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The Cost of Free Stock Photos


What’s more generic than leading this article with a boiler plate quasi-inspirational stock image? How about a quote I pulled off of Pinterest.

“An item is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it” — Bianca Baker

If Bianca’s right, then photographs aren’t worth very much these days. Specifically, they’re worth about 5 seconds of attention and precisely zero dollars.

We’re living in the golden age of stock photography — generic photographs available for use by anyone online. It’s an old business, almost as old as photography itself, but the rise of free stock services like Unsplash and Pixabay over the last two years has made it easy for anyone with wifi to download hundreds of gigabytes of quality photos without needing to pay or attribute anyone.

This isn’t a moralizing screed against free photo sites — they’re proof that a deluge of supply does, in fact, drive price to oblivion, just like my Econ 101 textbook said. Instead, this is my argument that free stock photos are a crutch for most companies that will cost them in the long run.

Let’s play a game. Have you ever seen this image?



It’s the number one result for the term “success” on Unsplash. That means it gets used a lot. How much? Well, according to Google, you can find it on 335 posts around the web.

And a very large number of those are right here on Medium.

How about this one, one of the top results for “work” on Unsplash:


Google returns 400 results for that image.

So if you’re like me and read a dozen or so blogs a day, you start to see the same images repeat over and over and over again. That’s one problem with relying too heavily on stock images — your readers or customers will start to notice some startling similarities between your homepage and others.

And relying on literal repeats understates the problem. Even if you’re using different stock photos than your competitors, you’re still using stock photos, and that means they’ll share certain qualities that are instantly recognizable: the lack of visible logos, nonspecific locations, vaguely pleasant people.

These aren’t matters of simple taste, consumers show a general aversion to bland imagery. Eyetracking studies show that readers are likely to completely ignore flavorless stock photos in a way that they don’t for photos of real people in your organization. One company (Harrington Movers) found that switching from a popular stock photo to original images of their companies staff improved conversion rates on one landing page by nearly 50%.


And doesn’t that make sense? Wouldn’t you be unsettled if you called a customer service line and heard “Thank you for calling an interchangeable web company, how can we help you?” Or if you matched with someone on Tinder whose only profile picture was a shot of a smiling mannequin? Your customers and readers know when you’re using stock photos — and it’s definitely not going to earn you any points.

And it doesn’t make any sense in when there are so many alternatives. This is the age of Snapchat — no one is going to judge you for using some simple phone pictures of your staff on a career page. It may even give you an air of scrappy realism. Or, if you don’t like that option, hire a local photographer for a few hundred bucks. Craigslist makes that easy enough. Even if you’re dead set on keeping your imaging budget at absolute zero, at the very least add some design elements to your stock photos using free services like Adobe Spark.

Or, by all means, keep throwing a handful of the same inspirational photos of people’s shoes dangling over a cliff, or smiling pleasant people in a rented board room, onto your website — I’m not your boss. Just know that it’s going to cost you in the long run.

Adam GriffithComment