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Stock Photography vs Your Photography On Your Website

Stephanie Fisher

Posted by Stephanie Fisher on 10/13/15 9:30 AM

Have you heard the story of the presidential candidate who used foreign stock video and photos in a campaign video? A video that was supposed to be showing beautiful American scenery...


This may be an extreme example of "when stock photography goes wrong," but it should serve as a warning to us all.

When selecting photos and images for your websites and digital marketing, there are times when stock photos are perfect, and times when your own images should be used.


Stock Photography

When you don't have high quality professional images on hand, stock photos are a nice option.

But buyer beware: not all stock are created equal! After looking through about five zillion stock photos, you get an eye for what works and what doesn't. Here are my quick tips for searching for the right photo on a site like Shutterstock, which is what we use:

Don't always go with what's obvious. Here's an example: I wrote a post the other day about taking credit cards online. I did a search for "credit card payment" on Shutterstock and used the first photo, because it was the best. The next week, I saw the same photo on another blog that had to do with online payments. I should've worked a little harder and been a tad more creative in my selection. Not a huge deal in the big scheme of things, but it reinforced this point to me. Don't always go with the most obvious search term or straightforward message.

Make it your own. Add text, crop out a distracting element or add another layered image to the photo. There are many, many ways to use simple photo editing tricks to enhance a boring stock photo.

Check for weird or distracting elements. Is the photo in focus or blurry (you'd be surprised how many sloppy stock photos are out there)? Does the model have a strange or distracting expression? Do the people or setting look fake or overly posed?

Context. You may think no one will notice, but scrutinize your photos for anything that might look bad for your brand (like the video about America that uses foreign stock video).

Use stock photos for:

  • High-resolution "hero images" on your homepage (when you don't have your own)
  • Ebooks and slides/presentations
  • Blog posts, but they're not necessary

Below are a few example homepage designs that use stock photography.


Your Photography

A beautiful website can get whatever is the opposite of a makeover when bad photography gets involved.

I've seen designers cry over their perfect creations that were ruined by a camera-phone image that the website owner uploaded. It happens. I've also seen projects limited by poor quality location or staff photos. We can't stress this enough: Imagery is important.

You're spending a lot of money on your website, this is not the place to cut corners. High quality photos can mean the difference between a visitor clicking through, or moving on to another website. That first second a visitor lands on your website is everything.

Tips for using your own photography:

Hire a photographer. There are so many great freelance photographers out there who will come to your office and take amazing casual photos of your team and your space. This is especially important if your location and people are an essential part of your brand. Do not skimp on this. 

Simple iPhone images can really work, if you know what you're doing. Apps can help you create custom social media images and more for your website.

Know your limits. When planning your website, understand your own capacity for creating and maintaining elements that need images. News articles, blog posts, homepage banners: all of these areas may need to be updated by YOU. Will you be creating news articles each week? Changing out homepage banners every month? If you don't have a designer on hand, or a photographer, you may consider using other stylistic elements in the design that don't require photos.

Use your own photography for:

  • Place imagery (your office space or campus locations, for example)
  • Your team (make it professional, too!)
  • Blog posts, news articles, calendar or event items
  • Email marketing
  • Social media images, especially Instagram, can be casual and creative

Here are a few examples of professional, unique photography that makes a brand look ridiculously nice.


Stock photography can be expensive and boring, but it's an easy shortcut when you don't have time or access to original, high-quality images.

Custom images and original photography are more eye-catching, but it still takes time and money to create custom images.

Know when to use each on your website and marketing.

What is your philosophy about using stock vs. your own photography? I'd love to hear how you manage image content on your website. Share in the comments below!

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Topics: photography, web design

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