Oh, stock photos. Stock photos, stock photos, stock photos. Very few web site owners haven’t at least searched for stock photos for their sites, even if they’ve decided in the end not to use them. We all know that words with no images lose the attention of our readers very quickly. After all, we teach reading to our children beginning with picture books, because the images engage their imaginations and help them make connections between text and representation in their minds. It’s natural to do the same with adult readers online, but when we’re not photographers, we have to rely on some other way to get the visual end of things onto the page.

Today, I’d like to talk about the typical types of stock imagery I see being used online, but because I also want to jump on the fun-but-often-predictable bandwagon of images with text overlaid, I’m including a custom haiku with each image. Not all of these stock image archetypes are bad — there’s often a time and a place for each one — and so, following each image, you’ll see some examples of appropriate and less-appropriate use of each type of stock image.


Nature Imagery

We’ve all seen a thousand of these — blue skies with clouds, close-ups of flowers, beaches with rowboats, on and on. Sometimes the image is so breathtaking and so professionally rendered that it’s more than stock art; it’s true fine art. That’s great, but it’s a pretty small percentage of the nature art used in lots of web sites and blogs.

When is this a good idea: When the photo represents the actual place or natural item you are describing in the text; when you are running a meditation or yoga site; when you are the photographer.

When is this less effective: When the photo has nothing to do with your content; when the photo’s relationship to the content has to be explained (“Just like a flower, your business will blossom and bloom!”); when the image is low quality.


Make-Believe Business People

There are many different photos out there of business people doing business-people-things. Often, they’re around a conference table. Sometimes, they’re giving or watching a presentation or writing on a white board. If you and the people who work for you do these things, why not take pictures of them doing it?

When this is a good idea: In a pinch, when you want to talk in general about how people in business behave and you can’t find a photo of your actual team.

When this is less effective: Most of the rest of the time. It just looks corny, especially when you are using stock art that is in common usage across the rest of the web. It’s hard to believe that your business ideas are creative and innovative when you are clearly using image #4256b to illustrate them.


Disembodied Body Parts

The most common disembodied body part seen in stock art is the hand extended for a handshake. In theory, this is a nice symbol of cooperation, good faith, and great business relationships. In practice, it has been used on so many web sites, brochures, slide decks, and presentations that we all have ceased to see it. It’s wasted space. It’s a photo for the sake of a photo. We’ve done this with other body parts, too.

When this is a good idea: When your business deals with the body part you’re showing — you’re a massage therapist with a photo of a back, you’re an aesthetician with a photo of eyebrows, you’re a manicurist with a photo of fingernails.

When this is less effective: When you’re using a handshake to illustrate anything; when you are objectifying someone by removing their face; when you are not selling anything having to do with the body part that is being pictured.


Shapes and Colors

Sometimes concepts are so vague that even a photograph cannot add to their clarity, and web sites instead choose to use shapes and colors to illustrate their message. If this is your logo, well-planned and executed by a logo designer with a background in the psychology of corporate logo, then you’re in good shape. If you’re searching for images on a stock image site and choose clip art of a shape, that’s a little different.

When this is a good idea: When you had someone design this for you, or when it really fits the style, color and layout of your site.

When this is less effective: Most of the time.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of these suggestions above. Sometimes the best option — and the one that helps your idea along the most — is a bunch of flowers or a handshake or some purple circles with black shadows. In the meantime, consider looking carefully for that photo or image that really gets to the specifics of your idea, or better yet, take your own photo. Your work helps your customers or the people your nonprofit serves — why not show that exact thing instead of something generic?

Do you have a stock photo that you think is especially awful? Write a haiku about it and post it on Twitter — or send it to me via email or Facebook and I’ll put it up for you. Use the hash tag #stockphotohaiku, and let’s see how far it goes.