How to use stock photos for your business


It’s easy to click through and find tons of royalty-free photos online, and if that doesn’t work, it’s also easy to pay a small fee to use a professional photo on your website. It’s great, right? Not so much, according to the latest insights from visual content experts.

Turns out, cheesy stock photos can be a huge turn off for your readers because they’re so impersonal. Simply put, most stock photos alone aren’t enough to represent your brand.

What are stock photos?

A stock photo is an image – or other visual content – that users can license for creative or commercial use. Their main appeal is that instead of hiring a photographer to create original content when you need an image for commercial purposes, you can simply find a suitable image on a stock photography site and then license it. and use it.

How do stock photos work?

In stock photography, the artist uploads a photo – or other visual content, such as illustrations, video clips, or vector files – that they have taken, edited, and finalized for creative use elsewhere, typically submitting to a stock photo agency that shares licensing revenue with the photographer. In other words, stock photos give users the images they need — often without attribution requirements — and photographers an easier way to earn money for their work.

What kind of stock photos do buyers buy?

In stock photography, the most common purchases by buyers include images of people, animals, food, and travel destinations. The stock photos that buyers buy fall into three main categories:

  • Royalty-free image: When you buy a royalty-free image from a stock photo site, you can use it as many times as you want after you buy the license. Royalty-free images do not have the right to exclusivity, while other categories of stock images may have this right.
  • Rights-managed image: For competitive reasons, the buyer may require terms in their stock image license that prohibit other entities from using the same stock image. Rights-managed images can have a fluctuating market value depending on their size, exclusivity rights and usage.
  • Public domain: This category includes free photos that you can use without buying a license. The free images that make up this category have no usage limits and generally do not require attribution.

What can stock photos be used for?

Stock photos for commercial use may be placed on websites and in marketing materials and editorial work – in fact, some stock photos may be used only for editorial purposes. The only real limitation is that they cannot be used in material related to illegal or morally sensitive areas, nor can they be resold or distributed.

How much do stock photos cost?

Outside of free stock photos, you’ll have to pay to use stock photos, and most stock photo sites charge less per image if you buy a subscription for a large number of photos. For example, iStock plans start at $12 per image and decrease to $8 per image as your plan size increases. Stock photo experts cite iStock, Shutterstock, and Adobe Stock as the most affordable stock photo sites.

What are the pros and cons of stock photos?

Part of knowing what stock photos are is understanding their pros and cons. Here are some of the benefits of using stock photos:

  • You can save time and money by hiring a photographer.
  • They are versatile enough for many uses.
  • They are easily modified to meet your business needs.
  • Subscription sites give you access to various high-quality images.

Here are some potential downsides:

  • You may unintentionally violate the license.
  • The aesthetic may be too obviously intended for broad use and seem inauthentic to your target audience.
  • The same images you use may appear in documents from other companies.

You can read more about the potential pros and cons of stock images below. [Read related article: How to Compress Photos]

Why People Don’t Like Bad Stock Photos

Stock images have such a reputation that there’s even a Know Your Meme page dedicated to stock photo snaps. This page details some of the weirder features of the internet’s multi-faceted image repository.

It all started at the kickoff of 2011. On January 3, The Hairpin presented a series of images called “Women Laughing Alone With Salad”. The post went viral without any written context, which just shows how many words a picture is really worth.

The humor evoked by this series of images is based on eccentricity and the questions it raises. Why are there so many seemingly arbitrary images of ladies laughing while eating their salads? Where do they come from? Why are they so happy? Are their salads so delicious?

After the photo relay on The Hairpin, the Huffington Post published a series called “This Week in Ridiculous Stock Photos”. Archives for this series include “Business People Using Megaphones”, “Distracted People Cutting Vegetables”, and “Women Ignored By Men Above Tech Gadgets”.

Online geeks don’t hate stock photos so much as they don’t take them seriously. The widespread appreciation of these images is entirely based on irony, especially among millennials. So if you’re trying to establish an online brand with a polished, sleek aesthetic, goofy stock photos aren’t going to get you there.


Why good visual content is important

Visuals drive content creation these days, and there’s a reason for that. A HubSpot stats aggregation offers the following insights:

  • The human brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than it processes text information.
  • Optimizing an article with visuals gives it an average of 37% more engagement.
  • Press releases with photos generate about 14% more views than those without photos.

With the conversion power of visual content, it’s easy to see why web designers default to stock photos. They are inexpensive, easy to find and instantly recognizable. So what’s the problem ?

Because stock photos are so recognizable, they are overused. Consider the case of Jennifer Anderson, the Internet’s “Everywhere Girl”. She posed for a photo shoot in 1996, and her face was later printed by some of the world’s biggest brands, including Microsoft, the BBC, Greyhound Lines, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

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

Here is a scary example. The first search result for “freedom” on Shutterstock is this “free and happy woman enjoying nature.” When you plug the same image into TinEye, it pops up over 20,000 times on other websites – not the best way to represent your brand’s individuality.

bad stock image

How Bad Stock Photos Affect Your Bottom Line

Your 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 by Marcel Digital, bad stock images aren’t just generic and cheesy; it’s also keeping people away.

Bad stock images are not friendly and inviting. Customers do not want to be spoken to; they want to know why and how your business can meet their needs. Stock photos look too commercial.

As a metaphor, consider what happens when you call a customer service line. In one scenario, a human politely answers the phone and helps you solve a problem. In another scenario, you hear a pre-recorded voice and must go through the process of dialing a series of numbers to reach that same representative. Wouldn’t you prefer the first option?

What to do instead of using bad stock photos

Humans rely on other humans to meet their needs, and stock photos, much like an automated customer service recording, can be impersonal and unattractive. Nobody wants to talk to a wall. Fortunately, there are several ways to solve this problem. [Read related article: 10 Ways to Take Better Social Media Campaign Photos]

fashion statement

1. Choose better stock photos.

You don’t have to rely on iStock or Shutterstock. Consider using another stock image site, such as one listed by Creative Boom. These sites have a more modern artistic touch and many images archived on these sites are free for everyone.

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 the image is meant to represent.

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

2. Make creative edits to stock photos.

Stock photography doesn’t stop you from using Photoshop or other photo editing software to make the images your own.

Before you start, always make sure that you have the right to modify the image you have chosen. Then you can overlay text or graphics, or make tonal changes using filters. Feel free to crop the image or reposition different elements to make your point.

clever photo editing

3. Use your own photos.

If you want to feature people’s faces on your site, stay away from stock photos. Instead, show pictures of your employees. Do you remember the phone call metaphor? A customer service robot is to a stock photo what a human representative is to a real employee photo.

Check out this study from MarketingExperiments, which compared conversions from a stock image to conversions from a photo of a company founder. Nearly 35% more visitors signed up when they could connect with a real person.

coffee cup landscape

Sites that sell stock photos

If you can’t use your own photos, you can purchase stock photos from many sites. These are just a few:

  • iStock
  • Shutterstock
  • Adobe Stock
  • Getty Images
  • Pexels
  • Depositphotos
  • stocky

When it comes to your visual content, always choose images that are authentic, relevant, and realistic. If a stock photo meets these criteria, it might be a good choice, unless it’s also outdated and overused.

When using stock photographs, always be careful. If in doubt, hire a photographer. You’ll probably be glad you did.

Anna Johansson contributed reporting and writing to this article.


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