Trying to Stand Out? Drop the Stock Photo Habit

The first goal of any marketing effort is to gain someone’s attention. We can argue about whether or not this means the goal is to interupt someone, but no matter the direction, the goal is always to do something unique enough to get noticed, and then be heard. Let me be clear – stock photography is the OPPOSITE OF UNIQUE. Businesses’ new found addiction to stock photography has created a wad of sameness that spreads mediocrity all over your message.

Clone troopers

NOT Standing Out

A little more than 10 or so years ago, options for inexpensive stock photos were minimal. One of the only choices was to buy big multi-CD collections of photos and clip art; and I was the proud owner of more than one set. The outlets for high quality stock photography were expensive and exclusive; often costing hundreds of dollars for a single photo and being accessible only through ad and creative agencies. These expensive and exclusive options still exist, but are still just as impractical for everyday use. So what’s a do-it-yourselfer to do?

Along comes the Internet and blasts a gaping hole in that business model with websites like iStockPhoto made stock photography cheap, often $1-2 a photo, and available to everyone, and available instantly. Do it yourself designers and flyer makers rejoiced.

So what’s the problem? EVERYONE uses stock photography. The ubiquity of stock photography has empowered us all to look exactly alike.  The photos on sites like iStockPhoto are generic, as they want to appeal to a wide range of buyer. This means that LOTS of people buy the popular ones. This means that your customer, consciously or not, recognizies that photo on your website as the same one it saw on the PTA flyer in their mailbox.

Here are some signs your stock photography is too generic:

Operators are Standing By

Random Guy Drawing on Glass

Marshmallow People

Cloud House

I’ve seen these photos on blog posts, websites, in emails, or flyers, brochures, and EVEN ON BOOK COVERS. The last thing you want is for your brand to be associated with an image that can be hijacked by anyone else willing to spend $1.95. I’m guilty of this myself. While I did do some modifications, I used stock photos for my first book cover — not good.

So how do you avoid this?

1) If you must buy from iStockPhoto, avoid the the images with the “flames” over top of them. This means they’re top sellers and its a guarantee that you’ll see the images elsewhere.

2) If you buy an image from iStockPhoto, avoid using it in its original form. While this can involve some image editing, consider removing the color, editing out a background, or using just a piece of the image. This reduces the likelihood that someone else will be using the image in the same way you are.

3) For blog posts, use the advanced search function on Flickr to find photos with a Creative Commons license allowing them to be used commercially (the check boxes can be found at the bottom of the search page). At the the time of this writing, just over 39 million photos were available. Most will require you provide credit to the photographer, but some will not. While these photos could just as easily be used by others, its a less common approach by far, reducing the chances you’ll be identified with someone else.

4) Consider taking your own photos. You could get all fancy with a photographer, models, etc if you’re working on a brochure. If you’re just working on a blog post, though, you could also just use your phone and take a photo of you pen, or your keyboard, or your Christmas tree.

Just remember that if your goal involves defining who you are, blue-hot stock photography says you’re just like everyone else willing to spend $2 on a photo. That’s not very unique. Spend a little time and chose your imagery wisely. It says a lot more about you than you think.

Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O'Neil


Dennis has spent over 22 years using the internet to sell and market new homes. He blogs about internet marketing for home builders here, wrote a book about technology's impact on the sales process, and is a respected speaker on advanced internet marketing and the online sales process.