4 guidelines to help you pick the perfect stock image for your website
I saw a Tweet last week that claimed the best advice that could be given to any website designer is to never use stock imagery - under any circumstances. It had its fair share of likes and retweets, and one quick Google search confirmed that this opinion is far from unique.
The idea that some people are so staunchly against stock imagery is hardly news. They are a constant source of ridicule on parts of the internet (this video starring Emilia Clarke is a particularly amusing demonstration of that) and, as a result, have found themselves adopting something of a cult following. However, it's relatively rare that web design advice is given so unequivocally - even some of the most offensive design choices have valid application in certain specific situations.
The reality is that some business websites need to use these images as they don't have budget or the necessary time, equipment or skills to take their own professional photos. Are these businesses really destroying their websites’ credibility the moment they choose to download from their favourite stock library?
In short; ’not necessarily’.
Like with other website elements, stock imagery can be misused (as can a website designer’s own proprietary imagery), and this can damage the visitor’s experience. But this can be easily avoided by following some simple guidelines. In this article we’ll look at how to use stock imagery properly, by examining the four key reasons its critics are so against it. For each criticism, I'll offer a defence and explore the steps you can take to ensure you reap all of the benefits of using stock imagery, without any of the drawbacks.
Criticism one - The stock imagery you use is not unique to your website
The first criticism surrounds the prevalence of each individual image. Many stock images are free, many even for commercial use. Given there are thought to be about 1.5bn websites on the internet, that leaves a lot of opportunity for the same images to be used time after time.
But what really is the problem with that happening? Given that studies have revealed that familiarisation with an image leads to it being processed quicker (particularly when faces are involved), and people are known to often prefer the familiar, why is use elsewhere a bad thing?
There's a couple of possible explanations. Firstly, using an image that other websites are also using makes your site look less unique, and that makes it harder for a site to stand out. Hypothetically, a visitor could see a stock image they've seen before and dismiss the site as lacking originality, or assume no original content will be available. You want your website to stand out - and that can't be done if your website looks the same as others. The second is that stock imagery will be used elsewhere to denote different things. One site might interpret the image differently and you might use it in a way that confuses the visitor who has attached prior meaning to it. At worst, this meaning could be directly contradictory - that would be pretty confusing to visitors right?
If you are left unconvinced by both of these explanations then you are not alone - so am I. Both give visitors too much credit (how many images do you think they can remember?) and assume far more attention is paid to these images on these sites than the reality. But, if you're still concerned about this, and would rather avoid the use of the most popular images, then there's a couple of things you can do:
Avoid using the most commonly-used images
Some stock imagery sites will provide a download counter to show image popularity. If you took a conservative view that 5% of those downloads translate into on-site usage (which is likely quite an overestimation), then that gives you a steer of what to expect. Avoid images that have too high a download count - but of course be extra discerning around quality - the most downloaded images are that way for a reason. If your favourite stock imagery website allows you to sort by least to most downloaded (many don’t), then use that.
For an additional check, Google provides a handy tool to give you a steer. Go to image search, click ‘search by image’, put the picture in (or even a snapshot of the watermarked image) and it will return sites with that image on it. Have a quick look through the results and check that no main competitors of yours are using the image, or any large sites that would have shown it to a wide number of people.
One final option is to sign up to stock imagery sites that provide a new image in your inbox on a daily basis. These images won't always be relevant to what you might want to use, but images will be hot off the press and so will be guaranteed to be used by very few websites, at least for now.
Modify the imagery to make it your own
As long as your image license allows it, you could edit your image to make it look more unique. There are a number of alterations you can make to add your own twist, with most of these taking very little time and being very easy to achieve through standard image editing software, or even through your website builder’s imagery edit tool (if you're using a website builder).
Flip the image horizontally. A number of studies have shown this to be a good way to make an image less recognisable. (However, it’s also worth noting that the ‘direction’ of an image is thought to have an impact on how it is perceived).
Recolour the image. Putting a colour shading over the image alters it's tone and could also help it fit better with the look and feel of your site. This is also a good way to make it easier to read any text placed over the image.
Crop it and use just a section of the image. Focus on just a specific part of it and you could give the image new meaning. It's advisable to only do this with high resolution images as you might otherwise run into quality issues.
Criticism two - Stock imagery is neither genuine nor authentic
When most people think of stock imagery, they are usually quicker to think of something that looks more like the left-hand image than the one on the right.
If I had to force you to put one of these images on your website, I imagine that you'd rather choose the one on the right (depending of course, on the nature of your website). This is because it’s largely inoffensive - it’s a calming, pleasant scene and the image isn’t trying to do too much. The image on the left, however, looks horribly fake and inauthentic, the shot is overly staged and the whole image lacks sincerity.
Stock imagery has evolved a lot over the years, but the stereotypical view of it is showing people doing things that look slightly unnatural. If you were to use the image on the left on your business website, visitors are going to know that these people don’t work for your company and might, by extension, also question what else you're telling them about what you do or offer.
However, there are benefits to showing people on your website. Research shows that people actually prefer brands that prominently use people’s faces in marketing. This benefit is compelling, so rather than avoiding use of imagery with people in altogether, be more selective about the image you use:
Avoid stock images that contain group shots - no more than two people. There's a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the more people you add into an image, the more distracting it is as the more there is going on. With more going on, there is more likely to be something that just feels a little bit off, or too much meaning that a visitor could interpret that you didn't intend. Secondly, these are the shots that look the most artificial. It's hard to perfectly capture a moment with just two people, it's far harder to capture a busier moment in the same way. Doing so feels very fake and inauthentic.
If running a business website, make the image as representative of your brand as possible. If you’re showing people that don’t necessarily work for your company, you should ensure that the rest of the shot gives the visitor an accurate idea of what working with you will be like. Do you work at home and have to meet clients out for coffee? If so, use shots that represent that. Is your brand young, dynamic and modern? Try and find a way to encapsulate that. Even if you or your team aren’t in it, keep it as true to life as possible.
Avoid use of images where the interaction is too neatly staged or identifiable. These posed images are the ones that are going to look the least authentic and most ‘stock imagey’, as neatly capturing an interaction on film is difficult. This might be permissible if you're using your own imagery, as it could be used to give the visitor a better idea of what an interaction with you is like, but stock imagery can't capture this in the same way.
Criticism three - Stock imagery always forces you to compromise and is never the perfect visualisation of an idea
When you create your own imagery, and take your own photos, you have full control over the final product. The look, the emotion, the intended meaning can all be exactly how you want them. In effect, you can communicate your perfect photographic vision.
With stock imagery, this is rarely, if ever, possible. You are using someone else’s image and there might be elements of that image which communicate something you would avoid if you had full creative control.
To avoid this issue, it's worth considering why imagery is used on a website in the first place. There are a number of possible uses:
To explain, or communicate a concept or an idea. As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words - it is easier, and more effective, to show something than try and describe it.
To aid recall of a message. Memory is a very visual construct and studies have shown that people are much more likely to remember an image than text.
To express a mood or emotion, or a perception you want your visitor to form. Emotions are thought to be powerful drivers of our behaviour, and images play a key part in influencing those emotions - particularly in some online contexts.
To capture visitor attention. Images draw the eye, and they can cause the visitor to pause and slow down. As such, they can be used to direct visitors towards something the designer thinks is particularly important to see.
To ease the cognitive load of having to read many paragraphs of text. Sometimes imagery is just there for light relief and to give the reader a break from reading blocks of text. This is a perfectly valid purpose if not overused.
Stock imagery can serve some of these purposes far more than effectively than others. It is very good at breaking up text and capturing visitor attention, and the right stock imagery can also effectively convey an emotion or a feeling. However, it often struggles to explain an idea or aid recall of that idea. This is because stock imagery is, by its nature, always likely to be a low cost, and low effort compromise - never the perfect encapsulation of the idea you want to communicate or are trying to cement in your visitors’ memories.
The solution here is quite simple; reserve the use of stock imagery for select purposes. Establish in your head why you are using imagery in the first place, and be sure that your chosen stock image is effectively serving that purpose. If you need an image to communicate an idea, and that idea is too specific to be served by stock photographers, then bite the bullet and invest the resources to create your own.
Criticism four - Stock imagery looks unprofessional and damages the impression you're trying to leave your visitors with
The first three criticisms on this list have been quite rational and surface regularly when stock imagery is discussed. The potentially more prevalent, yet lesser-spoken criticism comes from the System One, gut reaction that stock imagery is just bad. It's low quality, it's cheap and it has no place on a business website.
That criticism isn't entirely without merit - many stock images are bad, to the point where you have to wonder who is using them. But this isn’t true for all stock images. There are real degrees of quality - evidenced by the below collection of images all trying to represent the idea of ‘success’.
I’ll be the first to confess that I have little to no design flair or talent. That recognition helps me be more careful when selecting an image to use, and, as a result, I find myself passing any potential image candidates through a series of formal checks:
Could anyone find this image funny? As previously mentioned, images should always be used for some purpose - and it's incredibly rate that your purpose is to make your visitor laugh.
Is it overly cliched and would this scene occur in real life? Imagery should always aid the visitor experience, and their flow through your website, rather than damage it or make them snap out of their flow. Images that just look ‘off’ are going to cause the visitor to slow down and ask questions.
Are the colours too loud and vibrant? Sharp, bright colours stand out more, and typically you want your stock imagery to blend in more and work on a more subconscious level.
Is the image too dynamic? Is movement communicated in any way, and if so are you happy with the visual impact on your page? Movement always tells more of a story and communicates more meaning - when using stock imagery you often want to leave those stories untold.
Has it been overly touched up and are the models too perfect? An important criteria; stock imagery should feel realistic and relatable. Nothing detracts from that more than a flawless image of someone who could be a professional model.
To recap, four common issues and four solutions:
Images aren’t unique to your site. Avoid images that have been used too much and try and perform minor alterations (with permission), to make them more your own.
Stock imagery is inauthentic. Avoid staged photos - particularly group shots - and try and keep the rest of the overall scene a genuine representation of you or your business.
Stock imagery never perfectly encapsulates your idea. Don’t try to do too much. Limit its usage to simple purposes such as conveying an emotion, capturing attention or breaking up text.
Stock imagery just looks unprofessional. Pass your imagery through a series of final mental checks before using it.
Make sure that you abide by these rules and you can continue to benefit from what can be a fantastic, (often) free resource. Ignore them, and you'll perpetuate the myth that stock imagery is unprofessional and brand damaging.