This post was written 8 years ago and therefore may not be as accurate as more recent posts.

Stock images are an extraordinary resource for web pages. If you don’t have the equipment to create a professional photo and you don’t have the money to pay for a custom-made image, stock images may be the answer you need. But stock photography has its drawbacks, and a big part of using stock photos is knowing when NOT to use them.

DON’T overuse clichéd images

Stock images are kind of like turns of phrase. How many times have you seen something great referred to as ‘top-tier’ or ‘the cream of the crop’? Or heard of a bad situation that ‘it is what it is’?  For every overused phrase that drifts around the language, there’s a stock photo (or class of stock photos) that is overused on the Internet — and they should be avoided just as assiduously.

For example, how many pictures have you seen of a call center employee smiling happily into their hands-free microphone? Or of a beach house with a Lamborghini out front and palm trees out back?  Or the crowd of smiling, perfect-skinned young executives (don’t forget the token African, Oriental, and female-types) crowded around a laptop gazing at each other in a congratulatory manner?  These kinds of ‘visual clichés’ are best avoided at all costs.

DO use images that connect

One of the things that separate clichéd pictures from effective stock photography is that the latter have an element of connectivity to them. Rather than using pictures that make it seem like you’re looking into a fishbowl at people doing something ‘over there’, use pictures that seem to interact with the viewer. Unforced eye contact, genuine smiles, and any sort of apparent physical interaction with the ‘camera’ is an image that is likely to connect.

DON’T fall for the latest photo-fad

Trends come and go, especially in design. While it never hurts to try out the latest and greatest fads, make sure you stay proactive to ensure that your site can stay up to date. Remember, what was once cool five years ago might quickly be seen as being out of date within a matter of a few short months. Make sure that you can always quickly “modernize.”

DO think outside the box

Being literal with your images will convey to the potential client that you’re a literal company. That can be good in certain (rare) contexts, but most people these days are looking for a company that stands out. Rather than showing them something they expect (a man with a hardhat when discussing engineers), show them something that conveys the essence of the subject without being the subject (a solar panel conveys engineering and also environmental awareness.)

Consider stock videos that entice users to hit play. These types of video will encourage users to stay on the site longer and create attachment, which ultimately lowers bounce rate as well as increases conversions.

DON’T picture-stuff

Keep your pictures minimalist and effective. Jamming too many images into a small space reduces the effect rather than emphasizing it. It also makes it much harder to achieve visual and qualitative consistency across all of your pictures (and the copy they’re associated with). And don’t fear white space, which can sometimes be the most powerful imagery of all.

DO things your way

Stock images are a vital compromise between budget and the need for quality visuals. But you don’t have to use them in ‘stock’ ways just because they’re stock photos. Making minor edits to the images is perfectly acceptable. Find unique places to put them inside the context of the page. Allow them to interact with the text in fun ways. Keep things fresh, alive, and yours, and you’ll find that stock photos can be everything you need and more.

Categories: Web Design

Paul Delaney

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Paul is the owner of Paul Delaney Design, With a technical background in web design and development Paul has worked with online technology for many years and more specifically in SEO since 2006 both client and agency side. Paul is an industry speaker at the Search & Social Media Marketing course at the University of Salford.

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