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Stock Photography vs. Real Photos

Stock Photography vs. Real Photos

By January 23, 2015 Blog No Comments

This is an excerpt from Tommy Walker‘s article on ConversionXL

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.

Picture Heat Map

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 elsewhere” 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:

Reverse Image Search

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 be 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. 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
    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.

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 experimentally 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. 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.

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: 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 Search Results. Step 2 (optional)- Check To See If You Can Get A “Rights Managed” License. If the image in question hasn’t been used by everyone in the known world, check to see you can keep that way. 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. To read the rest of the original story on ConversionXL click here: http://conversionxl.com/stock-photography-vs-real-photos-cant-use/


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