Why stock imagery should die - and how to kill it

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Why stock imagery should die - and how to kill it

What I’m going to talk to you about today is stock photography. Hands up, who likes stock photography? Yeah? I’ve got some sarcastic hands at the back there. I think, probably, most people would struggle with saying they genuinely like stock photography, but that’s mostly from an aesthetic point of view, because a lot of it’s not very nice. But I’m going to go into that a little bit and actually talk about some ways we can stop using it, because I think, actually, it’s a pretty terrible thing.

Why you shouldn’t default to stock photography

But first, I’d like to take you on a little journey. Imagine that you are writing a new page for your website. Inspiration strikes. You think: “this is a brilliant idea”. You sit down, put pen to paper, and you write some cracking content. You’re writing, you’re thinking: “this is really amazing, this might be maybe the best thing I’ve ever written”. It just keeps getting better. You’re thinking: “this is incredible. My god, this is going to change the world. When do I get my Pulitzer Prize?” You show it to your team, they love it. It’s just blowing all their minds. You feel like an absolute winner. This is going to be the best thing that has ever been published on the internet.

Obviously, to get that live, you need to put that on your content management system. But, you don’t have any imagery to go with it. Everybody knows you need imagery to go with text on the internet, or it just doesn’t work. What are you going to do? Most people will fire up their stock photo website of choice, and they’ll find the first thing that’s kind of tangentially related to whatever it is they’re writing about. But, I’m going to talk you through some stuff about stock photography today and about why this is actually not a great approach. You shouldn’t just default to stock photos websites. I’m actually going show you why in some ways, that approach can be a little bit back to front – actually paid money for that off iStock!

The problems with stock photography

First of all, let’s take a look at the problems with stock photography. There are quite a few problems. Apart from the aforementioned, they’re-often-quite-terrible-problems, there are some actual serious problems with stock photography.

It reinforces harmful stereotypes

For example, they reinforce harmful social stereotypes. This was a stock photography search for “police officer”. All white, all blokes. That guy down there, he’s having a good time, but he is a white man. Similarly, if you then flip that on its head and search for “criminal”, you get a picture of a black man carjacking a white man.

This is true of all stock photography. If you search for “cook”, it’s much more likely to be a woman. If you search for “boss”, it’s much more likely to be a man. Getty have actually released a special collection now that they say challenges social stereotypes. So, if you want your stock photography to not give into these stereotypes, you know where to go, because Getty’s got a separate section for it. Why they couldn’t just put it in their own section, I don’t know.

This is actually…If this imagery is being plastered all over the internet, that’s not good for us as a society because it just reinforces these stereotypes.

It’s an unfair market place

There’s also the problem that stock photography is a really, really unfair marketplace. Stock photography is what’s known as a two-sided marketplace, in the sense that you have buyers on one side, sellers on the other side, and a platform in the middle that facilitates the buying. People like us are buying; photographers are selling; something like iStock sits in the middle to facilitate that purchase.

If you think about other two-sided marketplaces that you might have used, for example, airbnb. What percentage of the purchase price do you think goes to the seller from airbnb? What percentage do you think airbnb take? What’s their cut? It’s about 3% with airbnb, quite good. Obviously, they’re dealing with quite high transaction volumes. You might book something that costs £5,000 at Airbnb.

Uber, does anybody want to guess that? They’re pretty evil. They can’t be giving their drivers much money. It’s 25%; the drivers get to keep 75% of the money that they earn through Uber.

Does anybody want to guess what that equivalent percentage is for iStock? If you are a photographer selling your photos through iStock, you could be earning as little as 15% of the selling price, which is ludicrous. You sell a photo for $10 and you get $1.50, the other $8.50 is pocketed by iStock and Getty, which I think is quite scandalous. I think whenever we’re engaging third party creatives for our clients, our job is to look after the content creator, not the platform through which we buy it, if we even buy it through a platform. I think that’s a quite shocking number really.

There are a lot of professional stock photographers out there that are trying to move away from these platforms, purely because they take such a massive cut and it means they can’t run their business.

Stock photos can create negative associations

Other problem with stock photography is that it can create really negative associations with your brand. For better or worse, people associate imagery with companies, or brands or organisations. Does anybody know what you associate that with? Yep, WWF – not the wrestlers, Dan. That one? Disney? That one? ADIDAS, exactly. Even something as simple as three lines, we end up associating with a brand.

Imagine that you are redesigning a website and you decide on something like this as your brand identity. It’s cute, it’s aspirational, fairly harmless; kid with little cardboard wings and goggles. Fine. That goes on your homepage, goes on your business cards, goes on your YouTube channel. That’s who you are now as a business. That is your image.

What about if a company that is, perhaps, has a really bad reputation or is very ethically unsound or has very bad customer service? If they decided to rebrand, and they chose quite a similar image to lead their marketing with. It’s a kid with cardboard wings and goggles. Because of the way people’s brains work, your brand is now associated with that brand, that could actually be quite terrible. And if it’s a much bigger company, they could end up thinking you’re a subsidiary of them or something and that might prevent people from doing business with you.

You might be thinking: “That would never happen, that’s a stupid edge case John, what are you thinking?” But actually, let me tell you we are just scratching the service of kids with wings and goggles stock photography because it seems to be a cottage industry. This little girl down here has been used 21.6 million times! This is a real problem. You don’t want to be caught using the same imagery as a company your consumers would hate.

It hurts conversion

The next point is probably the most obvious one and I’m not going dwell on it because I think it’s something we’re all in agreement with. Stock photography versus real photography, the pages with the real photographs are going to convert better every single time.

I’ve just picked out two case studies, which you can see. These URLs, one’s from VWO, one’s from Marketing Experiments. Both of those case studies are exactly the same – it’s  taking a product or service landing page, taking the stock photographs out, and replacing them with photos of the actual people that run those companies. This one had a 45% uplift. That one had a 35% uplift. I guarantee you, if you take stock photos out, replace them with real photos of real people, you will win!

Just to recap. Stock photos are bad for society. They are bad for the photographers that take them. And they are bad for the companies that use them. Agreed? Good. Let’s kill them.

How to stop using stock photography

I mean, there are a million ways you could kill them, certainly, that I can imagine. I’m just going talk you through three really quick resources you can use that will help us wean ourselves off of all this iStock rubbish.


The first one is a website called Unsplash, which some of you may have heard of and even used. If you haven’t heard of it, you’ve definitely seen their imagery somewhere because it’s used in things like default WordPress themes. It’s been used on album covers. It’s been used on outdoor advertising. Photographers will upload their photos to this website and offer them completely free to use for whatever you want.

This website was actually created in response to the increase in rubbish stock photos. It was created by graphic designers, artists, website designers who couldn’t find any good imagery to go on websites because all they could find were pictures of bloody kids with wings and goggles. Everything on here is completely free to use. There’s loads of images. They’re all of a really, really good quality, taken by professional photographers. And they’ve essentially been donated to the public good because people hate what’s going on in the photography world. That’s a really, really good website to check out.


If you want to go kind of the next step up and actually pay some money for your photos, you should check out this website, which is called Picfair. This has a really nice backstory to it. It was actually set up by a Guardian journalist, who did one of those sort of coding bootcamps, taught himself to code, and then recognised that there was a problem with this industry so he built this. The way that Picfair operates, is it’s kind of a self-service platform for photographers. They can upload their photos, they can set a price, they get the entire purchase price, and then whoever is buying the photos, which would probably be people like us, pay a small fee on top that goes to Picfair to pay for the whole thing.

It’s much, much more fair to photographers. And actually, similar to Unsplash, the quality of photography on here is so much better because all of the best photographers are now moving to platforms like this to get away from Shutterstock and places like that that pay them pennies.

Take your own photos

But, the absolute best tip I can give you is just to take your own photos. This photo is from Unsplash, by the way. You can see it’s lovely, really nice photo. I guarantee, in any office, there’ll be somebody with an iPhone. iPhones take amazing photographs, and I say that as a long-suffering Android user. Apple even have an entire ad campaign about it. They have that “Taken with iPhone” campaign to highlight how good the photos are on iPhones.

It doesn’t take…You don’t have to be a professional photographer to do really, really good photography anymore. You just need an iPhone and a well-lit room. You can take really good photos, throw them up on your website, bin the stock photography and see how it performs. I guarantee you it will perform better.

This is actually where it gets quite interesting because there’s been a lot of experimentation recently with lifestyle brands, clothing manufacturers, beauty products, all that sort of stuff, who are experimenting with getting rid of their product photos and actually replacing them with user generated content like Instagram, stuff like that, Instagram photos. And they’re finding that the real-world photography actually converts at a much higher rate than the professional photography. I think that says a lot for the state of stock photography that actually, people are starting to…homemade stuff is really starting to resonate with people because people are obviously tired of this sort of corporate white sheen of stock photos that we’ve experienced over the last few years.

If I could give you one message, it’s to grab an iPhone, get out there, and do your own photos. Thank you.