In a perfect world, every image on your website would be meticulously staged, lit and captured for you by the professional photographer of your choosing. But more often than not, budgetary realities don’t afford the luxury of being able to commission a photo shoot to fulfill every visual need on your site.
Fortunately, advancements in digital photography have allowed amateur shutterbugs to create images that can stand shoulder to shoulder with those produced by the pros. As a result, the availability of excellent, high-quality stock photography has increased dramatically in recent years, and following the rule of supply and demand, the cost of these images has decreased. Whereas once major players like Getty dominated the market and commanded top dollar for every frame, today there is a proliferation of stock image sites that offer vast libraries of eye-catching images for very reasonable prices.
The incredible selection of stock images available to us today is both a blessing and a curse. It’s amazing to have so many choices, but the sheer magnitude of the selection can prove daunting at times.
How do you choose the right photo for your project? What should you be looking for in a stock photo, and conversely, what should you seek to avoid? Here are seven simple dos and donts that will help you master the stock market and find the best images to represent your brand and create an appealing visual tableau on your website.
In terms of cost, the stock photography market can be broken down into three basic classes:
Free: Compfight and morgueFile are two examples of sites that feature images that fall under the Creative Commons license, which means you can use them for free. When dealing in these types of images, make sure you read the fine print because some are approved for commercial use while others are restricted to personal use only.
While the price tag may seem appealing, many of the images you’ll find on these free sites are low-resolution and poorer quality than those you would find on other stock sites. The selection is also much more limited. After all, you do get what you pay for!
Low cost: Veer, iStock and Bigstock are three excellent stock sites that offer a great selection of images in a variety of sizes. Photos on these sites range in cost from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars a piece, depending on the source and the size.
Another very low cost (almost free) option is Dollar Photo Club. A one-year subscription to this site costs $99, but that membership includes 99 image downloads, with additional downloads costing just $1 each. The selection on Dollar Photo Club is on par with other stock photo sites, and all images are large, high-resolution files.
Premium: The top echelon of stock photography sites – which includes industry stalwarts like Getty and Corbis – are much more restrictive in the selection of their contributing photographers. While they command much higher license fees for their images, the benefit to paying top dollar is that their photos are not as widely used as those found on lower-cost alternatives, so they have a more unique feel.
The process of purchasing a stock image is not necessarily as straightforward as buying your average widget. Because these images are the intellectual property of the photographer that created them, there are usage rights attached to them that govern the length of time, medium, size, format and location of use.
Again, there are three categories you’ll need to understand:
Royalty free: This is the most common license type you’ll find in today’s market, and it is also the most ideal, as it is the least restrictive. This license allows you to pay for an image once and use it without limits across multiple projects.
Rights managed: This type of license allows you to use the image for a limited period of time for a specified medium or application. If you want to continue using the image after this time period expires or for a different purpose, you must pay more to renew the license.
Extended: Some sites allow you to “extend” the license on an image in order to use it in ways not typically allowed under a rights-managed license structure. This is often done on a case-by-case basis and it usually applies to using an image on tangible goods (t-shirts, posters, etc.). Such a license is rarely, if ever, needed for the images you will be using on your website.
Try to stick with royalty-free images as much as possible, as they are the easiest to manage for long-term use on the Web, and there’s no lack of excellent quality photos that come with this option.
When searching for stock images, you’ll naturally start by querying a term or keyword that relates to the type of image you need. When reviewing the results of your search, however, don’t be too quick to select images that appear on the first few pages. These are undoubtedly the most popular images because many searchers that have come before you have already downloaded them. This means that the early results are also images you are most likely to see used (and perhaps overused) elsewhere.
Don’t be afraid to jump ahead in the results pages to see what images you can uncover deeper in your search. Often, there are amazing photos that are far less popular, and using these hidden gems minimizes the risk that your selection will show up elsewhere – like your competitor’s website.
We’ve all seen the “handshake photo” – the bland, uninspired image of two men in suits (or at least shirts and ties) shaking hands that is universal visual shorthand for “doing business.”
Generic stock images like these make your website look like it’s straight out of the template factory. Because these images are so very commonplace, if you decide to use them on your site, you all but guarantee that the impression you leave with your visitors will not be a memorable one.
Besides the aforementioned “businessmen shaking hands” image, other terribly overused and cliched stock photos include:
Undoubtedly, you’ve encountered photos like theses many, many times in your travels around the Web, although you probably don’t recall them – exactly the reason you want to avoid these utterly forgettable images at all costs!
If you decide to use a stock image of a person on your site, keep in mind that this person is becoming the de facto face of your company. It may sound crazy, but I have seen testing sessions where users react negatively to a company due to a stock image of a person. “I don’t like the way they look” or “I don’t trust them” are two comments I have heard.
While you and I know and recognize that this is a stock image and that the person in the photo has nothing to do with your company, many casual users don’t think this way. They see a photo of another human being, and they instinctively react to it. If that reaction is a negative one, then they will naturally come away with an unfavorable impression of your brand as well.
Whenever you use stock photos of people, realize the impact of those decisions. Whoever graces the front page of your website is welcoming your visitors and representing your organization by default.
Photos come in two orientations – portrait and landscape. As its name suggests, portrait orientation is like a portrait, with the height of the image being greater than the width. A landscape image is just the opposite, with the width being greater than the height.
When reviewing stock image options, it’s important to be mindful of where this image will be used on your site and which orientation is best suited for that space. If you select the wrong orientation, the image will need be cropped to fit the space, which can sometimes result in an awkward and unattractive end result that negates the effect you were hoping to create.
While the price of stock images on the whole has come down significantly from where it was many years ago, photos can still vary quite widely in cost – especially when you are dealing in rights-managed images. Fortunately, many sites allows you to limit your search to a specified price range and to royalty-free images so that you don’t find the perfect photo only to discover that it’s a major budget-buster.
I personally really like using Dollar Photo Club for the simple fact that all images on the site are just $1, so I never have to worry about an image being out of my price range, because I know what I will spend before I even start my search!
If you are using a stock image site that does not offer this type of flat-rate pricing, just be mindful of the prices of the images you are considering, and remember that you will probably need many images to complete your web development project, so don’t blow your budget on any one photo.Jeremy Girard