Picture Perfect

One of the fun parts about working in the design world is working with great pictures.

When we build custom sites or design printed materials, one of our top recommendations is that our clients use professional pictures. However, sometimes the cost of hiring a professional photographer isn’t in the budget. When issues like this arise, we often turn to licensed stock photos.

So what’s the difference? If you’re going to use stock images, why not just use pictures grabbed from a Google image search?

Since I get asked this question so often, I figured it would be best to break it down and explain the differences between professional photos, stock images, and the ever-popular “Google Grab”.

Using a professional photographer

Hiring a professional photographer isn’t as large of an expense as many people think. Professional photographers are generally small business owners or freelancers much like you. Because of this, they know what it’s like to operate on a fixed budget. More often than not, they can tailor a photo shoot to your specific needs–even if you don’t have much to work with in terms of finances. Many professional photographers have access to studio space, professional image editing software, and of course the best cameras and lighting equipment. Of course none of this equipment is any good without the know-how that a professional photographer brings. Owning good equipment does not make a professional photographer any more than a owning a good scalpel makes a good surgeon. Knowledge and experience are key.

The best part about using a professional photographer is that the pictures you receive will be appropriate to your business or organization. They’ll tell the story you want to tell. As an added bonus, you don’t have to worry about your brochure or website looking like your competition’s.

If you want to see some sites we’ve done that exclusively use local professional photos, you can check out frostedDallas & Co., and America’s Select Homes.

Using stock photos

Sometimes budgets and schedules don’t allow for professional photos. When this is the case, stock photos can fill an important role. While they’re not usually recommended if your product or service is highly unique, they can help round out the look of what would be an otherwise dull site. Stock photos can vary greatly in price, but they’re usually less expensive than a hiring a professional.

The biggest challenge with using stock photos is avoiding the “sameness” look that happens to creep into many of the pictures. It’s also very difficult to make stock photos look like they belong to a specific business (unless you’re a stock photo vendor, of course). Here are some blatantly obvious examples of what I mean.

Stock picture cliches

Now don’t get me wrong…there are many good stock photos out there. But I can tell you that after having done this for a long time, finding the perfect stock photo can be time consuming. And it’s very rare that a stock photo–even a great one–will get your specific message across.

Google Image Search

If you’ve never played with Google’s image search feature, I highly recommend you check it out sometime. Just go to images.google.com. It’s pretty straightforward from there. But PLEASE don’t even think about using anything you find here for your site or printed materials. There are a number of reasons to not do this, but the most important reason is old-fashioned legal liability. Every photo taken can have a copyright–even the ones you take with your phone. Because of this, all it takes is one eagle-eyed weekend photographer spotting their picture on your site to cause a very large headache. Does this really happen? Yes. I’ve seen it happen. And the outcome wasn’t pretty.

Aside from the potential legal ramifications, it’s also worth noting that you may not always know the original source of the image you’ve selected. Even a seemingly innocent picture could have an underlying association. Case in point: a textbook publisher was recently caught redhanded when Googling for stock images resulted in an adult film star being featured on the front cover of a math text book.

Plan your pictures

After all is said and done, pictures will be one of the first things your clients and customers will notice about your website or print materials. Because of this, it’s best to plan for the right pictures when you set your project’s budget. Whether your budget is large or small, there’s always a solution to be had.