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Stock Photos: The Do’s and Don’ts
Picture the scene: you’ve just produced a stellar bit of content, and you’re feeling fine.
But there’s still one thing your article is missing: images.
It’s current year; no content piece could possibly be complete without them.
The quick ‘n dirty answer is, of course, stock photos. If you’ve spent more than five minutes on the internet, you’ve seen a stock photo: licensed images, available for purchase, mostly generic (and occasionally, bizarrely specific).
They’re easy to find, simple to upload, and there’s no shortage of them for whatever purpose you have in mind.
Also, this one lady appears in way too many of them.
(if you’ve never noticed her before, you will now. We wish her well, and hope she enjoyed the salad)
The problem with stock photos? They’ve overused and often badly outdated. Savvy internet users will spot a badly placed stock photo from a mile off, making their first interaction with your online content a negative one. To use them in the right way, you’ll need to put a little more thought into the process than a quick search through an online photo library.
Why use stock photos?
First up, in what situations would you use stock photos?
Mainly: money and time. Instead of trying to capture the perfect image yourself, it’s much easier to browse a massive library of stock images — getting a bit of inspiration along the way. Photography, custom designs; they all equate to time and money, making stock photos a simpler option.
Asking the design experts at SBM, the answer is clear: if you have the budget, always try to create your own image assets. The pictures will come across far more authentic when they’re custom made, and you have creative control over the general look and feel.
The Design team at SBM can recommend a few places to start:
- Shutterstock and iStock: The go-tos at the bottom end of the scale. It may take some digging, but it’s possible to find images there that aren’t overused or clichéd.
- Adobe Stock, Masterfile and Stocksy: Moving up in the price bracket, these sites have massive libraries to help your photos stand out.
- Getty: Your premium option for stock photos, Getty has some terrific images that are top quality and exclusive – but you’ll pay a price to match.
The takeaway here is that stock photos have their uses — and they can be used well, if you’re willing to put in a bit of time to find the right fit.
Why SHOULDN’T you use stock photos?
The main roadblock thrown up by stock photos is how inauthentic they appear to visitors. This photo or graphic asset wasn’t created by you, for a specific purpose; it was made to be a product on a shelf, generic enough that customers will pay to download it without a watermark.
Case in point? Here’s a picture of the SBM team.
Wait, sorry… here’s a picture of the SBM team:
See the difference? One of the images above is team SBM in our natural habitat (small boxes on the internet).
The other image is bunch of models told to pose for something that’ll show up under the tag ‘corporate_people_happy_business_meeting_success_office_workplace_jpg.’
If someone consuming your content feels like an image is too generic, their reaction will be a strong sense that the photo wasn’t created for them, only placed for them — and that distinction can be emotionally powerful.
The same goes for stock images that contain purely graphical assets:
Yep, sure is… something happening there.
The image might be well crafted, but problem here is the same as a stock photograph: this conjures up a vague sense of an idea, but has absolutely nothing to say by itself. It fills space and desperately tries to give the illusion that a piece of content is vibrant and illustrated, but the illusion crumbles as soon as anyone gives it a moment of thought.
How to avoid the ‘generic’ label
Start by narrowing your search with clear design ideas based on your branding. Once you’ve landed that perfect picture, don’t be afraid to do a bit of editing to make the picture unique (if you’re allowed to — more on that in a bit).
Consider cropping, recolouring, adding graphics or text, even removing elements or inserting your own products into the stock shot; take every opportunity to turn a generic photo into something that’s recognisably your image.
The legal stuff
All stock photo sites — and individual photos — will have different rules, but each should clearly spell out what you’re allowed to do with their image.
Some stock photos can’t be modified, or you might only be allowed to display them on a single webpage. The key things to make sure you’re on top of are:
- How long the licence will last.
- Where you’re allowed to post it (on social media, across multiple sites, etc.)
- If you’re allowed to make edits.
- What credit the image does/doesn’t require.
If you understand and plan for all of those variables before you purchase the licence (or download the image, if it’s free) you should be safe from using the photo in a way that’ll get you in trouble.
If in doubt? Always triple check.
How images affect your SEO
Something else to consider is how stock images affect your SEO. Google doesn’t technically penalise sites for using stock photography, but it does reward sites with unique images (i.e. not stock imagery), since sites with unique images are more likely to engage visitors.
If you do use stock images, make sure to fill in all the boxes in the back end when you upload it, to make it as SEO friendly as possible. That means entering alt text, the description, and giving it a clear title. Every little bit helps!
The Takeaway: Be Authentic
When it comes to weighing up stock photos as an option, it all comes down to a single word: authenticity. This is vital for keeping your vistors’ attention and making them feel like they’ve experienced something unique.
This can be difficult to achieve with stock photos, but not impossible. Careful selection with some slight edits can go a long way towards making sure your images are a good fit for you, your brand, your business and your website. At other times, you’ll need some custom photography or graphics to really showcase what your business has to offer.
Whatever you decide, remember:
- If you choose stock photos, take the time to choose the right ones.
- Make sure you check the rules before you edit.
- No matter what images appear on your website, make them authentic. Ask yourself if they represent you, or if they’re just filling space.
One final tip? Don’t use these:
It’s the fastest way to tell visitors that you haven’t updated your website since 2004.