Stock photography, why you should not use it
Photography and websites are a tough pairing. While most websites use some photographed images, many don’t, and it’s actually remarkably easy to do more harm than good with a dull photo.
So, for those setting up a website, how can you use photography to your advantage? Sure enough, a well-placed photo can change the entire feel of a website, make it visually appealing in a way that users simply find satisfying to gaze into, scroll through and explore.
Given the bounds of possibility for photos are essentially endless, the perfectionist could gnaw through an entire hand’s worth of nails trying to figure out the ‘right shot’. But there are some essential rules (more don’ts than do’s) for good practice, the most important of which is not to use stock photography.
The unfettered evil of stock photography
This is the central tenet of website photography and reveals much about what users like and don’t like about photos. The stats are clear — authentic photos increase conversion, while stock photos across the board put users off. One moving company received 45% more quotes using pictures of the team or the truck in use as opposed to stock footage of families moving.
So, people don’t like stock photography. Why? What’s wrong with a nondescript, happy family, the husband putting his arm round a smiling wife as she points to the wonderful deal she just found on her browser (sound the ad slogan, ‘Because we’re here to help’).
Nuts about novelty
Ultimately, what it comes down to is novelty. Users surfing the net may be looking for services, deals and practical offers they can take advantage of to improve their lives. But they’re also always looking for something new to dig into. We live in a world of limitless complexity, but not everything we find on a day-to-day basis is new. Most of what fills the average Instagram feed is nothing novel, just reiterations of people selling products, flaunting holiday photos — things we’re all too familiar with. We are very curious creatures, and we love the feeling of catching a trail, following a mysterious lead, exploring something new, strange or unheard-of. Capturing this sense of uniqueness and novelty is central to tickling the antennae of your customers and arousing their desire for exploration.
This is why authenticity is so crucial. A semi-decent photo of a moving company does 45% better than professional stock footage because it’s new. It’s a specific company with a specific story. It’s been set up, developed over years, people hired, fired, and here they all are now gathered for a photo. They might be interesting people, they might not be — either way, it’s a new story, new insight into a world of complexity.
This sounds airy-fairy, but this is what content is about. Content can be practical information that serves a clear purpose, but often it isn’t. Anything that makes an impression on us is content. For example, there are a number of YouTube channels that film street food stands across Asia, showing the processes of these skilled old-timers preparing their customers food for the 1000th time. These channels have a large western viewership, and yet the viewers surely aren’t trying to master the techniques shown. Many of them will never even attempt to cook the cuisine displayed. But they watch the videos nonetheless because it gives insight into a self-contained world full of buzz and excitement that otherwise is unreachable. This sense of adventure, of finding treasure at the end of the journey, is central to content, and how best to use photography in your website.
Ditch the professionals
Now, this is not to say that your photos have to carve out a fantastical trail into a world of wonder — far from it. Photos can be very simple. They don’t even have to be professional; these days, a new iPhone camera can capture photos good enough to go on most websites. Personally, I think all of these blogs and companies peddling the necessity for professional photos are trying to steal your money — all you need is a decent camera and a good idea.
Take this website for example. I know the guy who set this up, and the main photo on the home page was taken with the panorama function on an iPhone 8. If you scroll down, you’ll find stock photos of bridges and rivers that were all professionally taken and all less engaging than the iPhone shot. True, it’s a well-taken shot, and I know it’s one of at least 100 takes (the swan was apparently not responding well to direction), but it’s a photo anyone could have taken. The image doesn’t tell you anything, there is no treasure at the centre, but it’s still a pleasing visual experience. It’s authentic, there’s a strange bridge in the middle, and it evokes a certain sense of exploration. And you don’t need nature to do this. The messy workstation of a design team could achieve the same effect, as the viewer wonders what late-night sessions created the mess of materials they see strewn across the table.
Authentic photos aren’t guaranteed to do this successfully, but stock photos are guaranteed not to. No human insight is offered by a stock photo. Paid actors responding to calculated directives — there is no substance beyond the goal of selling the footage on stock websites. If there is a golden rule (beside the golden ‘do not’), it is to take the opposite approach to stock footage. Be human, be personal, be authentic, frame yourself or your brand within the photo, and execute it well (so that the right material is in focus, and the camera frame is lined up nicely with the scene). Experiment, but don’t panic about needing fancy equipment or a thrilling scene. You don’t need a butterfly being struck by lightning, just something authentic that your viewers won’t find anywhere else.Back to blog home