An Image is Worth a Thousand Laughs
Stock photos are the dirty secret of design—a necessary evil, often mishandled, and easy to laugh at. Type “stock photos” into Google’s search box and “stock photos that don’t suck” is one of their top predictive suggestions. Which confirms that most stock photos, in fact, do suck.
The craptacularity of stock photos has even entered mainstream consciousness. Fox Studios teamed with Getty’s iStock service to offer a series of free stock photo downloads featuring Vince Vaugh and other stars of the film Unfinished Business photoshopped into stiffly-posed office tableaus.
Notice the fine line between a stock photo and the 1975 JC Penny catalogue? Just add gray wool and a striped tie. For women, a blue blazer. Keep the jutting elbow and waxen gaze.
6 Stock Mistakes
How many ways can a stock photo fail? A million. Fortunately, I’ve parsed them into six basic categories.
- Too old.
Photos have an expiration date. Dude, that iPod is so last technology cycle!
- Too stiff/too posed.
Beware the bad actor syndrome. Didn’t I see that in Delsarte acting class?
- Too perfect/too clean.
Life is messy. Don’t let your stock photos look like a stage set. Or a still from The Stepford Wives.
- Too obvious.
Yes, a businessman peering through a magnifying glass at a holographic projection of the world could represent ‘Global Research.’ But it shouldn’t. Don’t hit me over the head with a stock photo.
- Too familiar.
Avoid that awkward “Hey, wait a minute…haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” déjà vu moment. Remember the Back-to-School-Girl? Dell and Gateway do. Some stock photo models are so popular, they have their own Facebook page.
- Too esoteric/too contrived.
Man in pink tutu walking in field with cows, I’m talking about you.
Shooting Fish in a Barrel
Making fun of stock photos is a web staple. You’ll find overlapping examples of all six stock mistakes in these online galleries of shame. Maybe you’ll find some ones I missed. Don’t click unless you’re prepared to lose an afternoon, Hint: keep some nausea pills handy.
- Bad Stock Photos
- Awkward Stock Photos
- WTF Stock Photos (Reddit has crowdsourced the badness. This page is constantly updated.)
- Weird Stock
- Getty Critics (This site, by far the most subtle, is for stock photos that almost look normal. Almost.)
A Reasonable Approach to Stock Photos
Images are the language of the web. Our brain processes images faster than text, which means they are crucial to our emotional and intuitive response to a site. Flat design is great and loads in a nanosecond on mobile, but the most engaging sites on the web are trending toward more visuals and full-screen heroes. Call it the Medium effect.
If you are a designer, sooner or later you will have to deal with stock photos. After poking fun at the worst of them, how do you make the best of them?
The first step is to avoid the six mistakes listed above. This means you’re going to have to look longer and harder to find an image that is unexpected yet perfectly appropriate. Your photos should seem like natural choices, yet never seen before. Find five that you think will fit the topic, then find five more. The ones you find after that will be the winners. Selection is the key.
Think about photo treatments. Are you slapping your photo up as-is, like that polo shirt with the shelf creases and a price tag attached to the back collar you’re wearing? Oh, you wouldn’t wear that? Then why would you use a stock photo with no breaking-in process. Try some cropping. Focus on a detail. Add a blur effect. How about a selective foreground blur to give an illusion of depth-of-field (which adds a casual “caught in the moment” feel to a photo). Maybe a color overlay. If your image ends up exactly the same on your web page as it did on the stock photo site you downloaded from, it’s probably just filling space and you might re-examine whether you need an image at all.
Stock photography is driven by need and balanced between budget and creativity. Take the time to make it work. Spend an afternoon. If you grab the first image you find on a keyword search, someone else has probably found it too. And once you select an image, make it fit within the visual consistency of your site. If you’re working with a tight budget, pay attention to the rights. Royalty Free means you pay once, but can use the image as much as you want. Rights Managed means you get a one-time use and must pay again for each new use.
33 Stock Photo Resources
This is the last stock photo resource list you’ll ever need. From no-rights Creative Commons to wallet-busting exclusive Rights Managed licenses, there is something here for every budget and project need.
Decent sites that offer free stock photos
- Stock Snap
- Pic Jumbo (they even offer a photoshop plugin for easy integration)
- Morgue File
Creative Commons (that’s right, more free stuff!)
Creative Common licenses usually require an attribution to the source. Also, there are degrees of permission granted. Most broadly, you’ll find Commercial and Non-Commercial licenses, as well as CC0 (which is essentially a public domain, anything goes category). Bone up on Creative Common guidelines here.
- Creative Commons search engine
- Find a Photo (a cool option is to search by color)
- Flickr CC (search for Flickr images with the Creative Commons tag)
- Google (advanced image search—find the Usage filter to select Free To Use)
Creative Uncommons (historical and specialty images)
- New Old Stock (public-domain images curated from institutional archives)
- The Pattern Library (That’s right, just tiling patterns. Sometimes you need what you need.)
- Bettmann Archives (pricey, but extensive and high-quality)
- NASA (Space, the final frontier—and free! Your tax dollars at work for you. Make sure to read their guidelines so it doesn’t appear NASA is endorsing your product. Find more NASA images here and here.)
- Internet Archive (A total flea market of photos. Who knows what you’ll find.)
- From Old Books (you guessed it—photos and engravings scanned from old books in the public domain)
- Dollar Photo Club
- Creative Market
- Dreamstime (you’ll have to sign up to use the site)
- iStock (it’s like the discount outlet store for Getty Images)
Instead of browsing through galleries of images, sign up and receive weekly or monthly packages of selected images sent directly to your email.
Reverse Image Search
A reverse image search engine is exactly what you think, if what you think is a search engine that allows you to upload your own image (or type in the direct URL to an online image) and search for other instances of that image on the web. But you knew that.
The Last Word
Use your power responsibly. Jakob Nielsen, the infamous internet scold, says site users visually filter out images they perceive as decorative filler. Follow these tips, use these resources, and make sure your stock photos advance the brand or enhance the content of your site. This Paul McCartney impersonator and his inexplicable panda thank you.