Josh Shardlow Team : Web Production Tags : Web Design Common Sense User Experience

The Real Problem with Stock Photography

Josh Shardlow Team : Web Production Tags : Web Design Common Sense User Experience

Images communicate faster with more clarity and greater impact than the written word, and so it's unsurprising that as download times and screen resolution have improved, online communication has become an overtly visual medium.

What is surprising however is the overwhelming number of websites that use the wrong images to convey their key messages.

The endless examples of badly-utilised stock imagery are a case in point. To say that most stock imagery we see online has become clichéd is an understatement. The close-up shot of two hands shaking against a blue background, a smiling group of multi-cultural colleagues discussing an important business matter (usually with someone holding a pen) and a tiny tree in a lump of soil being held towards the camera spring to mind as the obvious examples. For some these images are seen as engendering trust, teamwork or sustainability. In practice, they often invoke feelings of cynicism, laziness or disingenuity.

However, the reality is that ‘shot-for-purpose’, high-quality photography is usually expensive and not within budget for many companies. There’s often no choice for those with less budget to turn to stock imagery as an alternative. The real problem in these cases is not with the stock images per se but rather what images are selected and how they are used.

Take for example a company looking for an image to represent the experience of getting in touch via its contact page. The temptation is to select an airbrushed picture of a receptionist, wearing a headset and smiling down the lens against a white background. What may at first seem ‘professional’ actually ends up looking generic and probably doesn’t represent the reality of the company. The end result in this scenario is one where the image fails to make a real connection after being perceived as generic, trust is diminished and the opportunity to engage may be lost.

Short of hiring a photographer to produce high-quality, authentic images to use on your site there are a few other steps that can be taken to avoid the stock imagery trap.

Try to choose images that aren’t clichéd. The internet is full of pages showing what there are. If in doubt, do a google image search of ‘clichéd stock photography’ and make sure your photo doesn’t look anything like these photos.

Choose photos that are consistent with each other. It’s all about consistency – don’t use images that look as though they’re from different photo shoots. For example, if you choose to use colour images throughout your site, don’t throw in one sepia-toned image somewhere on the site. It’ll have a disconcerting effect on your page visitors and result in a loss of confidence in your brand.

Avoid images that have nothing to do with your products of services. Images that don't represent your product have an opportunity cost, no matter how artistic, comical or visually-appealing they might otherwise be. If you sell hand-made children's shoes online, a background image of a field of wheat won't make sense to the majority of visitors, and so at best will confuse them, and at worst imply that you’re not serious about or comfortable with your real corporate image. 

Don’t buy the low-resolution image version and try to make it work in larger spaces. You’ve found the perfect image - unique, true to your brand and perfectly aligned with your logo and colour scheme. The only problem is the price. While it’s tempting to buy the smaller, low-res version that’s probably a mistake. Re-sizing the image up to a larger format isn’t going to cut it. The image will look grainy, low quality and immediately give the impression that you’re into short-cuts and compromising on quality.

Use illustration as an alternative. A growing number of websites are using illustration as a solution to the unavoidable reality of a bland corporate background. Maybe your offices are actually your living room, your product isn’t tangible or you can’t afford to purchase the images you’d ideally like to use. If this is the case you might want to consider purchasing a series of illustrations that suit your brand or even hiring someone to sketch out some concepts that convey what it is you’re offering. The results can be dramatic if well executed and will no doubt be more authentic than many of the stock alternatives.

A typical Wiliam meeting in progress.