Old-fashioned camera with the watermark stock written over the top 5 times

April 22 2021

by Keri Gerheart


Stock Photography That Doesn’t Suck

According to marketing guru Seth Godin, “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” And nothing is arguably more essential to telling your story in a way that resonates with prospects and clients than imagery. The impact of imagery in your audience can be defining.  In fact, studies have been done that suggest imagery can have a significant subliminal impact on attitude and mood!  We’re not talking about the traditional brand and product imagery, but rather images that provide context, that evoke a response and tell your story. 

This raises the question then: How do you find the right image for the story you’re telling?  An option many organizations choose is creating original, campaign-specific imagery. This is often considered the best option, and with good reason. Even with the significant time and financial cost, the end result often perfectly encapsulates the goal of your campaign or project. However, there is another option that many may dismiss as not being practical or effective: stock photography.

Stock Photography as a Solution

For those unfamiliar, stock photography refers to copyrighted images that a third party makes available for free or for a fee. These images are typically licensed for a specific use and touch on a variety of themes to remain versatile in use. They tend to range in quality and originality, but are available in large quantities. 

Now is probably a good time to note that, other than public domain images, ALL images on the internet are copyrighted. It is up to you to ensure that you gain legal right to use an image!

So, why is stock photography so often overlooked as a viable solution?  I would argue that, perhaps, the large number of sources of stock photos and the great diversity of themes can be overwhelming. In addition, many people feel that stock photos are too generic to be an effective solution for the project at hand. But, if you know where to find quality stock images and how to use them, these photos can change hearts and minds!

Using Stock Photography Effectively

The way you use stock photography will make or break its effectiveness. Here are a few recommendations that you should follow:

Tell a Story

Your images should tell a story and that story should be your marketing message. Your marketing copy and imagery should complement each other, and if you do it right, the image will make your messaging unforgettable.

Fit the Image to Your Needs

When you license a stock photo, you have limited access rights to that photo. As such, you are free to modify the photo to suit your messaging needs, as long as you don’t modify the “visual presentation of the image.” This is important because it allows you to better adapt images to your messaging. You can, for example, crop an image for a better fit, or perhaps create a collage of multiple images to better tell a story. Just be sure you review the licensing terms of your stock photo provider to be sure that the licensing meets your needs.

Keep Your Target Audience in Mind

Be sure to select images that align with your target audience. Use the personas that you have created for each of your target audiences as a guide. Relatability is key – that’s how your target reader will be able to put him or herself “into the story.”  That being said, don’t sacrifice creativity. A picture of someone crossing a chasm on a high wire can readily evoke a typical business challenge in a dramatic and memorable way.

Test, Test, Test

In a digital world, you have an unprecedented opportunity to test your campaigns. That testing rubric applies to your choice of imagery. A/B testing is an excellent technique to gauge the relative effectiveness of your photos. The right image can have a significant impact, for example, on the conversion rate of your landing page.

Optimization is Important

Optimize your images for SEO and screen readers. Search optimization is a whole topic in itself, but very briefly here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Use a keyword phrase descriptive of your image/message in your image filename.
  • Use the right image format. The right format kind of depends on the intended use. For the kind of marketing uses we have discussed thus far, you are probably best advised to use JPEG (.jpg file extension) format for your image files.
  • Use responsive images, which means including code that displays the image correctly for a variety of screen dimensions. Best to get your local HTML guru to help you with this one.
  • Use ALT tags with your images.  ALT tags are text that is associated with images and that helps search engines identify image content. Your ALT tags should be descriptive, specific, and relevant.

While it is convenient to stick with a stock photo provider that you have used in the past, be adventurous and use a variety of sources for your imagery. As noted above, there are a variety of theme-related stock photo sites as well as Creative Commons sites, so let your campaign focus drive your search for photos. 

Sourcing Quality Stock Images

Next, let’s address where to source these images. As noted above, the vast array of stock photo sources can be daunting, so we have provided a list of resources we recommend:

  • iStock/Shuttestock – online royalty-free, international stock photography provider, however subscription is required
  • Stocksy – “art-forward,” royalty-free photo and video agency cooperative.  Requires a subscription
  • Unsplash – freely-usable images for commercial and non-commercial purposes
  • Death to the Stock Photo – artist co-op providing stock photos and videos; requires a subscription fee
  • New Old Stock – vintage photos from public archives. Selective copyright restrictions on commercial use.
  • Picjumbo – a broad selection of free stock photos; offers a premium membership
  • Gratisography – an eclectic selection of free stock photos free of copyright restrictions for personal or commercial use
  • Women of Color in Tech – curated selection of photos; available under Creative Commons license and requires attribution.
  • Public Domain Archive – vintage and modern public domain images, free for commercial use
  • Picography – free stock photos available under a Creative Commons license; attribution encouraged but not required
  • ISO Republic – curated collections of high-resolution photos under a Creative Commons license; attribution is encouraged but not required

Despite the rumors, stock photography is not always a bad solution. In fact, when used correctly and strategically, using stock photography can be a huge time-saving solution for teams who are stretched thin and need help. As always, the crew at VSSL is always down to help you out. We’re just a message away.