Stock Photos Don't Have To Suck

Ian Lurie

Stock photos don’t kill campaigns. Campaigns using stock photos kill campaigns.

I just found a very smart (and funny) article about stock photos on Information Rain. Chris’s point: Most stock photography is just awful.

But fear not! You can use stock photos without looking ridiculous. Here are a few tips:

Choose Photos With a Purpose

Don’t pick a stock photo because you need to fill some space. Select a stock photo because it serves a purpose.

It should communicate your message.

This image, for example, might communicate “I know how to point at something”:
Look, I can point!

…But I’m not sure what else it could say.

And this image seems to say “I’ll like you if you buy from us”:
Hi there

Uh-huh. I’m sure she’s an employee.

I found these images on sites selling copier parts and supplies, by the way. I’m feeling generous, so I will not provide links.

Both sites would be better served to have no photo at all, or (gasp) a photo of real employees.

Choose Creatively

You can, with a little thought, choose stock photos that creatively reinforce your message.

If you’re a video conferencing company, don’t use an image that makes me think you’re plotting to take over the world and/or have me killed:
the Star Chamber Lives

Think about it. Your product reduces distance and brings teams together. Find an image that evokes that feeling. I took a minute to move the continents closer together on this map. Add a caption like “Make the World Smaller With Our New Conferencing System” and you’re all set:

OK, this map isn’t the greatest. I did this in about 60 seconds. Deal with it.

Add Stuff

When I use most stock shots, I’ll add something. My favorite addition is a thought or speech bubble (as you’ve probably noticed):

end of the world as we know it

I have zero Photoshop ability, so I used a program called Comic Life to comic-ify this image.
You can also put an image someplace out-of-context:

Beware of Other Uses

Most stock photos permit multiple, simultaneous uses. Do you want the happy house in your real estate ad to show up in a radon gas warning packet? Probably not.

This example is from Chris’s article. Yikes:

Remember The Message!

Above all, look at every image you use and ask, “Does this help me accomplish the goals of my campaign?”.

If it doesn’t, leave the space empty. Or (heaven forbid) put useful information there.

Stock photography doesn’t have to suck.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

Start call to action

See how Portent can help you own your piece of the web.

End call to action


  1. Thanks for the funny response to my article Ian!
    I particularly liked the idea about using Comic Life to spice up the typically boring stock imagery.
    You know who else used that technique to great effect?
    The “Creating Passionate Users” blog had a bunch of those funny images.

  2. I agree that most stock photography sucks and non-exclusive rights are never the way to go during a licensing term. But I think the stock agencies need to step up the quality and cut out the royalty free crap. As a photographer it destroys my market and as a business man it gives a lot of shit to sift through to find something useful. Stock has it’s purpose, even for the large corporation but it has its limitations and they need to be acknowledged by the art buyer, art director, graphic designer, or the business owner that think he/she can do the whole thing.
    Basically just do your research and ask yourself, “Does this help me accomplish the goals of my campaign?” as you put it Ian.

Comments are closed.

Close search overlay