10 Pitfalls to Avoid When Using Stock Photography

by on 18th January 2010 with 67 Comments

Stock Photography is a tricky beast.

The presence or lack of good stock imagery can make or break a design. My best advice is to use custom photography/artwork whenever possible. However, I’m a big fan of stack art because there are tons of scenarios when it makes good sense to purchase someone else’s work over taking the time to create your own. To keep it classy, here are ten things to avoid when you’re working with stock images.

1. Using a Stock Photo When You Could Easily Shoot or Illustrate Something Yourself


Designers tend to be multi-faceted creatures. Chances are, if you like to design websites, you like to take photos as well (though not always). I personally know several designers who will spend hours hunched over their computer, searching endless stock photo collections for that one perfect image of a pile of strawberries to complement their artificial sweetener ad. Meanwhile, they’ve got a $2,000 camera with a $1,500 lens sitting on their desk and a grocery store across the street which no doubt carries strawberries. The same is often true of designers with amazing drawing skills who spend hours looking for simple illustrations.

My point is, if you have the time and ability to create the image you’re looking for with relative ease, then why buy it? On the other hand, if your photography experience is limited to snapshots taken with an iPhone or your illustration capabilities consist of writing your name in cursive, stock art is probably the way to go.

2. Using Cliché or Overused Photos


A wise man once told me, regarding design, “Your first idea is probably the most generic.” This really holds true to stock art. If you told fifty people to find a photo that symbolized the concept of “diversity” or “partnership,” you’d get a pile of photos that look similar to the one above and perhaps only a few really unique ideas. I’ve designed a ton of material for pet product companies and one of my biggest “pet peeves” is walking through PetSmart and seeing designer after designer use the same exact dog photo (from a popular discount CD of images on iStock) to represent their supposedly unique product.

No matter what industry you are designing for, take a look around at your competitors and take note of the images they are using. Obviously, step one is to make sure you aren’t using the same image. Step two is to find a different way to represent a similar product or service in a fairly unique way.

3. Creating Bad Clipping Paths and/or Masks


Everybody loves photos on a white, studio background. In my opinion, it’s one of the least discussed major design trends of the last 10 years. The reason for this goes beyond the fact that this tip of imagery creates a simple and clean look. More importantly for designers, it makes for super easy layout. Using an image shot on a white background means you can put it anywhere on a page without worrying about how text will look over the background, if the scene is appropriate, etc.

But what happens when a client asks you to take a photo that wasn’t shot on a solid background and put it onto one (or on a gradient like the picture above)? Sadly, many designers in this situation will open Photoshop, use the extract filter or even the dreaded magic wand tool and call it a day. The truth is, while these tools can be helpful, they rarely produce a professional quality mask (though the new “Refine Edge” command really helps). Good masking is the cornerstone of creating quality artwork in Photoshop and you should take the time to practice and learn some advanced techniques to avoid that ugly, cut out look seen in the picture above. I hope to do a proper masking tutorial or two in the future, let me know if you’d find that helpful.

4. Using Pictures That Don’t Relate Well to Your Content


When I take on a new project, my clients will often give me a folder full of stock photos they’ve purchased for past projects with the instructions “Just make these work.” To put it bluntly, this sucks and you should never do it to your designer. The result is inevitably a bunch of photos that don’t necessarily provide a strong visual connection to the product, service or general information on the page.

Fully 90% of the time or more, you want to use photos to reinforce your message, not to simply decorate your page (exceptions may include personal blogs, sites for children, etc). This almost always means that your content should precede your design, not the other way around. Otherwise you end up with a tech-support site featuring photos of smiling people spinning happily in fields of wheat. Even if the photo is incredible, the connection just isn’t there.

5. Buying the Lo-Res Version Because It’s Cheaper


iStock gives you several resolution options for every image. Trust me, either you (presumably the designer) or your client will be tempted to grab one of the cheaper versions to save a few bucks. The one thing that should determine which size you choose is the size of the area you will be placing the photo into. If you can’t afford a photo that meets your size requirements, find a new photo. Never, under any circumstances, think “oh well, I can just make it bigger.” This will lead to a sloppy, pixelated image which alone can dramatically reduce the perceived quality of your design.

For the sake of your reputation and the quality of work you promised to deliver to your client, never be afraid to stand up and tell your client that a given image simply won’t work because of size restrictions or any other reason. You’ve been hired as an expert and have a fiduciary obligation to your client to point out any big mistakes they are asking you to make on their behalf.

6. Using Imagery That Looks Outdated or Non-Professional


Seemingly outdated imagery comes in two forms. The first is in photography. When purchasing a stock photo, always make sure that the image quality looks like something photographed with a modern, high resolution camera. In other words, a photo that your average joe simply couldn’t take with a $100 camera. Also, be sure the people in the photo (if there are any) are “in style.” Watch out for clothing, hair cuts, vehicles etc. that would suggest that the photo was taken in past decade. Unless you’re intentionally going for a retro look, outdated imagery will bring down the visual quality of whatever you’re designing.

Perhaps even more common than outdated photographs are outdated illustrations. As a designer, it is your job to take note of current and past design trends. Like a car buff who can spot a ’56 Chevy at 100 yards in an instant, you should be able to attribute certain design features and styles to a certain period and know when they are acceptable to use. For instance, if you’re creating a modern, professional website, you should not be purchasing stock art that screams ’90s web design like the picture above (GeoCities anyone?).

7. Using Pictures That Look Overposed


As strange as it sounds, the perfect picture is often the worst picture. When you see a photograph of an evenly lit person from the neck up, centered in the frame, staring straight into the camera and smiling it can often have the effect of looking rigid and posed. The two examples above are polar opposites in quality to prove my point, but in reality you’ll have to get good at spotting subtle differences. Look for real vs. fake smiles, realistic vs. flat lighting, and genuine eye contact vs. blank stares. Avoid anything that looks like a school photo or family portrait and search for something slightly more candid while still remaining high in quality.

8. Unnatural Cropping


One major problem with using stock photography is that it isn’t shot to fit the space you need it for. Check out the image above from Wells Fargo’s website. Apart from the fact that the subject of the image is sort of staring into nowhere and looks like he’s in the middle of a sentence, the crop of the photo is pretty awkward. On the left side of the image there’s a distracting, blurry, cutoff extra guy that really serves no purpose but to screw up the picture.

The lesson here is to not stop at simply making the photo physically fit the space. Go further and decide how to make it actually look good in the space. If Wells Fargo wanted a picture of one person, they should’ve cropped out the second completely. If they wanted a picture of two people, they should’ve found (or taken) a different photo.

9. Poor Cloning to Extend the Photo


This one is my personal favorite because it’s so fun to spot and point out poor Photoshop skills. If you regularly use stock art, you’ve probably been there a thousand times: You bought a photo but it just doesn’t extend far enough to fit the page. No matter, you have a clone tool that’ll fix this problem in a jiffy. Unfortunately, the fact that you’re using the same pixels over and over again often leads to recognizably repeating patterns in what should be an organic background.

This is not at all to say don’t use the clone tool. I personally love the entire set of cloning tools Photoshop has to offer these days so by all means, clone away. However, don’t rush the process. Take the time to paint a picture that’s believable. This is a painstaking and tedious process but it pays off in the end when you have a quality image that you can be proud of. Never fall into the trap of thinking, “Ehh, good enough. No one will notice.” Instead, strive to make even professional cloners strain their eyes to see if you’ve manipulated the photo.

10. Quickly Faking Your Product Into the Photo


This is in the same vein as the cloning error. The picture above is an exaggerated example to be sure, but you’d be surprised how often you see these kinds of huge mistakes. There’s a big poster that hangs in many KFC’s around the US of a man holding a dog up to a happy child. Only the dog has been removed from the photo and in its place is, you guessed it, a box of chicken. How do I know it was a dog you ask? I’m not even sure, it’s just an iconic sort of Normal Rockwell image that you know had a dog in it to begin with. Further, the boxes are a bit brighter than the rest of the scene and had to be awkwardly positioned to cover the area formerly occupied by the dog. Surely a big company like KFC can afford to snap a photo containing an actual box of chicken! (If anyone has a picture of this poster, please post it! I couldn’t find it anywhere online.)

As with cloning, this certainly does not mean that you should never attempt to fake a product into an existing photo. It just means that you really need to know your Photoshop features before attempting to blend a studio lit product shot into a natural environment. Look closely at the highlights and shadows in the area you’re placing the product into and make sure you reproduce those onto the product. You also have to take into account overall scene lighting, the position and angle that the product would have if it were actually in the scene, and even the resolution and grain of the product shot versus the stock image. Clients will never stop asking their designers to fake their products into scenes so you might as well get good at it!


To sum up, when you are in a situation where you must use stock imagery, make sure you do so with extreme care. Take the time to find the right piece of art and to make it even better using advanced, professional Photoshop techniques.

Use the comments below to tell us if you use stock photography and why you think it’s a good/bad idea.

Comments & Discussion


  • http://www.jonrawlins.co.uk Jon Rawlins

    Very informative article, I enjoed reading this. It’s quite amazing what errors you find around the web and day to day life. I will be keeping this in my favourites for inspiration for a rainy day when it’s needed.

    Thanks for such an informative article.


  • Opal

    I would actually be VERY interested in a Masking Tut. Please and Thank You.

  • http://www.eyebridge.in Eyebridge Creative Website Design Company

    The collection of pictures in this article as well as the other images in your all the articles are just awesome enough to persuade us turning into photography business.. brilliant quality!

  • http://www.eyebridge.in Eyebridge Creative Website Design Company

    We are expecting an article from designshack directing us how to install an inhouse photography workshop at a very low cost !!

  • http://kovshenin.com Konstantin

    Hey Josh, the post is great, though I’m only starting out with stock images. This is definitely something to keep in mind, so thanks, good job! Also, a masking tutorial would be great ;)

    ~ K.

  • http://designinformer.com Design Informer

    Seriously, this is a great article. I’ve been guilty of some of these before, and this is a great checklist to use before using a stock image on a project. :)

    Keep up the great work, I’m really enjoying your articles.

  • http://www.freedomstudios.co.za Graham

    This is really a great post.

    I use a lot of stock imager in my designs for both print and web. I must also confess that I have also been guilty of some of the mistakes you mentioned.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

  • Niubi

    Good points, well made, and I certainly agree with all of them. Design is just as important as content. I think http://www.dubli.com makes pretty good use of photography on their website, even though many are stock photos, they are all integrated seamlessly into the website.

  • http://www.paulsanduleac.com Paul Sanduleac

    Really useful tips. Thanks!

  • http://uptopdesigns.com Barbara

    Great article! I hope someone finds that KFC picture. I’d really like to see it.

  • http://www.littledogdg.com Mike

    Nice article, though I must confess to some of those errors with stock photograph, especially buying the lower resolution images.

  • http://www.tedgoas.com Ted Goas

    I don’t know, I like my web design articles accompanied by fields of grain… haha

    Great roundup of things to look for, especially when you don’t get help from a client.

  • Kasey

    Great article! I’d love to see a proper masking tutorial from you in the future!

  • Tara

    I would love to see the proper masking tutorial. Great article!

  • Mark

    You forgot mayber the most important one: Paying very close attention to the USAGE requirements in the terms and conditions – Royalty free vs. rights managed – any potential restrictions for use. You can quickly find yourself screwed.

  • http://www.designshack.net Joshua Johnson

    Thanks for all the feedback everyone! Mark, you’re spot on. Usage restrictions are HUGE and should always be paid close attention to. I’ve actually had a near catastrophic incident or two with those myself.
    Great catch!

  • http://robertchambers.me Robert Chambers

    Thanks for a great post. I’m currently working on a project that will be using stock photography and will be putting these tips into practice.

  • http://blog.ternstyle.us Matthew Praetzel

    Thank you for taking the time to write this blog. In the past I was not a proponent of stock photography but have altered my thinking over the years out of necessity. This list is very helpful because I am guilty of a few items. Especially wielding the magic wand in photoshop. I only do it for smaller low res photos but nonetheless it was good to be called out on it!

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  • Passakorn

    Very nice article.

    Sometime I’m wondering which takes more time between find a suitable photo from sites vs shooting it myself.

    The problems are I’m not a skilled photographer. Hiring models or buying stuffs for photo shooting plus wasting time create more costs than buying from the sites.

  • http://www.aysseline.com/ Aysseline

    I just tweeted 2 articles about overused stock photo here http://twurl.nl/g2f5ep and here http://twurl.nl/0eiet7
    but I like how you extend your post with good examples of bad usage

  • Petr Klimsonn

    Not to spoil the embarrassing reacharound party here, but your suggestion that the pet image is badly copped is off base. I don’t see anything in the tiny jpeg that suggests that someone didn’t use the pen tool and trace the image, or use a combination of masks, channels, paths AND the – very useful when used properly – magic wand tool.

    Truth is, you can do the same thing a million and one ways in photoshop. There’s no right or wrong way. Glad to hear you’re the authority though….

  • http:.//phat1.com Slipdisc

    Thanks Josh. Very informative. I think a lot of us already watch out for these types of things but, it never hurts to have it sort of refreshed in your mind from time to time.

    Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.sgdoeschwitz.de BigM75

    is use stockphotos every day and i like the article thats the write way

  • Sandra

    It would have been nice for you to mention that working with a professional photographer could not only eliminate your search time for stock photos but also cut down on your post-production time. Why not start with a great image to begin with, at the res you need, that is custom for the job you are working on? Makes sense to me.

  • http://www.yummygum.nl Leon

    Haha, made me laugh. It’s a shame these ten pitfalls are often overlooked in reality.

  • http://webdesignsurvivalist.com Montia

    Haha! My wife works at Petco and she always complains about the signs having really bad Photoshop work!

  • http://www.kimberlyrobertsdesign.com Kimberly Roberts Design

    I really enjoy using stock photography when it will complement the message of the ad or design. It is a wonderful resource when the subject is not easily obtainable. In many cases the time/budget for quality custom artwork or photography is not available.

    Below is one of my favorite postcard designs complemented with stock photography.


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  • http://ilikeitdirty.com christopher

    just goes to show that it does take a real designer and artist to get this stuff done right.

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  • cora

    regarding taking your own photo… I do have some real questions about this, because I have run into this issue myself. I have taken photos and used them in my design …but in terms of pricing, what do you do? Doesn’t the designer then run into issues with pricing the photo differently than they would stock art? Do you tell your client that you are also a photographer and for that one photo, they will be charged differently? Or do you just let the client think it was stock and you don’t mention the extra work put into creating it? I’ve ended up giving away my photography work for free for this reason – by simply including it on the website without charging my client for rights for the image. I’ve only done this once, but I want to avoid doing this in the future.

  • http://draughtyoldfentales.blogspot.com/ Frugal Dougal

    Thanks for that – I’m just a blogger, but I found these tips really useful!

  • http://www.andrewdoran.com Andrew

    As with just about everything else, in photography you get what you pay for. If you buy a cheap stock photo, it will look like a cheap stock photo. Also, if you are not a photographer, when you take photo for yourself to save money on stock photos, it will probably look like it was taken by an amateur photographer. If as a professional designer, you wouldn’t recommend your clients do their own design, then why would you recommend anything less than professional photography when you need images to make your designs look their best. Sure, this might sound biased coming from a professional photographer, but you don’t have to hire me. you should however hire someone that knows what they are doing. As a relevant example, it just so happens that strawberries are one of the hardest foods to photograph, they are sneaky little buggers that inhale light. It’s very difficult to get them to look bright and red without overexposing the rest of the photo. It would be hard for anyone who is not a food photographer to get a professional looking shot of a bowl of strawberries.
    If your project needs to look good, pay what it’s worth for your photos.

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  • http://www.coolfields.co.uk Graham

    Good, useful article. I’m new to using stock photography and these are good pointers to follow.

  • http://www.pixmac.com Pixmac stock photography

    Thank you for this really great post!
    Stock photography market is raising every day. It’s nice to see, that people cares about legal photos.
    Thanks again for sharing this.

  • http://designbeginshere.com Graphic design

    Nice tips!

    I see many of these errors every day!

    Sometimes it is normal to use cliche subjects to make the website look more common to users..

    With the overexposed example – i cannot agree fully as here is an isolated image that is used to insert the object to your background.. but on the other part – i agree, if the image does not look too posed it would do better..

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  • http://littlebigadguys.com Daniel Drouhard

    I also love it when the client (or agency) picks a [cheesy] photo, then decides on the headline and copy direction. The ultimate cliché!

  • http://www.electricpainter.com George

    I agree with Christopher that it really does take an artist & designer to get this stuff done right, which is why it is so disheartening to see my (professional) friends workless while the most shameful crap makes it into print!

    BTW. . . I would love a tutorial on becoming a masking Jedi master. Thanks in advance.

  • http://www.hebegubek.com hebegubele

    Can i use rss feed of your website?

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    Hello, brilliant topic I have just subscribed to your RSS

  • http://www.tedbendixson.com Ted Bendixson

    Do you think there are certain situations where it is downright unethical to use Stock photography? How about a website where you hire people to work for you, and the stock image creates the impression that the people in the image are the ones you’re hiring? I tend to think that’s no better than a fake testimonial for an infomercial product. I wouldn’t post a stock photo of some better looking guy on the front page of my website in some bizarre attempt to make people think they’re hiring someone more “professional.”

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