people, and so it went well with their ‘back off you banker’ line. Some insurance companies are taking a similar route with their campaigns but I hope its not just a fad.

  • I think you’ve just hit the nail on the head for me too Beatrice. I hate those videos where someone is introducing themselves and their business it (to me) comes across as trying to “sell” something and I too love the one’s where they are actively demonstrating/training in them. Fred does some really good ones. I also like the ones where you can see a thumbnail of the person who is doing the training in the bottom right hand corner, or it switches between slides to themselves and back again.nnI really hate those “walk in and introduce myself” pop up videos which start almost as soon as you land on the home page that don’t have the control panel displayed so you can switch it off. I bounce right back out of those sites.

  • Well done folks 🙂

  • Interesting article Beatrice, I use stock photos a lot – but tend to find quirky ones, that don’t immediately resonate with my message, but the idea is to spark a thought process of some kind.nI have used a couple of my own pics, esp of wildlife and scenery pics, that were in abundance over the past few months here with the weather.nBut you have really brought home the message to me about people wanting to connect with the person. It’s quite funny really, when I created the Seefin website, the only decent pic I had was a wedding photo – I still haven’t replaced it 12 months later, as I had intended to, but at least it is me :)nnGreat read, thanks

  • Dan Padavona

    The problem is you often get what you pay for when purchasing stock photos from a bargain basement site such as iStockphoto. And you also get what you “don’t pay for” when you shoot the images yourself. Unless you know about lighting, composition, and have adequate camera expertise, your photos are going to be less than optimal and will present your business in a negative light.nnSo what to do?nnI advocate shopping around for a proper stock photographer. Find an independent photographer (not an agency) who specializes in the work you require. For instance a food photographer specialist would have given you far better food pictures in the above example than could have iStockphoto. Sure you will pay more, but you will get what you pay for. Your restaurant would have been happy.nnThe other option is to actually hire a photographer. This will most likely be your most expensive option, but you will get the best results as you can customize everything. If someone offers their service for very cheap, you should probably run in the other direction, lol. Photography is a difficult art to master, the equipment and lighting is very expensive to purchase, and good work does not come cheaply.

  • Steve

    Beatrice,nI have avoiding using stock photography for just the reasons you mentioned. I have seen so many of them used over and over that it takes away from the article that uses them.nWhile I don’t take my own photos, I do try to find more obscure ones so as not to be duplicated.

  • +1 for Dan. Like any other service (plumbing, electric, web design) you can find cheap replacements or DIY. But when I am in over my head with the sink at home, I call a plumber. nYou get what you pay for and with photography the market is coming back. A good photographer can offer visions that work, or can listen to your vision and either make it happen, or explain why it cannot. Good photographers are like good lawyers,…they make the client money. nnYes I am a photographer http://www.glennimagesonline.comn

  • I also have been quietly amused at all the super cheap photography that has been going on these days. Ask yourself this,…have you gotten any super cheap photography 3 years ago or more???nHow many of those folks are still in business? few to none, this is why they are not a real threat.

  • Asuka Ayanami

    Nice article!

  • Thanks Niall. I know Samantha to be a true professional and very hard worker. I think that is very important to making a company successful too

  • Thanks Anita. It seems to be working well for Samantha. Plus just heard that an Irish Sunday newspaper saw this and have contacted her for an interview too – happy days 🙂

  • Elish Bul-Godley

    Greetings Bamidele & Welcome to the blog group. That was a very useful post which touched on issues and the ” type of post” we have all been observing and discussing for some time here. I especially like the point you made distinguishing resource posts from tips and the whole tips list thing has been an over-saturated part of the business blog sphere and it is becoming apparent the content is getting more pithy and dilute.

  • Bamidele Onibalusi

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  • Bamidele Onibalusi

    I’m glad you agreed on the speed issue; sometimes, “little” changes like that could have a lot of impact.

  • Bamidele Onibalusi

    You’re welcome, Elish!

    You’re right, it’s easier to confuse list posts with resources posts but there’s a huge difference between them. Every resource post I’ve ever published on any of my blogs have resulted in significantly more traffic than other posts, especially on the long-term.

  • Bamidele Onibalusi

    Thanks for hosting me, Niall! It’s a pleasure contributing to Tweak Your Biz 🙂

    I’m also glad that you agree with my points based on your own experience. Proof that this actually works. Thanks!

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