The Psychology of Stock Photography

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If meme blogs and snarky comment boards are any indication, stock photography isn’t always held in the highest estimation. And, between photographers who produce ridiculous and unusable photos like “boy sniffing cactus” and website owners who slap up inappropriate and pixellated photos without a second thought, it’s not hard to see where all of the negative stereotypes about stock photography come from.

But, taken another way, this is just another way of saying that the problem isn’t with the photos themselves, but with a lack of understanding of the deeper psychology that separates an appealing image from one that makes our lips curl. We’re out to change that with this handy guide to the psychology of stock photography.

1. People-centric stock photography help the viewer feel more engaged

Sure, you might be designing a site for a landscaping firm, but if you stick to only photos of lush green grass, you can say goodbye to your engagement rates. Your audience will feel better understood if they see themselves reflected in a site’s stock photos. What’s more, for certain sites, the audience may also gain a better understanding of how a product or a service will fit into their lives when there’s a person involved, especially when combined with a highly targeted video.

People-centric stock photography

People-centric stock photography

2. Photos and videos that are relevant to the content expand a viewer’s understanding

The last thing a viewer should say when they spot stock photography is, “What does this have to do with the site?”. In contrast, an image that is relevant to a site’s content and mission can both draw a user deeper into the site and instantly communicate and reinforce the message in a website’s copy.

Considering a landing page video that describes your product or service is another great way to quickly grab the attention of site visitors. Using professional video is key, as you do not want to cheapen the experience. Stock footage can work as a great option if producing your own content is difficult.

A good example of grabbing attention with video: Sir Jonathan Ive introducing the iPad mini.

In the end, we’re visual creatures, and a relevant picture really is worth a thousand words. That said…

3. Abstract photos subconsciously affect a viewer’s mood

And they are just as relevant as people- and object-centric photos, as long as they reflect the tenor of a site’s design style, services, voice, or mission. Abstract photos are best used sparingly and in conjunction with photos that communicate more directly.

Abstract photos subconsciously affect a viewer’s mood

An example of powerful abstract imagery lacking a clear message.

4. Busy photos overwhelm the viewer

It may be tempting to fill every inch of a webpage with graphics, but what’s compelling on the individual level is hardly so when each one must compete for the viewer’s attention. Think clean and simple, and embrace that white space.

5. Cliche photos negatively affect a viewer’s sense of a site’s professionality

Unless you’re designing for a cliché photo meme site, it’s best to avoid stock photo memes including “women laughing alone while eating salad,” “business people shaking hands” and many more. Why? Because presumably, the goal of the site you’re designing is to impart the impression of being an industry leader. If it’s full of cliché images, the clear message to the audience that the site is both behind the times and out of touch. What’s more, these photos became famous because viewers found them completely ridiculous in the first place, and using them only reinforces this impression.

Cliché Stock Photography

Cliché photos could be perceived as being fake, which will reflect on your company as an entity. This picture is full of clichés.

Stock photography is a relatively inexpensive, compelling, and effective way to drive engagement on any website. But to really do it right, designers need to have a good grasp of the psychology that goes into image consumption. Keep these principles in mind, and you’re sure to design effectively.

Rob Toledo

Rob Toledo is a Seattle stereotype. Lover of coffee, rainy days and the arts, he can often be found staring at the source code of any variety of websites looking for the latest tricks and tips. He can be reached on Twitter.

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No responses yet to “The Psychology of Stock Photography”

  1. Kolyan says

    “If it’s full of cliché images, the clear message to the audience that the site is both behind the times and out of touch. What’s more, these photos became famous because viewers found them completely ridiculous in the first place, and using them only reinforces this impression.”

    Not exactly.
    Bc everything that is non-personalized, not authentic IS a cliche at some point.

    Well, what about relative employee’s “lifespan” of so-called “industry leader”, that page/site has to be designed? What about their own feelings to present their pictures alive? Does everybody, especially from those “leaders” are liked to be posted?
    And what is the reason to post an actual face, when anyone knows that there are a workforce rotations, downsizing, expanding, shifting, merging, shrinking in constant progress? Bc these are the actual reasons to plant a “stock” photos, not actual employees mug shots or office surroundings.

    So to saying, by looking at reputable and highly respected Mr. Jeff Stormburger III Sr. is not a guarantee that he will be there tomorrow. And then – what is the point?

    I would say it all “depends”, no categories.

  2. Rob Toledo says

    Hey Kolyan,

    Thanks for your response – and you’re right, it does depend a lot on a case by case basis.

    I think though, that a brand’s website full of lively photos that are constantly updated will breath a sense of personality into the online brand.

    I also believe it is important in the process of developing an online persona, that you prepare for turnover by creating more than one personality for the site. This creates a safety net in the event that an employee leaves.



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