It’s quite clear that a good website uses pictures in addition to text to not only keep visitors on the page, but act as an important conduit of information. Photographs can play an important part of that function, but only if those photographs are carefully selected. While many excellent stock photo sites exist, both subscription and free, as a webpage designer you should carefully consider the pros and cons of using stock photographs or custom pictures.
Stock photos sometimes are absolutely what you need. Putting together a blog and you need a quick picture of a farmhouse? Head over to Pixabay, type in farmhouse, and get 464 images, free for commercial use and no attribution required. Perfect!
A site like Pixabay curates the photographs submitted by photographers, and rejects those considered substandard, meaning that you only get professional-quality pictures with a choice of resolution depending on how you intend to use it. And if you want to pay for your stock photos on a site like Shutterstock or Adobe, you have even more options available to you.
Sometimes, you’re looking for images to quickly populate a site that you can replace over time with pictures unique to the business or organization that your website is designed for, while at the same time giving the website a finished look with lots of eye candy as soon as it goes live. Under those circumstances, turning to a stock photo site can be the answer that you need.
Everyone, it seems, uses stock photos. There was at least one case in the 2016 U.S. election of the Republican campaign using stock photos of "ordinary Americans" from non-traditional Republican demographic groups to populate their ads. These backfired because it was relatively easy for the pictures to be found at their source.
But how did those who found the stock images know to look in the first place? Because stock images start to have a common vibe to them, especially when they are of people.
A picture like this, while it has good production values, lacks individuality. It’s a generic “Women intently listening to each other”. Imagine how much more effective it would be to use a photograph of actual members from your organization in a meeting. You could identify them, and then the website visitor can establish a connection with them, rather than just dismissing the stock photo as visual noise, and moving on.
There are two basic routes to custom photographs, depending on budget and expertise: a) Hiring a pro, or b) Do it yourself.
If the money’s there, hiring a professional to take the photographs for a website is the best alternative. They have the training, the equipment, and the eye for what makes a good photo. They can come in to a business or organization, and take pictures of people, places, and products, and then go away and come back with high-quality, well-edited professional photographs that you should be able to use for a long time, not just on the site but in brochures and other associated promotional products. It’s a short-term investment with long-term benefits.
In a small organization, or a start-up, there simply may not be the money available to spend on a professional photographer. Then it’s time to look around at the resources available. If there’s an employee (or even a friend) with a good camera (NOT a point-and-click or an iPhone!) who can be spared to spend a week taking and editing photos for the website, that’s a viable alternative, at least in the short term. Perhaps if the site needs head shots of personnel, that could be done by a professional while casual shots of the workplace could be subbed out to the amateur.
In the end, custom photos are a clear winner in terms of website visitor engagement. While stock photos can be useful in very small doses, or for a limited length of time, a site consistently using authentic, custom photos will make a much greater impact upon potential customers!