6 Stock Photo Mistakes You Need to Avoid

by Jill Evans in March 1st, 2021

When someone lands on your website, you need to make a great first impression right away. Especially in those cases when you’re in a hurry to launch or working on a tight budget, stock photography can be a lifesaver. 

The challenge with using stock photography is that sometimes it just looks too much like, well, stock photography. You want your website to look polished, professional, and unique—as if you paid a pro photographer to shoot photos that perfectly fit your brand. 

Good news: This can be achieved with stock photography if you know how to avoid the most common pitfalls that people tend to fall into when sourcing stock images. Here’s what you need to avoid.

Stock Photo Mistake #1: Your photos are the same as everyone else’s

When you use stock photography, you can’t avoid the fact that one great stock photo can be used by many people. What you can avoid, though, is using the uber-popular photos that everyone already loves and has used on hundreds of sites. You can do this easily by getting a little strategic with your stock sourcing. 

Picture this: You’re looking for a photo of a mountain summit. You’re getting creative with branding and trying to go for a dramatic shot that symbolizes your company’s drive to reach the peak of your industry. 

You search for “mountain” on Pexels and grab the first search result:

Photo by Flo Maderebner

This is a fantastic, striking image that perfectly fits your needs. But it’s been viewed 12 million times, meaning the chances that someone else has also used it prominently on their own website are rather high. 

Fortunately, this stock photo mistake is an easy one to avoid. Don’t just go with the first photo that meets your search criteria. Try collecting a few options to experiment with or A/B test. Spend a couple extra minutes browsing your search results to see what images catch your eye. 

If the stock library you’re using reports view and download counts for their content, this can be a helpful indicator of how popular an image is. You can also try a quick Google Image Search to see how much your chosen photo has been used on other sites. If you’re using a photo that’s already appeared on a vast number of other websites, your site is probably going to feel less unique. 

Stock Photo Mistake #2: Your photos are impersonal

When you think of stock photos, the classic, stereotypical stock style likely comes to mind: overly posed people and boring shots against a plain white background. 

But stock has come a long way from those bad old days, and there’s no reason for you to be using such bland visuals anywhere on your site. The photography you choose offers a great opportunity for you to communicate important information about your brand. 

Who are you hoping to reach with your website? What values do you want to convey to those future clients or customers? Instead of opting for basic images that don’t say anything special, keep your audience in mind and aim to select photos that bring a personal feeling to your website

This photo of a phone would be an obvious pick for your website’s contact page. Simple, looks good, conveys the idea of getting in touch. But it doesn’t say anything more than that. 

red phone stock photo mistake
Photo by Negative Space

On the other hand, this image feels personal, human, and helps your audience imagine themselves picking up the phone and getting in touch. 

woman in black blazer on phone
Photo by Anna Shvets

Stock Photo Mistake #3: Your photos are too literal

Finding the perfect stock photo to fit the topic at hand can be a challenge. This is especially true when you’re seeking imagery around a relatively niche topic.

Imagine looking for a compelling photo that shows “tax advising,” or “marketing strategy,” or “life coaching”—sounds near-impossible, right? What about abstract concepts like “satisfaction” or “problem solving”? 

While all of these might easily be topics someone creating a website would want to feature, it’s not so simple to source representative stock photos to go along with that beautiful website. You might end up going with photos that feel cheesy or boring simply because they’re the only things that fit those very specific keywords.

The solution is to think outside the box in your image search. Don’t necessarily aim to find an image that literally shows your topic. Think about themes associated with what you’re trying to represent, and try searching these keywords until you find a great image. 

photo of meeting
Photo by fauxels

If you need a photo that shows marketing strategy, don’t just go with one of those tired photos where MARKETING is spelled out in blocks or on a computer screen. You might instead try searching for photos around themes like teamwork or coworkers to convey collaboration, as in the image above. Or maybe you search for themes related to marketing—social media, Google Analytics, billboards, and so on.

Stock Photo Mistake #4: Your photos don’t match your design

You’ve been hard at work perfecting your website so it looks exactly how you want it to. Your logo, menus, design, copy—every element has been chosen with care. 

There’s nothing worse than having the whole beautiful flow of your design thrown off by one image that just doesn’t fit. If your website design has a minimal, modern feel with lots of white space and very little color, a super colorful, busy photo will feel out of place. Similarly, if your brand has a playful, fun, and youthful vibe, a moody black-and-white image probably won’t fit in. 

It’s important to consider not only the content of your stock photos but also their style and feel. You can even try searching for keywords that reflect your website’s style to more easily find the right imagery

daffodils in vase
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Keep your key colors in mind as you choose photos, too. If your logo is bright blue, you can try searching for blue imagery to bring a cohesive feel to your website design. Or make use of color theory and search for orange, blue’s complementary color. 

While you might not want to get too matchy-matchy, it’s important to consider the colors you already use on your website as you search for stock photos to avoid a color clash. 

Stock Photo Mistake #5: Your photos aren’t inclusive

When choosing stock images with people in them, it’s crucial to consider your intended audience. Do you hope to reach students? Retirees? Parents? Small business owners? Your audience might be more broad; for example, maybe it’s simply people who are interested in design

Whoever you’re trying to reach, these are the people who should be depicted in your stock photos. And you also have a great opportunity here to broaden your audience as much as possible by ensuring that the imagery you choose is inclusive. 

For example, let’s say your main intended audience is moms. You’re likely to encounter a fair number of stock photos of model-esque moms with kids who seem too perfectly posed. Obviously, these images don’t show much of the reality of motherhood—and they often don’t show much diversity either, as those smiling stock families so frequently tend to be white. 

You want to reach all the moms out there who might be interested in your website and your product or service. So you want imagery that ideally shows a glimpse of the real variety of moms out there: moms of different ages, sizes, and skin colors. Maybe even some dads, too. 

mother with children
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

This is a very clear-cut example of how diverse imagery can benefit your brand and avoid alienating customers. But the same philosophy applies not just to specific target groups like mothers, but across most any audience you can think of. Keep your imagery inclusive and you ensure that the widest possible range of people will feel at home on your website. 

Stock Photo Mistake #6: Your photos aren’t licensed correctly

Our last stock photo mistake is a simple yet very important one: Using photos without the right license. This can happen through anything from grabbing photos through Google that you mistakenly thought were free to use, or even purchasing the wrong license on a stock site. 

It’s a good idea to locate and read through the licensing agreement of the stock library you’re using before you add any images to your live website. If you’re on the hunt for free images, the CC0 (Creative Commons 0) license is your sure sign that the image you’ve found is available for use on your site. 

Aside from CC0, different paid and free stock sites have a variety of different terms of use. In some cases, stock photos may be free to use for non-commercial use, but commercial use is prohibited. Other platforms may offer free images but require attribution. Whatever the terms of use are, make sure they work for you. Pexels is one option for free photos and videos that can be used anywhere, including commercial projects, with no attribution required. (And Unstack users, you can access Pexels right in the platform.)

Make stock photos work for your website

And there you have it—the biggest mistakes you need to avoid when you’re using stock photos on your website. As long as you steer clear of these errors, you can take advantage of easily accessible stock photos to save money—and time—without sacrificing the quality of media on your website.

About the author

Jill Evans is the editor of Pexels Stories, the online photography magazine by Pexels. She's also a 35mm photographer and lives and works in Berlin. 

Web Design