The Great Debate About Stock Images: Should Professional Designers Use Them?

By Zack Rutherford


Apr 12, 2014


Let’s face it, a website without imagery is like a gun without any bullets: all the deadly potential in the world, but not likely to do you any good. The problem is that imagery, like ammunition, costs money. High-quality professional photographers will break your bank in a hurry if you’re using them for every bit of content your site produces. Graphic artists (at least the good ones), will do the same.


The Great Debate About Stock Images: Should Professional Designers Use Them?


Enter stock images.


These are professionally taken photographs of common places, landmarks, nature, events, or people that are bought and sold online. They can also be used and reused for commercial design purposes. Best of all, they’re usually pretty affordable.


Yet even something as simple as cheap and easy imagery manages to stir up controversy. Yes, it’s true. There is, at this very moment, fervent debate going on in design forums around the world as to whether or not stock imagery is something a reputable designer should employ in his or her work.


Never one to skirt a good argument, I’m here to throw my two cents into the fray. And being the verbosely thorough sort of chap that I am, my two cents is probably gonna end up feeling like a few dollars in change.


Before we get into which side I’m on, though, I think it’s best that we all take a refresher course on the different varieties of stock images, and the various ways to use them.



The Imagery License Triad.


There are three different types of purchasable licenses for your stock images. Let’s go through them, shall we?


1. Royalty-Free.

These are bottom-of-the-barrel images that anyone can afford. Popular to the point of pervasiveness, royalty-free images can be used a multitude of times, in either business or personal pursuits.


2. Rights-Managed.

Still need your images in a hurry, but you don’t want just anybody dabbling with your set of stock graphics? Rights-managed images may be your answer. To put a rights-managed image in your content, you’ve got to pay per use. That means “One and Done.” A single project for a limited time only, exclusively in participating locations. It’s a lot like the McRib sandwich of digital images.


So no copying and pasting, or you’ll be in hot water with the long arm of the copyright infringement law.


3. Extended And/Or Enhanced.

An extended or enhanced license implies that an original license has been modified to include a longer period of time, or a greater number of uses. This will increase the original terms of the license deal for your image, and give you a little bit more bang for your buck.



Sticking Up For Stock Imagery.


The main advantage of utilizing stock imagery is the time that it will save you. It’s far easier to skim your favorite photo site and pick out a relevant image, than it is to set up your own professional photo shoot, hire models, adjust the lighting, shop the photos, and so on and so forth.


Sticking Up For Stock Imagery.


The same goes with creating a digital image from scratch. Designing may be your job, but creating lots of little graphics can take time away from more important facets of the project. If you’re busy with the little work, nobody’s likely to take care of the big stuff.


Stock image sites are extremely popular around the web and they’ve taken pictures for just about everything you can possibly imagine. There are even entire sites dedicated to providing you with free imagery. I’m a big fan of free and easy. So that’s tough to beat.


In summation, stock images have a lot going for them. They are:




And surprisingly comprehensive in the topics they cover.


Of course, it’s never all sunshine and roses. Let’s take a look at the gloomier side of stock imagery.



Sticking It To Stock Images.


On the flip side, many stock images are just plain silly. They don’t look great, they seldom match the content you have in mind perfectly, they are by no means unique, and they’re so ubiquitous that they often lose all meaning by the time they come around to your usage.


Sticking It To Stock Images.


Even worse, you might end up with the same images that appear on a competitor’s site. After all, you deal in the same business. It’s not outrageous to think you’d search the same images, and even less surprising to consider you might both be thinking along the same parallel lines. Sharing thoughts and feelings with your mortal enemies, as it were. Then manifesting that uniformity with some goofball that looks like this:


Sticking It To Stock Images.


If that isn’t cringeworthy, I don’t know what is.


That must be a really laid-back office to let the dude get away with that thick a five o’clock shadow, never mind the suspenders…


The point is that stock images are tacky, cliché even. It’s gotten to the point that stock images have even become parodies of themselves.


Oh man, these are great.


Last one, I promise…


I lied.


Right, so back to my point. These are hilarious, but you certainly wouldn’t want them on a website you wanted anyone to take seriously.


It would be unfair of me, however, to claim that all stock images are created equal. There are some legitimate choices out there for your viewing pleasure.



How To Find And Use Stock Images Effectively.


How To Find And Use Stock Images Effectively.


First thing’s first, you need a decent stock image site if you want decent stock images. I’ve used to great effect in the past, and found that I can usually get an approximation of what I’m looking for there.



Stock Image Resources.

There are plenty of others as well:



This is a popular stock site with enhanced search capabilities and high quality images, all at affordable prices. You can purchase different packages, with prices per credit ranging from $1.40 - $2.00 (depending on the size of the package). Each credit will purchase a single image.



PhotoShelter has the distinction of offering a suite of marketing tools to go along with all its royalty-free stock photos. Subscriptions are available for $39.00 and you can download individual images for $1.00 each.



The database is constantly being updated, so you’re consistently getting access to brand new images. Subscribing allows you a monthly download limit, rather than the daily limit set for guest users.



A little on the expensive side, but mostly worth the investment. You should only expect high-rez and higher-quality images from Shutterstock.



BigStock runs on a subscription system like Fotlia. It’s filled with stock images of the royalty-free variety, and has an absolutely massive database.



PixelPerfect has an okay selection, but it’s special because of its search filters. You can look for images based on distinct hexadecimal color values, making it particularly useful for finding images that match your website’s color scheme.


There are also plenty of sites where you can find free images like:


• (formerly Stock.xchng)

My personal favorite. It has the best selection of all the free sites I frequent.



Large selection of free images. You may have to dig deep for the good stuff, but there are some hidden treasures on MorgueFile.



RGBStock allows you to use all of its images so long as you contact the image owner and request  permission to use their work.


These won’t have as much in the way of selection, but beggars can’t be choosers.



Selecting A Stock Image.


Selecting A Stock Image


After you’ve found a website that can meet all of your stock image needs, the process becomes more about selection.


Don’t go toward the most popular images, the ones with the most downloads, that is. You want your website to seem unique. Grabbing another popular image is just a surefire way of making your site blend into the crowd.


Make sure you don’t download too small an image either. You can always shrink an image down, but it’s impossible to stretch it out without sacrificing clarity. The size of the image should be determined by your website’s needs. I stick to around 800 pixels for most of the stock imagery I download. It’s a versatile size that’s large enough to fit most any screen.


Whenever you are downloading images of a person, try not to get someone in an obvious pose like suspenders guy, pictured above. It looks hokey and unnatural. People staring at the camera and smiling is another big no-no. These unnatural zombie-looking so-and-so’s are inappropriate to almost any situation imaginable.



Context Is Key.


Speaking of inappropriate, it should be obvious, but don’t just put a picture on your site for aesthetics alone. Your images should complement your content in meaning as well as form. In other words, a picturesque view of the ocean might make you feel nice when you’re looking at your website, but if you’re selling waffle-makers it doesn’t make a lick of sense, now does it?


Create a connection in the visitor’s mind with the purpose of your website through your imagery. Don’t just try to dazzle them with your own personal brand of beautification.



Obey The Freaking Law.


My final tip for you is to never use Google images to find stock photos. It’s almost like they’re trying to encourage copyright infringement. There’s very little source information, and almost never any licensing data. It’s just incredibly easy to take someone else’s art and claim it for your own.


Obey The Freaking Law


Instead, scan a few of the more authoritative stock sites I listed above. Since it’s their specialty and main purpose, they have a definite stake in informing visitors of the royalty status of their different stock images.


One last thing: never use a stock image without permission, as it can lead to serious consequences for your website and possible legal troubles for you.



Final Thoughts.


I made you wait long enough, but here is my vaunted opinion: I’m a blogger, bro. Of course, I think it’s cool to use stock images.


Obviously, it’s preferable to be able to have your own album of handy-dandy high quality images for any and every occasion, but it’s just not always in the cards. For big clients and branding design projects, stock images aren’t enough to get the job done. But if you’re in a rush and you just need a basic illustration for a blog post… Well, a little ubiquity never hurt anybody.


You think I’m off base? Wanna call me names? Let’s argue in the comments section.

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