Stock Photos or Custom Photos - Which Is Right for Your Website? | Stock Photography | Custom PhotographyThere is probably nothing more consistently mocked in the marketing world than stock photography. Whether it’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad, Hands Pointing at Computer Screen, or Upward Trending Graph on Whiteboard, there’s no shortage of bad stock photography for discerning and not-so-discerning eyes to see, judge, and laugh at.

What gets less attention are the massive caches of good stock photography. Stock photos where the expressions aren’t cartoonish, the context makes sense in the modern world, and the scenarios are true to life.

When it comes to choosing imagery for your website, custom isn’t always the right choice. With a discerning eye and some creative edits, stock photos can often be a seamless option to support and enhance the messaging on your site.

Good Photos are Good Photos

“The qualities that make up a good stock photo are the same qualities that we aim for when shooting custom photos. Every brand has different needs, but good lighting, relevant subject matter and strategic composition are always important to consider and get right.”
John English, Art Director

Ultimately, what you want for your website are good photos. The definition of a good photo varies (in some ways) based on your needs, but often it can be achieved with equal success through the use of well-chosen stock photography or carefully-executed custom photography.

Assuming you’re willing to invest in an experienced graphic designer who is capable of finding high-quality stock photography to use in your site design, how do you choose between stock photos and custom photography?

Wait – I Think We Already Have Photos to Use!

The first question to ask yourself is: do I already have a library of professional custom photography to pull from? Before you say yes, keep in mind the following:

  1. Cell phone photos, even from an iPhone, rarely have the resolution needed for large website banners or feature images.
  2. Candid photos, such as from team events, work in some scenarios, but service-based pages or key sales-driven pages often require more specific context.
  3. Do all the photos in your library look like they belong together? Is the lighting the same? Is the point of view similar? Do they portray the message you want to convey about your organization?
  4. Did the people in the photos give permission to be used on your website or in other marketing materials?

These are only a handful of the reasons the custom photography you already have may not work for your website. When every page, word, color, button and form is carefully, strategically chosen by a team of marketing specialists, why should you settle when it comes to photography?

Real People versus Stock People

We often hear from our clients that they don’t want “fake” employees featured on their websites.

And we get it. We do. Your company and the people who work there are very close to your heart. But your website isn’t for you.

The average website visitor (read: potential customer) won’t know if the people featured in photos on your website are actual employees or stock photo actors. Here are the people who will know:

  1. People who work at your company.
  2. The designer who chose the photos.

That’s it! And since the target audience for your website is (probably) neither of those groups, you’re in the clear to use the well-lit, well-staged, ideal people in the stock photo if that’s a better fit for your budget.

“Showcasing real employees on your website adds a fantastic personal touch, but unless the photo is going to be on an “About Us” page, a well-taken photo of some anonymous hands working in a kitchen, typing up some documents, or reviewing blueprints can illustrate exactly what you need without requiring a full photoshoot of your own.”
Tommy Creenan, UI/UX designer

The Cost of Stock versus Custom Photography

Which brings us to the big one: stock photography is cheap. Custom photography is not.

Stock photographs can often be purchased at a few different tiers. A valid concern about stock photos is that you may find the same photo on someone else’s website. You may be able to purchase exclusive use rights, which will cost you more. At Luminus, and many other marketing agencies, the cost of stock photography is so negligible that we simply bake it into our overall website costs. Stock photos can often be used without significant editing, which further lowers the comparative cost.

Custom photography, on the other hand, comes with a price tag. If the benefits of custom photos are worthwhile, the costs of the photoshoot shouldn’t deter you from making this investment. But the cost of getting a photographer on-site with camera equipment, lighting, backdrops, props, etc. will likely run you several thousand dollars. Depending on the number of sessions needed, the duration of each shoot, and the amount of editing required, custom photo shoots are definitely a significant investment in your brand.

“We often prefer custom photography because we can control every aspect of it, which matters for highly specific scenarios or some more complex web designs. But stock can be a big time and money saver under the right circumstances.”
– John English

Let’s Talk Specific Circumstances

Though it’s likely that either one could work for your organization and website, there are specific circumstances that may necessitate custom photography.

  1. Your brand is people-forward. If you build your customer-based messaging on the people, the culture, and the experience, you’re going to want the imagery on your website to reflect that. While stock photos featuring realistic-looking people are an option, your brand authenticity will take a hit.
  2. You are a product-based company. If you are selling something, you need photos of that specific thing. Stock photos are not a viable alternative.
  3. What you do is very niche. Stock photos are best for more common services, scenarios and situations. If you do something that is complex, unique, or difficult to explain, stock photos that do your organization justice will be difficult to find.

The Final Word

To summarize, John says:

When Stock Photos are a Great Choice

If you just need a few photos of general things, such as smiling children, common goods or services, abstract technology, etc., stock can work quite well and be far more efficient time- and cost-wise than setting up a custom shoot.

When Stock Photos are an Un-Ideal Choice

For very specific products or services (products that are highly technical or services that are unique or uncommon) stock can be tricky. It may still be a workable option if appropriate photos can be found, but you’ll usually be sacrificing the relevancy of the subject matter.

When it’s time to revamp your website, imagery matters! While many people will skim the copy, the photos or imagery you use serve to engage your audience and enhance the message. The choice between stock and custom photography isn’t always a simple choice to make, but with the right marketing partner it’s likely you can make either one work for you.

And because we wouldn’t be doing this conversation justice without showing you the wild world of zany stock photography, please enjoy a sampling of photos that all scream, “when in the world would anyone ever need this?”