Photos Make the Website So Rock Them; Don’t “Stock” Them

stockimagesNo, you’re not experiencing a bout of deja vu.  You’ve seen these photos or some similar iteration before.  The clay figures. The guy or gal sketching business charts on the glass board.  The inspirational road signs.  Fish jumping from one bowl to another.  Perhaps you stumbled across them online while browsing Google Images or in a Powerpoint presentation or as an illustration at a blog post or as a front page graphic on a website or worst of all, on a web design website  (since if designers are using it for their own site, you know they’ll use it to develop yours).  While a few years back, many of these same stock photos were entertaining or interesting, now that millions of users have tapped into the stock photography trough, these consistently used stock photos are dull and banal; the hobgoblins of crappy websites (H/T to Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Of course, just as there are different levels of Hell, so too, some uses of stock photography are more tolerable than others.  I’ve used stock photos in  slide presentations,  not so much because they’re the best option, but because they’re the safest choice in a time-pressed situation.  Since I typically put my presentations together within hours or even minutes of the deadline with the intention of posting them on slideshare, the last thing I want is to grab a copyrighted image off of Google or neglect to include appropriate attribution for a Flickr photo  and find myself hit with a cease and desist letter or copyright action after it’s discovered online.

Moreover, at least with my  most recent slide decks , I’ve tried to use my extremely limited design skills to display stock photos as part of a montage or to change the tone or color to minimize the stock-like features.   In any event, a presentation is a one-time event where the speaker is the main attraction and in that regard, use of stock photography isn’t an enormous sin.

Likewise, stock photography is also forgivable on a blog post which only runs for a single day.  Though truth be told, I rarely include photos in my posts at all because I don’t see the point of re-using the same old tired photos for my site that are already available at fifty other places online.  My blog posts don’t read like anyone else’s so why should they look that way?

But what simply isn’t tolerable is the use of stock photos for websites.  I can spot stock photos a mile away and as soon as I see one of them used on a legal website, I feel pity for the lawyer (who didn’t know, or couldn’t afford any better) and disrespect for the designer who lacked the creativity or the skill to come up with a work around.

I realize that sometimes, there’s no alternative to stock photos because of cost.  But before you use stock photos (or relatedly, use the ubiquitous city skyline photo on your website) or allow your designer to use them, consider these alternatives:

  •  Hire your own photographer:  I agree that at first blush, this seems like an even more expensive solution than using a high end web designer.  But you may be able to retain a student photographer through Craigslist who is looking to build a portfolio.  Or you might negotiate a deal with a local photographer to take photos at a reduced rate in exchange for a credit at your site.  Many local business (law firms included) decorate their office with artwork on loan from local artists who gain added exposure; using one or several photographers’ work at your website is a similar concept.  Moreover, if you have a hyperlocal, community-based practice, hiring a local photographer is a way of showing support for the local community.
  •  Take your own photos  OK, so maybe your Smartphone camera doesn’t have good enough resolution for a web photo. But these days, most digital cameras under $100 have good enough pixel quality for a website.  Depending upon your practice area, you might take photos of the courts where you practice, the area where you live or photos compiled from travel.  You can also have a friend photograph you in a scene typical of your practice (for my website, I had my husband photograph me at the Jefferson Memorial – the marble background highlights the DC/government oriented nature of my practice.
  • Kick up your stock photos  If you’re going to use stock photos, or use a designer who uses stock photos, don’t just plop them on to your website unadorned.  Good designers can slice and dice and recolor stock photos to transform them into more original work.  And you can even dress up stock photos yourself by super-imposing captions in stylish font (that’s the fix that I tried at the slider bars  for my trade association website).
  • Use high quality or less-used stock photos  If you must resort to stock photos, opt for the best quality available (which means you may have to buy the larger sized photo rather than enlarging a tiny image) or choose photos that haven’t been as broadly circulated.  istock photo  does have the most extensive selection from what I can tell, but Shutterstock seems to offer a more interesting selection, plus I prefer its pricing scheme (you can purchase bundles where the cost of a small or large image is the same. At istock, larger images cost more).  Generally, the higher-cost photos and vector images are less pervasive than the cheap pictures.                                                                                Flickr  is another option, but you’ve got to be scrupulous in adhering to its creative commons licensing rules — not so much because someone will come after you and sue you though that can happen, but because as lawyers, we look like fools when we’re not familiar with terms of use.  In my view, both a law firm website and many blogs are commercial, so if you’re using Flickr photos for these purposes, you’d be limited to those that are licensed for commercial use (you can search for them separately using the Flickr advanced search feature).  An educational presentation like a slide deck is a little different, so there, you’d probably be safe to expand your use to all photos, provided of course that you comply with the rules on attribution.
  • Dispense with photos entirely  If you can’t come up with high-quality photos, then don’t use them at all (with the exception of a photo of yourself which personalizes the site and adds credibility).  Both modern font choice (many free at sites like Squirrel Font) and unique color combinations (see sites like, Kuler  or Color Palette Generator to select and match colors) can improve the look of your site and set it apart.

While it’s been said that content is king on the web, even online, we can’t escape the reality that most people still judge a book (and its content) by its cover.  For many lawyers, your website is the first impression that you make to potential clients and referrals.  But canned photos (not to mention, canned content  cheapen your image impression just as much a cheap polyester suit and a bulging, tattered briefcase.  In short, why stock when you should rock instead?