how to choose a stock photo

How to Pick Stock Photos, Part 2

How to pick stock photos is an issue every small business will come up against eventually, whether planning a website, a brochure, a PowerPoint presentation or a social media post.

Visuals make a big difference in how our buyers receive our content.

Many marketers cite statistics that say our brain remembers 65% more information from a photo than words. Sounds great, right?

The problem is for every rule, there are exceptions. 

In studying consumer neuroscience, I learned that the widely-held belief that a picture is worth 1000 words is not always accurate. This has made me VERY picky about the type of stock photography I will use.

For an overview of what is GREAT, what is working against you and what is just hilariously terrible, keep reading.

Should You Choose Stock Photos?

There are a lot of articles suggesting we shouldn’t use stock photos at all. This can seem confusing when considering the PSE, or picture superiority effect, which is what researchers call our tendency to remember more information from images than words.

This is true, but only if a photo is:

  • Memorable
  • Credible
  • Relatable

In other words, the anti-stock photo folks don’t disagree with the photo superiority effect; they’re correctly pointing out that stock images typically do not evoke the same memorability, credibility and relatability as “real” photos.

In the three examples below, you can see that the difference is often quite subtle. The top row photos look like something you’ve seen 100 times before; they aren’t isn’t memorable. The middle row photos are…um…memorable, but they aren’t credible and relatable.

The group with larger-than-life smiles aren’t relatable. The spoon and potato photo came up when I searched “balanced budget,” but it wouldn’t call it a relatable metaphor. The woman dressed like the Pink Power Ranger looks fantastic and is certainly memorable, but in many industries wouldn’t be an example of credibility.

The Ideal Photos for Marketing 

Of course, photos you have taken are indeed going to be more memorable, credible and relatable than photos you choose from a stock photography website.

People can sense when photos are authentic, and authentic photos consistently perform better at converting leads than photos that come across as fake.

Create Your Own Stock Photo Library

If you run a product-oriented business, you should take photos of your actual products whenever possible and skip the stocks altogether.

If you plan carefully, you can develop a “stock” photo library of your own images that will support your graphic design needs for several years. It is always money well spent.

Ideal Isn’t Always Possible

If you run a service-based small business, taking a whole gallery of photos for future use can be challenging.

You and your clients will most likely need to be in the photos. Some business owners are uncomfortable with this, some industries (like medical or legal services) have rules about this, and frankly, it’s expensive.

If you have money to hire a photographer who can pull together a series of pictures for you to use in all your materials, absolutely do that. (If you’re in the Calgary area and want recommendations, I’ve worked with many, and I’m happy to refer you to my favourites.)

If you don’t have the budget or aren’t ready for this step, that’s ok. Ideal isn’t always possible. That’s when you need to know how to choose stock photos.

When is a Picture NOT Worth 1000 Words? 

According to the latest neuroscience data, an image isn’t the best way to be memorable, credible and relatable in every circumstance.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University demonstrates that if a photo doesn’t have a meaningful “label,” it does not promote memorability.

The researchers don’t mean “label” as in a caption. They mean the way our brains sort and store visual information.

For example, if shown a picture of a red apple, a person might mentally label it as “red apple” or “fruit” to help them remember it later. Your brain does not do this deliberately but automatically.

If we look at a photo and can’t easily understand its purpose or what it is supposed to represent, we can’t give it that label. It doesn’t add anything to the content and may, in fact, detract from it.

The label must be unique enough to distinguish the target from other stimuli. So if your website has a bunch of stock images that look the same or are near-identical to those found on other websites, they don’t have that magic “memorability” power.

How to Pick Stock Photos

So the question becomes how to pick stock photos that are memorable, credible and relatable. Here are some suggestions.

#1 – Create a Library

Since I was a TV reporter, I have enjoyed filing away quality stock photography in my own little curated library.

You may have noticed that local TV news has some of the worst stock images. One station I worked for that is still using a video I shot of my own hands cooking ground beef. Ten years later, I occasionally recognize my now very dated nail polish in those images.

These days, I maintain a library in Canva (my favourite source of stock images) for each of my clients and for Create That, so we always have a selection of pre-vetted photos available.

#2 – Pick a Theme

Recently, I helped a client hire a photographer and take photos to begin cultivating their own library. We started by creating a shot list, which is a list of the different images we wanted to capture for their website and other marketing materials.

Similarly, I like creating a shot list before searching for stock photos. Once you decide on your overall theme, making decisions and knowing what will work is easier.

#3 – Stick to Your Palette

One of the easiest ways to make your photography cohesive is to ensure it coordinates with your brand colour palette.

This can be challenging but don’t overthink it. Your photos don’t have to include the precise colours of your brand (although they certainly can), but they shouldn’t clash or dramatically differ. If you use Canva as your stock image library, it allows you to search for photos by colour.

For example, if you have a cool colour palette, you don’t want to use a bunch of warm photos because you lose the feel of your brand. The visuals won’t look harmonious, and while many people wouldn’t be able to put a finger on precisely what’s wrong, your website will feel “off.”

how to pick stock photos

Memorable, Credible, Relatable 

If you use “Memorable, Credible, Relatable” as your guide and follow the three rules above, your imagery will help tie your brand together and create a cohesive experience for your audience.

If you missed Part 1 of this series, check it out here.