Why We Love to Hate Stock Photos (And When it's Okay to Use Them)

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You know what people have a lot of opinions about? Stock photos. It seems like every day another article pops up explaining why stock photos are the devil, and how using them will relegate your website to the Cheesy Corporate Schlock corners of the internet forever. And I get it, I really do; for every quasi-normal, passable photo of an office worker, there’s something like this guy:

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That guy is punching so hard, y’all. I bet he’s taking his anger out over the fact that the 12 cents of lifetime royalties he receives for modeling in this picture will never buy his dignity back.
Log into a stock photo account and you’ve just unearthed another type of deep web, a quagmire full of the inauthentic, corny, saccharine, corporate and downright bizarre. This is a place where photographers go to cut their teeth on Photoshop, a place full of suits and forced smiles and white dudes on (slightly) whiter backgrounds. And, of course, it’s where giraffes go to visit the big city for the first time.
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Go take on the world, giraffe! You got this!
So yeah, stock photos have earned their dubious reputation. We’ve all bounced from websites before because the atrocious stock image of the site’s “helpful support staff” – a smiling lady with a headset and a 90’s power suit – screams canned and distant: the opposite of helpful. Our trust of a site hinges on that site’s ability to be authentic and current, two qualities that aren’t exactly synonymous with stock images. But does that mean there’s no place for them at all? Not necessarily.
The fact is, a well-chosen stock image can make a major positive difference. At Material, we often use them on our own blog; images make text-heavy posts compelling and shareable, and when you’re curating a lot of content, audiences are very forgiving about stock imagery. Bloggers are not journalists (there’s a statement that’s going to get me in a lot of hot water), which means our hard-hitting news story on choosing the right font for your website doesn’t exactly need to be accompanied by a photo of someone “in the field,” choosing their own font.
So when is it okay to use a stock photo, and when should you steer clear? I’m glad you asked!
Use a Stock Photo If:
• You’re writing a blog post, resource article, or how-to piece that does not reference a specific person or event. This post is a great example of that. How very meta! If you are talking about a specific person, place or thing (er…noun), then use a specific respective photo (with permission, of course).
• Your time would be better spent TCB (takin’ care of business) than taking photographs. In the startup world we all wear a million hats; it’s okay to prioritize and decide that your “photographer” hat needs to stay home. Especially if your photographer hat looks like this:
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• You are not able to procure high-quality, well-composed photographs to accompany your copy. Say what you will about stock photos; they are all fairly high-res and “professional-looking.” So if the best you can come up with on the fly is an iPhone photo where the subject of your photo is tucked into the lowest third of the photograph and there’s a cute pink blur at the top where your finger was covering the lens (hi Mom!) then go ahead and use a stock photo.
• You’ve managed to find a stock image with plenty of color (just say no to white backgrounds) and a diverse group of people who look like they’re actually engaging in the activity they’re supposed to be portraying. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean they’re smiling; they just need to look real. As a general rule, make sure every shot is a “candid” one, mid-activity. Photos of people standing around smiling at the camera are a no-go.
• There is nothing in the photo that dates it. What do the computers look like? What are the subjects wearing? Is someone holding a flip phone? Only my delightfully anachronistic boyfriend can get away with that. Anything that will lead to the perception that your site is “dated” will quickly translate into how people view your brand. On that note, be wary of images that feature passing fads, even if they’re current, if you’re not planning on changing your photos regularly.
Don’t Use a Stock Photo If:

• You’re writing a news-style piece about an event that happened in the past. Using a stock photo in this instance would be really strange. Make sure that someone snaps a few photos at any event your throw or participate in; again, this is a case where an imperfect photo is okay.
• You have the time and budget to use original images. If you can, then do it!
• You’re showing off your products. You guys, do not use stock photos as your product images. This is such a bad idea, and it will tank your credibility before you’ve even had the chance to prove how awesome you are. Product images are the exception to the “if you don’t have time, use a stock image” rule. Make the time for this one. Hire a professional photographer if you have to. Do what you need to do to procure original, high-resolution photos of each and every one of your products.
So go forth and give stock photos some love, because these polarizing oddballs of the marketing world deserve it. And remember, if stock photos didn’t exist, then the world would never get to experience the joy that is this elephant gazing at a plane taking off into the sunset:
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…And that would be a true tragedy.

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Meg Nanson

Meg Nanson is a Search Marketing Specialist at Volusion with five years of experience in SEO ranging from small, local businesses and nonprofits to national corporations.