View of the Golden Gate Bridge by Venti Views via Unsplash

September 13, 2022 | By: Author Page for Quinn Nichols

When to Use Stock Photos – And When You Shouldn’t

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Ah, stock photos – some people like them, some overuse them, and some are opposed to anything stock. As designers, we understand how important it is to visually stand out from your competition while not breaking the bank. So, here are a few pieces of advice to help you determine when it's okay to use stock images and when it may make sense to invest in custom photography.

View of the Seattle Skyline at night, photo by Thom Milkovic via Unsplash
Seattle Skyline | Thom Milkovic via Unsplash

Stock photo myths

Let's dispel a few myths: first, stock photos aren't bad for your brand if you know how to select and use them. Second, using stock images is something businesses do every day. Hollywood blockbuster films frequently use stock footage for familiar scenes like a street market in Marrakesh, the Seattle skyline at night, and people jogging across the Golden Gate Bridge. Movies, especially TV shows, rarely shoot scenes from scratch every time they make a show, especially when a large majority of the show is created in a warehouse in LA. Long story short, it's not shameful to use stock photos; it can be an intelligent use of time and budget.

When to use stock photos

As a general rule of thumb, stock photos are best for communicating broad ideas and depicting highly photographed or famous scenes to establish a sense of place. For example, WSD is based in Sausalito, California, so photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County, and San Francisco are good candidates for stock choices to convey the idea that we are based in the San Francisco Bay Area. It wouldn't be cost-effective or provide a strong return on investment for us to pay a photographer to capture a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge when millions of similar stock photos are readily available. 

Screenshot example of a Golden Gate Bridge photo found on the About page of the WSD website
Golden Gate Bridge | Stock Photo Used On The WSD About Page

Be mindful of the competition when selecting a stock photo; as long as you don't use the same photo as a competitor, none of your clients or website users will notice. For example, most people don't notice whether the NYC skyline from the show Only Murders In The Building is the same image as the one from Brooklyn 99. The viewer sees the image, thinks, "Okay, that's New York," and moves on.

Stock photos also work well when paired with short headlines or Call To Action (CTA) text, where the text takes precedence, and the picture supports the text in the (mental) background. 

When to use custom photography

Custom photos are best used when instilling iconic brand imagery. Having a photographer capture brand-specific images ensures brand authenticity and reduces crossover concerns with competitors and other businesses. For example, if you plan to use an image of a redwood tree as part of your brand, it makes sense to invest in custom photography to capture an image you can use over and over across all brand assets. 

Image of three people walking in an office building
Team Wakelin | kevinwakelin.com

Likewise, investing in lifestyle photography to capture high-end photos of yourself or your team is a win-win for your brand and marketing initiatives, especially if you are in real estate or a business based firmly around a personal brand or service. 

Essentially, any imagery that communicates your company's key differentiators or showcases your products and services in action is an excellent case for custom photos. For example, showing your actual employees at work will always convey a more personal brand message than a stock pic of generic office workers. Similarly, an image of your office building is superior to a photo of a random building. 


Do you have questions about photo trends and designs? Contact us; we'd love to chat!

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