Stock Photos for Your Website: Yes or No?

By Kate Loyola | Last Updated: November 20, 2017

Know anyone who works in marketing? Talk to them about putting stock photos on your website and you’re bound to see their face scrunch up in a way that can only mean they’re blocking you from their friends list forever. Or, well, they won’t go that far — but you’ll probably get an earful about the horrors of stock photos.

Images can be powerful additions to any article, post, or website. The right photo elevates content from “mildly interesting” to “illuminating,” and well-placed images can break up the page to create a more appealing structure for your readers. The need for more visual content is clear, but should you fill it with images from Getty, iStock, and other stock photo libraries?

The Case Against Stock Images

Most people would say no. And that’s not just from expert marketers. General consensus online tends to lean vehemently against stock photos, and a quick look at the arguments can be pretty convincing. Here are some of the most common points raised against stock photos:

Generic

The thing about stock photos is that they’re available for anyone who cares to use them. Nothing’s stopping another website owner from buying and using the same photo you just included in your article or page, for example. That spells trouble for your visual identity, especially if you use the stock image for prominent or essential sections of your website.

Inauthentic

On a related note, even leaving out the possibility of sharing them with other websites, the cookie-cutter quality of stock photos can imbue your own site with an impersonal look. Most stock photos tend to look contrived, especially if they involve people: the subjects are often in obvious, if not awkward, poses; the backgrounds are flat or lack character, if there are any backgrounds at all. Most importantly, none of those images were taken specifically to reflect your particular brand or vision. Using stock photos for any of your business’ or website’s important visual elements is a surefire way to undercut your branding.

Poor Fit

Building on that previous point, stock images aren’t created with your website’s content or style in mind. Finding an image that goes well with your article or page isn’t impossible, but it’s likely to be a matter of finding the most acceptable compromise from a long list of photos. Your odds get much worse if you’re looking to complement unique or unusual content, for which there might not be that many available options. Either way, the whole process of searching for the right photo can be time-consuming, and you might not get the best results for all that.

Usage Limit

Stock photos typically fall under one of two categories: royalty-free or rights-managed. Royalty-free photos will require payment of a license fee, after which you get nearly unlimited use of the image, subject to the specific terms of the photos’ license agreements. They’re called “royalty-free” because they don’t require you to pay additional fees on top of the initial license fee for each instance of use.

Rights-managed photos come with more restrictions; usually, you’ll be paying for a specific instance or period of use, and only for the particular project. The particulars will depend on each image’s license agreement. Other typical restrictions include geographic area where the image will be made available, types of media on which the image will be used, and so on.

Either way, payment will not give you full, unrestricted use of a stock image forever. Depending on how, when, and where you want to use the image, you’ll have to pay close attention to the terms of the photo’s license agreement to make sure you don’t infringe on any copyrights.

Using Stock Photos

That said, stock photos make up a sizable industry, and there’s a reason companies like Getty are still around. For all the objections raised against them, stock photos do have their uses. Here are some of the major advantages to stock photos:

Cheap

“Cheap” is a relative term: in this case, a set of stock photos is much cheaper than a full shoot for your website’s photo needs. It’s not just about the money, either: the time and logistical demands of arranging for bespoke photos can also be a strain on your team, especially if you’re just a small outfit with very limited resources.

Quick

In a similar vein, the whole process of building your own library of professionally shot images can take a long time. Arranging for a shoot whenever you need a particular image that you don’t have yet is a hassle, too. The extensive and readily available galleries of various stock photo services can be lifesavers, especially if you’ve got a looming deadline and hardly any time left for a custom shoot.

Convenient

Ultimately, the variety, accessibility, and relative affordability of stock photos spell convenience for many websites and online businesses. Stock photo galleries can allow you to skip over the lengthy, resource-intensive process of creating your own bespoke photo library.

Of course, it’s up to you to determine whether or not those advantages outweigh the considerable disadvantages of stock images. In general, you can likely get away with using stock photos if you reserve them for visual elements of little consequence: a quick header for a blog post, perhaps, or a simple addition to accentuate a point on an article.

Still, if the cons outlined above are enough to convince you to avoid stock images altogether, that doesn’t mean your website will be stuck with walls of text. There are a number of alternatives that you can explore to build an attractive and useful visual landscape for your site.

Alternatives to Stock Photos

Illustrations

If you or someone else on your team has some artistic skill, you can use illustrations in place of photos. These will take more time; however, with you having full control of their look and style, illustrations can be crafted to perfectly fit your website design and content.

Additionally, if you tend to release content on related themes and topics, you can reuse or repurpose illustrations as often as you like. Since you hold creator rights, you won’t have to worry about any usage restrictions or potential copyright infringements.

Infographics

When it comes to creating an attractive visual structure, well-made graphs, charts, and infographics can work just as well as a photograph. These are great alternatives if you’re working with information-dense content or tackling topics that involve a bit of data. Not only do infographics make for a more interesting visual design, they also make it easier for readers to process the information you’re presenting them.

Your Own Photos

It’s the age of Instagram and Photoshop, and with sharp, high-resolution cameras packed into devices as handy as our mobile phones, going the DIY route is easier than ever. This is a great option if you’re running a personal website or a business that can benefit from a more rustic or personal touch. You might not take technically perfect photos, but an image you took yourself–flaws and all–can bring just the right amount of character to your text.

If you’re a beginner or if your website needs more technical skill with its images, you might need to invest a bit more time into learning the necessary techniques and carrying out the various processes (editing photos, etc.) involved. However, that can lead to a valuable payoff, as you could eventually fulfill all your website’s photography needs yourself with more confidence, character, and distinct style.

The Bottom Line

Stock photos have certainly gotten a bad rap over the years, and not without reason. In many cases, the cookie-cutter qualities of stock photos can lead to bland and unconvincing webpages that get lost in the millions of similar-looking content all over the web.

While they’re certainly not the best solution for developing your brand and distinct visual stamp, though, stock photos still have some advantages. As long as you stick to low-key, generally inconsequential uses, you can get away with a stock photo here or there

Still, if you have the time, skill, and inclination, consider alternatives like using infographics and going full DIY with your photography needs. With full control over how these visual elements look and fit with your site’s content, you can easily achieve a degree of distinct style and compatibility that’s difficult to get from even the best stock photos.