Stock photo crash: The dangers of overusing stock imagery

By Cassie Gelean  |  February 19, 2019

Stock images are widely used in marketing to support the story being told through design – whether that be on a billboard, a website, a brochure, etc. They are high quality pictures taken by professional photographers that are made available by purchase; usually an inexpensive fee compared to the alternatives. The flip side is that abusing the use of stock images will work against you.

The Good
Time and money savings are the main advantages of using stock images. Hiring a photographer or designer to create custom imagery can be expensive and time-consuming. Getting the necessary equipment (and skills) to create images yourself presents the same problems.

If you’re writing a blog post on “How to Nail Your 2-Minute Pitch”, it’s probably not worth the time and money to hire a photographer to stage a meeting with models in a professional setting. Instead, you can simply type meeting into and browse through 290,811 professional pictures of real people in business settings.

The Bad
Unfortunately, overuse of stock images has its downsides – stock photos can be easily spotted. Take Ariane, the “Overexposed Stock Image Model” for example.

Image via Reddit

Ariane has been seen everywhere – backpacking in China, credit card ads, pore strip packaging, photosynthesizing… the list literally goes on and on. People have even created a Facebook page dedicated to sightings of Ariane. A stock image has no limits to its use

The Ugly
To really demonstrate HOW much a stock photo can be used, I randomly picked a business-themed image from the homepage of A classic business handshake to seal the deal.

Image via iStock

I threw it into a reverse Google Image search where Google generated a list of thousands (literally) of websites using this exact image. Needless to say, there is no shortage of companies all using the same image for the purpose of advertising. The downside here is that you are among the crowd, and one among a million is a very different sentiment than one in a million.

A personal anecdote
While researching a client’s market, one of our team members discovered two of their competitors using the exact same image. A consumer doing the same research could easily notice those two companies using the same picture. While they may not make a defining decision based off of that, they subconsciously lose trust.

Worst case scenario! Two ads facing each other using the same stock photo. Image via Reddit

The Very Ugly
If you want to send the message that your company is at the top of its innovative game, the pictures you use need to be convincing. Cheesy stock photos are easily spotted and cheapen your brand.

But don’t get me wrong, we love stock photos! Sometimes we even manipulate stock photos to merge with a custom photo. For example, we have a client that needs an image of their outdoor structure in a luscious, green forest setting but we’re stuck in the dead of winter. We will hire a photographer to take shots of the structure and from there Photoshop it into the proper setting. It’s about how you are using them.

Here we used a stock image for a client promoting a new package.

Choosing a stock image

  1. Don’t: Get too literal
    As pictured above, if the message you’re trying to send is innovation, spelling it out above a lightbulb isn’t going to sell it. Instead, use pictures of the product you’re selling or basic mood photos that communicate a feeling.
  2. Do: Use people
    Human connection draws the viewer in and has a positive impact on the trustworthiness of a website. Make sure it’s realistic – they don’t have to be grinning ear-to-ear at their desk. That can come across as phoney and insincere. We typically try to find candids” of people in natural poses.
  3. Do: Choose with intention
    Think about your audience. Are you selling t-shirts to a young male adult or houses to a middle-aged couple? Use photos that represent your target market. If you think your target market is “everybody”, you may need to take a step back and start asking the right questions about your consumers.

When to invest
Many projects require one or multiple professional, striking, high quality photos to be used in a wide-spread campaign (billboards, trade show materials, print or web advertising, etc.) This makes it worth the investment of a professional photoshoot or even a highly customized illustration. The consumer also gets to see the real product – or if service based, people – in action, building trust and credibility. 

There is a time and place for stock images. Weigh your options, invest in a professional and you’ll see a return.

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