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Is it OK to use stock photography or not?

It’s a common question and not a straightforward one to answer. As a photographer who preaches the importance of having personalised, bespoke image content you’d assume my answer to be a categorical “no”.

But like so much in life, it’s not that clear-cut.

Stock photography has come a long way since the early days and whilst I would always argue it is unwise to have it as Plan A for your image content, it might be equally unwise to discount it altogether.

It’s not ideal, but it has improved

Think of stock photography and you’ll probably conjure up cheesy images of smiling, headset-clad desk-bound workers meant to epitomise the modern customer services agent. Those awful shots appeared all over business pages in the early days of the web.

Some of that garbage is still out there and my message now is as clear as it would have been back then: steer well clear!

Completely contrived stock photography that has no connection with you, your business or your brand stands out a mile off – even if you can’t see it. It’s a surefire way to quickly lose credibility among your audience.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the present day and there is stock photography out there that is more considered. It could be the way in which the image is composed. Or the editing style. Maybe it uses your preferred colour palette.

Whatever it is, there is a market for thought-out, creative stock photography that can genuinely help support your brand. Unsplash has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years and with good reason – it’s stock photography but not obviously so.

It’s all a matter of quantity

Clients want to see you being your authentic self as much as possible so try to load your image content in favour of personalised photography. But you won’t immediately lose your audience if you happen to use stock for one of your Instagram posts.

My advice is use it selectively.

Even with the best stock photography at your disposal, if you use it EVERYWHERE it’s going to become your undoing. I personally tend to use stock images most often on my blog posts (except when showing off my own work, of course).

Why? To be honest, a big part of it is time.

I blog fortnightly and I don’t always have the time to find or take an image that suits the post. The words I write are the key message, not necessarily the visuals, and so I don’t think I am doing any disservice by picking stock images to break up the text.

However, when it comes to other pages of your website I strongly believe that almost all of the image content should be bespoke. For social media platforms there is more scope to mix it up and depending on how often you post I think a balanced 50/50 approach is acceptable.

Consider your message

When it comes to stock photography the key is balance and consideration. Don’t throw it around all over the place or your message will be lost.

But also don’t feel that you can never use it.

If you are using imagery as a secondary element to your main message, stock might be an option. But if the image content itself is your primary message – the aspect you want your audience to connect and engage with – then I would always advise on something personal and tailored to you.

And a final note: always choose your stock images very carefully. Even the nicest looking photo will jar with your audience if the look, style or editing is completely out of sync with the rest of your image content. It won’t always be a perfect fit but try to make it as seamless as possible.

And, yes, for full disclosure this post uses stock images!


Where and when do you use stock photography? Comment below with your thoughts!

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