Stock photography has many upfront benefits to it: it's convenient, usually professional and there's a huge variety of stock images available on the internet. But if you've taken even a cursory glance around the web, especially through corporate websites, you're already aware of its biggest drawback: overused and overabused stock photos. In fact, stock photos appearing on multiple websites has grown so common over the last couple of years that the most popular images are now notorious.
What crosses a customer's mind when they do a quick search for local businesses and see the same images used on each website? It doesn't reflect the quality and uniqueness a business website should convey. So what should you do when an image is needed and that stock photo is whispering temptations?
First, relax. Here are some pro tips to help you check how used your image is or find a less common image for your website.
1. Google Images If you already have an stock image and are concerned it might be used too frequently, here’s a little-known trick to quickly check. Upload your file to Google Images by clicking on the blue camera in the right-hand corner of the search bar and selecting “Upload an Image.”
You can also drag and drop an image, in Firefox and Chrome, instead of manually uploading the file. Google will find the image throughout the web, as well as any varieties that are similar. Likewise, if you can also use this tool to find visually similar images by entering a keyword or search term and selecting “Similar Images" without first having the image file or URL. A quick search for a polar bear seen on Wikipedia Commons reveals that the image has been used at least six times on the web. Another search for a generic stock image of a happy woman with a laptop reveals that the image (or similar images) is used on a whopping 5,120 websites. Find out where your image is and which businesses are using it.
2. Thesaurusize When looking for a stock photo that has yet to be overused, use similar but less common keywords. Especially when using microstock photography sites, which pay the photographers incremental amounts per the download of their work, the publishers will often add as many related keywords as they can—they want the image to sell and they get creative about which terms they use. Try synonyms specific to what you’re looking for to avoid the most vague and generic terms—or, if fitting, use the term in another language. Instead of searching for “Caribbean beaches,” try “playas.” Chances are, the quality will be just as good as more popular, and overused, images.
Also, consider different ways of wording each search or searching for elements present in your desired image. For example, instead of selecting the first dining image you see, type in “silver utensils” or “spaghetti dinner.” Think macro, think minimal, think differently. Consider multiple ways of conveying the same tone and message without the traditional poses or subject matter.
3. Reconsider Use Rights Know how you can use the stock images you purchase and how this affects the saturation of a particular image on the internet. Royalty free can work in your favour, especially with a lighter budget. But if you want to get away from overused, generic shots, consider using rights managed images from websites such as Getty Images and Corbis. Beyond being some of the highest quality stock photos out there, rights managed can be extremely beneficial for businesses. As a specific type of access control, purchasing rights managed images ensures that your competition won’t be using the same image during the duration of your license. Likewise, rights managed images generally come with a detailed purchasing history, so you can review where the image has been used before to best protect your business from undesirable associations. Moreover, you’ll be given precise instructions on how the image may be used, so you’ll be sure everything is done within legal restrictions.
4. Search Smart Selling images is a big business with a prominent position on the internet. What this means for you is that there is a vast array of sites that sell stock images—there’s no need to limit yourself to the first few images that appear on one site. But don’t spend hours poring over two dozen tabs searching for the perfect image. There are photo search aggregators to help you, such as Every Stock Photo and Search Creative Commons, which specializes in free images. If your luck runs dry there, get those tabs ready and try a variety of stock image sites, including less common ones. Try the big ones: Getty Images, iStockphoto, ShutterStock, Fotolia, BigStock, Dreamstime, and Corbis (for editorial images). And give the smaller guys a shot: DeviantArt, Jupiter Images, and Veer (which excels at design-based content). Or seek out individual photographers on sites like Flickr (or browse their Commons or Wikimedia's) and support them by purchasing the rights to one of their works.
5. Get More Specific The majority of the stock photography sites you’ll come across have more search functions that may be readily apparent, and you’ll want to use these once you find them. Why? The more specific you are, the better the image will suit your particular needs and the less people will want exactly that. For example, an image filed under “computer” might have 21,000 downloads, such as the aforementioned "woman cheering with a computer" from iStockphoto.
However, by adding in additional keywords, such as “black” or "blue" and then omitting images tagged with “people” and “smiling,” we can find a computer image with around 4,000 downloads. For sites such as iStockphoto, the trick is to enter keywords in the search function on the left hand side that will alter your results. You can change how these keywords affect your search by accessing the “and/or/except” menu from the small arrow beside Keyword(s). Likewise, be sure to check the number of downloads for each image and avoid the “popular” feature from drop-down menus—stick with “relevancy” instead.
6. See What Your Customers See Okay, so let’s consider what to do if you’ve already invested time and money in stock images and you’re worried it’s too generic. You’ve reverse searched Google Images and tracked the downloads and know that elsewhere, on the World Wide Web, someone else is using the exact image in a similar way. But will your customers know that? Look at your competition's images. If a customer were to search for your services in your area, would they realize you’re using the same photography as a fellow in Korea? Probably not. If you’ve made a fair investment in stock images and know that your web presence is still unique over your competition’s, perhaps reworking your imagery wouldn’t be the most necessary investment.
But what if your search comes back and your company is indeed sharing the same images as a similar business in your locale? Let’s not lose your time and effort.
7. Make it Yours Just because an image was placed on a stock photography site doesn’t mean it’s the way it “should” be, especially if that image might have a negative effect on your business. If a significant investment has been made in your stock images, don’t throw that away. Instead, hire a professional (or do it yourself) to customize, manipulate, or otherwise edit your stock photo. Create a photo composite, taking elements from different photos and combining them into one. Many times, altering your stock images will cost a fraction of the price of replacing them.
8. Digital Art When stock photography just isn’t going your way, consider using illustrations such as vectors or other digitally created graphics. Digital art doesn’t mean doodles. Well created illustrations can be very effective ways of communicating your ideas while remaining professional. In fact, many businesses prefer them over photography because they can seem more friendly, contemporary, and open. Quite a few stock photography sites now offer illustration searches as well—give it a try. But when you want something exactly as you have in mind and to be 100% sure that it’s unique to your business, the best route is to hire professionals who can create your graphics or illustrations lightning fast.
9. Cheese! Not Cheesy If digital art won’t work for your particular site, consider shooting the photos yourself or hiring a photographer. Often times, a series of the images you need can be created by a professional in the time it would take to find a suitable one on stock image sites. Plus, it can be exactly as you need it to be.