Stock Photography vs. Real Photos: Can’t We Use Both?

Stock Photography vs. Real Photos: Can't We Use Both?

When it comes to online imagery, it’s not so much about having images, as it is about making sure those images to give the visitor a sense of texture, size, scale, detail, context & brand.

According to MDG Advertising, 67% of online shoppers rated high quality images as being “very important” to their purchase decision, which was slightly more than “product specific information”, “long descriptions”, and “reviews & ratings”:

It’s All About the Images

Joann Peck & Suzanne B. Shu of UCLA published a study called “The Effect of Mere Touch on Perceived Ownership” that found that when the imagery of an object was vivid and detailed, it increased their perceived ownership of the product.



image source

Moreover, Psychologists Kirsten Ruys & Diedrick Stapel of the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research found that imagery has the ability to affect a person’s mood, even when they’re unaware it is happening.

In their research, they flashed images across a screen in a manner that made it impossible for participants to be fully conscious of what they were seeing. Participants were then tested on cognition, feelings & behavior, and in the end it was found that their general mood reflected the images they were subconsciously exposed to.

So Why The Hell Do You INSIST On Using Stock Photography?!

Alright, look… I get it. You’re on a budget.

You need an image that represents “freedom” or “happiness” or ::shutter:: “corporate synergy”.

You’ve diplomatically explained to the client that they really should be using custom photography, but they insist you find a “better/cheaper representation online.” You’ve also gotten that uneasy vibe they’ll invoke “the customer is always right/I can take my business elsewhare” conversation, if you push too hard.

So you go to iStockphoto or Shutterstock, run a query, and try to find the best representation of whatever vague concept you’ve been given as a part of the brief.

You pay, download the stock photo, jury-rig it into your design & look at your work with a mixed sense of pride & shame. But the client LOVES it! (“See, looks like Stock wasn’t so bad after all, was it Mr. Designer?”)

Here’s the problem:

2931 results   TinEyeEvery other poor schmuck in every other vertical has used the Exact. Same. Photograph.

And if you’re really unfortunate, one of those other schmucks was also your competitor.

Meet The Everywhere Girl

hr_stockBack in 1996, Jennifer Anderson posed for a stock photo shoot shortly after graduating college. At the time, companies would subscribe to a service & receive their stock photos on a CD-ROM.

Trouble was, the companies receiving the CD’s didn’t have an easy way to verify who else was using the photo, and the license for the images was not exclusive – meaning anyone could use them.

Related: The Different Kinds Of Stock Photography Licenses

Within a few years, Jennifer became the face of college girls in what seemed to be every marketing campaign. The most notorious faux pas was in 2004, when PC competitors Dell & Gateway used photos from the same photo shoot in their “Back to School” promotional material.


But did it stop there? Nope. Other companies who ended up photos from Jenn’s stock shoot were:

  • H&R Block
  • Samsung
  • Microsoft
  • Grayhound
  • US Bank
  • AAA Auto Insurance
  • A series of books about Christianity
  • A teen chat line
  • A car stereo store
  • An actuary website

Jenn’s image became so common online, that there were online communities that were dedicated to reporting sightings of this stock photo model around the web.

Below is just a small sample of how frequently photos from this session were used.


Credit for round up goes to the Idee blog.

Why You Have To Be Careful With How You Use Stock Photos

While Jenn’s story is comical in it’s own right, there are some pretty serious negative connotations for brands inadvertently using the same stock photo to represent the same concept.

Looking at you Customer Service girl

The main problem is what’s called the Picture Superiority Effect, where “concepts are much more likely to be remembered experientially if they are presented as pictures rather than as words.”

According to Wikipedia, this has to do with Allan Paivio’s “dual-coding theory” that states that mental associations become stronger when they’re presented both visually & verbally (or through text)

“Visual and verbal information are processed differently and along distinct channels in the human mind, creating separate representations for information processed in each channel.

The mental codes corresponding to these representations are used to organize incoming information that can be acted upon, stored, and retrieved for subsequent use.”

This applies to both positive & negative experiences. Considering that nearly 2 million Americans fall victim to online scams a year, and many scam sites lean heavily on low priced stock photography… the odds are not in your favor.

We already know from the “The Science of Storytelling & It’s Effect on Memory” article, that when a visitor lands on your site for the first time, everything they see is being processed through their working memory – the hyper-short term memory that pulls information from your long term memory to make judgements on what it sees within milliseconds.


If the stock photo you’re using is at all similar to another website that created a negative experience for the visitor, subconsciously, they’re projecting their negative experiences onto your stock photograph, reducing trust & adding friction to the process.

This is likely the real reason why when Marketing Experiments tested a real photo of their client against their top performing stock photo, they found that nearly 35% of visitors would be more likely to sign up when they saw the real deal.



Generic-Banner-Design Real-Person-Design

Taken to an extreme, using the wrong stock photography could also result in a form of “mistaken identity.”

Though this article isn’t specific to using stock photography, the story of Arizona Discount Movers perfectly illustrates what could happen when the good guys get penalized for something the bad guys did.

Now, I’m Not Saying All Stock Photographs Are Bad…

…Just the designers that use them.


Image Source: Canva’s “5 Ways To Pick Powerful Stock Photos For Your Design

Stock photos in & of themselves can be a useful, quick & effective way to communicate your point, but you should probably follow a few steps to make sure you’re getting the most out of stock photography.

Step 1 – See Who Else Is Using That Stock Photo

This is where a tool called TinEye comes in very handy to do a “reverse image search” to see where else that photo has been used:

TinEye Reverse Image Search

168 results   TinEye

If you get something like “168 results”,  take the time to investigate who else has used that image, and how they’ve used it.

If they cater to a similar market and/or have a huge reach, find a different stock photo. The last thing you want is to try and be unique by using a photo everyone’s already seen.

For added peace of mind, go to Google Images and drag the photo into the search bar. Google will pull up all of the exact instances of that photo, so you can see if there’s anything that TinEye had missed.

Google Image SearchGoogle Image Search Results

Step 2 (optional)- Check To See If You Can Get A “Rights Managed” License

Exclusive Image Licensing   Rights Managed Stock Photography   Getty ImagesImage Source: Getty Images Rights Managed Collection 

If the image in question hasn’t been used by everyone in the known world, check to see you can keep that way.

Like the image above states, a rights managed license makes it so you have exclusive use of that image within the markets you specify for a specified time frame.

Rights Managed Time-Frame

Even though these licenses are more expensive, this license is huge insurance against anyone else using your image, thereby preventing an “Everywhere Girl” scenario of your own.

Step 3 – Really Make The Stock Photo Your Own

Once you’ve found an image that’s (relatively) unused, don’t just publish it and call it quits – do what you can to make it your own.

Through creative typographic pairings, background manipulations & the right use of cropping, a photo that screams “boring generic stock”…

Stock Milk…can become dramatic, creative & very interesting to look at:

build-your-bones-its-good-for-you.Image Credit: Canva’s “4 Ways To Use Images As a Background In Your Design”

If you wanted to take “making it your own” further though, just look at what professional photo-manipulators are doing with stock photography.

Often, they’ll combine stock and real photography to create realistic imagery that would be impossible to capture in real life.

Photomanipulation Blending Guide Model Looking OutImage Source: Night Fate’s “Photomanipulation Blending Guide”

For example, artist Night Fate combines stock images to create locations that do not exist anywhere on the planet.

Photomanipulation Intro

Image Credit: “Photomanipulation intro”

Something like this could provide a very powerful backdrop for a real model or product shot, without having that terrible “stock” feel.

Once you get into manipulating stock photography like this, the possibilities can be virtually endless, as long as you have a strong concept of what the end project should look like.

Figure, something like this album cover was created using nothing but stock photography:

Get the full tutorial here.

As was this photo of a man with a broken, hollow head:

Get the full tutorial here

Or, if you really needed something extreme, I suppose you could take this picture of a dude standing on a hay bale:


And turn it into complete roadside chaos using nothing but stock photos & Photoshop:

Get the tutorial for this project here

Alright, so maybe you won’t end up doing anything that extreme.

The point I’m trying to make though, is that it’s completely possible to create some really powerful & unique images with stock photography if you have a strong concept in mind & the Photoshop skills to pull it off.

But Really, You Should Just Take Your Own Photographs

When researching this article, I came across an anecdote of a designer who spent 15 hours searching for the perfect image of a bowl of strawberries, only to remember that his smart-phone took amazing photos & the grocery store was right across the street.

sweet-strawberries-5-1193470-mIt’s easy to take for granted that the last couple generations of smartphones have really upped their game in terms of image quality.

I mean, compare the image above from to the image below, taken by some random iPhone 6+ user taking photos in their garden:


This image of my mouse was snapped on my kitchen table, in terrible overhead lighting with my Samsung Galaxy S4 (last generation) yet, it’s clear that with a little planning, I could have a shot that’s at least on-par with what you find on Amazon.

Tommy Mouse

Amazon Mouse

Don’t get me wrong, by all means hire a professional photographer if you can, but don’t blame not doing your own photography on “lack of equipment” just so you have an excuse to hold yourself back.

This doesn’t just apply to product photos either, but also real people. If you haven’t gotten pictures of your real staff (or at least your executive team) on the site, what the hell are you waiting for?

I love Unbounce's customer service section on their homepage
I love Unbounce’s customer service section on their homepage

Simply put, people pay attention to people who look like real people!

This eye-tracking study by Jakob Nielson shows that photos of real people are often treated as important visual content & are scrutinized:

people-photos-fixations Whereas stock photos and obvious “filler content” images are typically ignored:


In case your boss or client is one of those anti-using-real-human-beings-on-the-website people (oh yeah, they exist) tell them how Harringtion Movers added roughly $10,000 per month to their business when they tested real photographs against cheesy stock people with boxes.


It’s Not “Technically” That Hard To Create Your Own Photos


The photograph above is from Shopify’s must read “Ultimate DIY Guide To Product Photography“; it was taken with a Canon G10 point & shoot and can be bought anywhere between $188.99 – $350.

The white background in the photo is called a sweep. Small sweeps for photographing small objects can be made using household materials, or can be purchased for around $25.

Larger sweeps designed for photographing people can be purchased for less than $50 & a whole basic studio setup kit only costs $225. That’s is all you need to get that basic “white background” look that you see everywhere.

Basic Studio Setup


If “real” people are worried they’re not photogenic enough, show them this video on “Squinching” which will help them look a million times better in any photograph.

Now, like I said earlier, if you can get a professional photographer to come in, do it.

They’re going to know a lot more about lighting, staging, composition & how to get the most emotion out of the subject being photographed. But also please realize those are the qualities that make a professional photographer unique, not just their ability to produce a high quality photograph.

If all you need right now is to produce something that looks pretty good so it’ll sell online, less than $1,000 in equipment & some tutorials on Youtube is more than enough to get you there.


If you must use stock photography, make sure it’s on brand, not grossly overused & do what you can to make it your own. Basic and advanced photo-manipulation tactics can transform stock photos into completely unique pieces; they just take a little more time to create.

But also, don’t be afraid to take your own photos either.

It’s amazing how much quality is packed into smartphones and other less expensive camera options. With a little planning & some basic knowledge on how lighting & composition work, you can take unique, high quality photographs that better represent your brand.

Featured image source

Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Bonus: Several Sources Of Great Stock Photography

    Here’s a list of some great stock photography websites that regularly update with high quality photography.

    If you use images from these sites, please, please, please check TinEye first to see who else is using the photo & how. This can save you a lot of embarrassment down the road.

    5. Stocksy
    6. be prepared to look)
    8. Jay Mantri
    11. Life of Pix
    12. Picjumbo
    13. Lock & Stock Photos
  2. I haven’t read all of this article, just skimmed through it (going to read in in-depth this afternoon while sipping some tea)

    But I’ve personally found that investing in a good DSLR camera and taking good photos increases the share-ability of my articles as well as gives it a more personal feel rather than feeling commercial and fake.

  3. This was an awesome post Tommy! Great information worth a share. I hate stock photos especially when people put them on their websites. Ugh! Really that’s you with that cheesy smile and headset? I know of most of the sites you have listed, which have excellent photos but I always use Canva to spice them up for what I need. You should check out also, they have some great photos.

    Take care,

  4. Hey guys, great article again. However Diederik Stapel the researcher mentioned in the first section has actually been stripped of his title for fraud. He manipulated research data making his findings questionable at the very least.

    All the best!

    1. Oh wow, thanks so much for sharing Karel. I’ll have to update to reflect that.

  5. The best source in my opinion and brand new (just being around for some months):

    Every high resolution photo just $1 buck. There’s nothing more to say…

  6. “… kid only costs $225.” Can you really buy a kid that cheap?

    Great article! Really nice to see some proof that stock photos really don’t cut it.

    This is something I always thought was just a designer’s war on stock photography.

  7. Personally, I would always go for getting your own photos. Nothing beats original ones. Now, it is even easier to take photos with smartphones!

  8. A few years back I was hired as a new marketing director to help rebrand a company. Funny enough one of their most commonly used stock photos for content was the “friend zone fiona” meme girl. At first I thought it was hilarious, then I realized I had to quickly undo what had been done :)

  9. Hi Tommy.
    Today i was talking with my coworker (he is marketer) about pic of blog’s post.
    And he told me that read articles only if there is a kind of images (and of course title is interesting for him).

    What kind of images according to you we should use?
    I shown him this blog but just some article he wanted to read… such he didnt see such articles because he didnt find right image.
    I ask him… I understood that the image should be inpire an emotion (fear, desire..) or have to be a curious image… and mostly image have to be pertinent with post.

  10. Hi Tommy,
    I enjoyed reading this article, both as a photographer/retoucher and as a product designer. The part I would question is about manipulation; the first being to make sure your licence allows for extensive manipulation, and secondly, about the time it will take to create a convincing composite image from 2 or more images. It might be easier/cheaper to buy a dslr and take you own. Or contact someone like myself and talk to me about your project, also at:
    Kind regards

  11. I love this article! Really informative and gives a great understanding about the subject! Double thumbs up!

Comments are closed.