Stop Using Stock Photography Clichés

I am sick of stock photography. We should refuse to use one more photograph of business men shaking hands or ethnically diverse people laughing together.

It is time to draw a line in the sand. 2010 needs to see the demise of bland, insipid photography that are the equivalent of using IBM blue.

Like IBM blue, certain stock imagery has been so overused that they have become meaningless. It conveys no information of value and carry no positive emotional message. Take for example the website below:

The WellDyne website features a photograph of two businessmen shaking hands

The image provides no clue as to the nature of the website and appears to be little more than a placeholder to fill up space.

The only reason to resort to such hackneyed clichés is lazinesses. A designer has literally millions of gorgeous images available to them online and should also be capable of producing unique imagery of their own.

This lazy approach was summed up perfectly in the design below. The designer was so lazy he did not even manage to purchase the image (see the watermark from istockphoto).

Website using an unpurchased image.

The alternative

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not writing this with a sense of superiority. I have been just as guilty of falling back on clichés as anybody else. After all, when time and budget is limited, you don’t have the resources to commission your own photo shoot!

However, just because you are forced to use stock photography does not mean it has to look terrible. There are several techniques that can help avoid clichés even when time and budget are limited.

Use Illustration

Increasingly websites are using illustration instead of photography. Even stock illustration often conveys more character and personality than your average piece of stock photography.

The style of illustration used says something about the website and organisation behind it. Illustrations make a statement and do not necessarily need to appear childish, as many clients fear.

Hull Digital Live

Safarista Design

Image based on Soviet Russian style

Image of comic fish

Better integrate

Even when you choose to use stock photography there is no reason why it needs to be confined to a box! Instead seek ways to better integrate it with your design by breaking out of the grid. This can take even relatively poor photography and give it new life.

Brooklyn Fare Website

Avenue 91.1 website

Oklahoma Wesleyan University


Of course there are occasions when you are forced to work with poor photography. This typically happens when imagery is provided by the client or when the budget doesn’t allow anything other than the cheapest of stock imagery.

This is the point where you need to let your creativity run wild. Do not resign yourself to poor quality imagery, but rather enhance it using techniques as simple as a photoshop filter to as complex as a collage.

Suie Paparude website

Boutique website


The Nest

Pick images with punch

When you do have a choice of imagery make sure you select an image with punch.

When faced with an image library consisting of thousands of photos, it is easy to pick the first image that has the right subject matter. However remember, composition, colour and style make a huge difference.

Picture of a woman's face

Image of ornate costume

Image of the Festival of Colour in India

Use typography instead

Of course there is no reason why you need to use imagery at all. It is perfectly possible to create an incredibly powerful website with just the use of typography.

In fact I would argue that good typography is imagery in its own right.

Seed Conference Website

National Design Museum poster

Avoid being literal

My final piece of advice is probably the most important of all, and is one that website owners struggle to grasp – You do not need to be literal.

The reason so many websites fall back on clichés is because most organisations do not have strong imagery associated with them. When you think of a management consultant, PR agency or chartered accountant, you instinctively think of businessmen in suits shaking hands. That is the literal interpretation of these and many other businesses. In fact so few businesses produce something that can be seen or touched, they are only left with photographic clichés.

However, good imagery is about conveying a sense of personality and character, not a literal representation of what you do. After all prospective visitors understand that if you are a management consultant there will be men in suits. They don’t need a picture to tell them that. What they need to know is the character and personality of your organisation.

Images that convey information and emotion are considerably more powerful. These are the images that engage with your user and draws them in.

Unicef picture of girl holding water pistol to her head

Picture of a cactus in the shape of persons foot

Call to Action

Every good blog post needs a call to action. Mine is to ask you to be more adventurous in your choice of imagery. Do not settle for second rate stock photography but instead experiment with illustration, collage, typography and styling.

However, most of all I would encourage you to avoid being too literal in your choice of imagery. Some of the most powerful imagery can also be the most abstract.

  • mike

    I love this post. Seeing men/woman in suits gives me a negative impression in some ways it feels very spammy. Nice to see that you are getting back into it and I look forward to many great shows in the new year. Happy new year Boagworld.

  • Rob

    Paul – outstanding write-up. This has become a bit of an annoyance to me too, though I know that I’ve been guilty of it in the past as well.

  • Great post Paul – Stock images I see all the time are the old classics that represent “standing out in a crowd” Happy new year and keep the great posts coming.

  • Matt

    All very well for those without budget concerns. If you can afford to have Illustrations made up for a site I’d love to use them on every site. It simply comes down to style a taste and annoyingly ‘what the client wants’ at the end of the day. A lot of business clients love all those images of hand shaking/Back Slapping/Arse kissing etc. Unfortunate but true!

  • Thanks for featuring the HDLive website. Rob Palmer did a superb job on the illustrations, all taken from photos shot around Hull.

    It worked really well!

    I agree with Mike, that stock photos can easily fall into the cheesy / spammy category. So much better to go for something original, but appropriate.

    Best wishes,

    Jon Moss

  • Good 1st post! but it is a hard battle between execs really liking these business suit shots and myself who would like to go out of the box a little, but a battle i love to fight

  • I agree wholeheartedly, I am actually creating a website for a business development coach myself and when presented with copy/photos, this is exactly what the client had in mind, just about got the client to my way of thinking, last piece of the puzzle is now the photos to match the content.

  • I shoot a fair bit of stock myself and have no problem with using good stock photography in my print and web work. It’s a fast and cheap way to get a design out of the door, which to anybody working in the real world is an absolute requirement.

    However I do agree with the fact that we don’t need to use horrible shots a business men shaking hands anymore, just the same as we don’t need to use comic sans or drop shadows on all of our designs.

    Places like iStockphoto and Getty have literally thousands of beautiful images without a business suit in site, created by very talented guys and girls who know how to capture amazing images.

    So if you can’t afford bespoke photography – and not many people can right now, be smart. Use stock, but just the good stuff and like Paul says, don’t be lazy.

  • Agree wholeheartedly. As with other posters, seeing rich white men shakings hands in business suits (or as I call it, RWMSHIBS) will send me away from a site, not towards it.

    Another awful stock photography cliche is people outside America using very American clip art. You know the kind I’m talking about – a crowd of immaculate people of all races and nationalities with Hollywood teeth, which looks absolutely nothing like anyone you will ever see in Glasgow Central station. I saw one estate agency here using a picture of a Hispanic couple grinning together in front of a “SOLD” sign outside one of those massive American suburban houses. When was the last time you saw that in Liverpool?

  • I agree entirely in principle Paul, however in the world of budgets from clients, this can be a tough subject. For instance we have commonly ran into the fact that:

    • Clients don’t want to spend money on great imagery
    • Clients don’t want to spend money on bespoke illustration/photography
    • Clients are reluctant to spend a lot of money on our time to retouch/combine/work with images to make them look superb
    • Some love stock photos like this

    Having said that though we should and are increasingly:

    • Educating the clients on how important imagery is
    • Building in more ‘design’ time for finding and using the right images instead of labelling it imagery
    • Getting bigger budget projects where clients don’t mind/understand
    • Using client photography (where they have great product/results shots)

    All of which helps. It’s a hard conversation to have when a client asks why imagery is going to cost £500-£1000 when they can see images for a pound a pop on iStockPhoto. We explain it’s our time to find the right images and treat them, but it’s still quite a battle.

    Here’s to better imagery overall and the death of:

    • The handshake
    • Vacant, smiling execs
    • People crowding round a laptop
    • A globe of any kind


  • I used a lot of stock images back when I worked at a full time job, although most of it were icons and illustrations. When I use stock photography, I try to go for a natural photo, otherwise it ends up looking too impersonal and a bit….I don’t know…cheap?

  • nicktalop

    Nice post. The difficult part is to train yourself to “unthink”, that is to stop thinking the old way. And I guess Rob Smith had summed it up nicely. It’s one step to teach yourself, and quite another to teach your client to get out of his mental comforters.

    @Heather: you’re so absolutely dead right about European idiosyncrasies.

  • Grant

    Excellent post. Using more original, inspired and relevant imagery gives a site a sense of character and identity. It’s probably better to use no images at all than generic stock photos.

  • I love this advice. And I love the service you provide the web community.

    And I have a question:

    I wonder about how we as designers are to coerce difficult-to-influence clients of this advice?

    (Or any sensible web-design advice, for that matter.)

    • I actually cover this in a presentation I gave called “Educating Clients to Say Yes” – Google it and you should find it.

  • great post, Paul :)
    You had me with the first paragraph, especially: “one more photograph of business men shaking hands”… :D so perfectly true…! No more!

    I think you speak for many, many and too many of us – confronted with the most predictable and unimaginative imagery at times by our clients – we do need to swing their views in favour of a more creative and original approach. Love the samples you’re showing ;)
    Thanks ;)

  • Couldn’t agree more…which is slightly strange as I’m a photographer who makes a modest amount of money from stock photography. Hopefully the stuff I sell is much less generic and sold via getty’s flickr collection (which i would recommend).

    I really think its worth the effort to try and sell the benefit to clients of getting images fit and shot for purpose. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune if you find a good photog.

    In fact if anyone in the dorset area is looking for one…well i know this guy ;-)

    (Apologies for shameless plug)

  • This is a nice article. Often times I do believe that (was as) designers can get stuck in a box an limit ourselves based on the images (lack of images) that we use.

  • It don’t think it’s because designers are being lazy, but that their clients keep asking for these type of images on their websites. From our experience, being a stock photo library, a lot of our clients keep asking for these clichés for use in their ads, web, printed media etc. It’s hard to get around, unless you can convince your client to use something else. At the end of the day, everyone has different tastes.

  • I like this post, but I do think it’s a little black and white. There will be times that stock art is necessary. Budgets don’t always allow for custom artwork.

    However, designers can do a better job of picking stock art and avoid commonly overused and cliche images.

  • Great post, as usual, Paul. I’ve always hated those insanely fake looking people on commercial medical sites especially. Keep up the good work in 2010.

  • So true, these websites look like template, that’s it! Thanks for the alternative ideas

  • Mike

    Whenever I feel energetic, the urge to add exciting imagery that is lateral rises.

    But whenever I am tired and just want something the client will say yes to as soon as they open the mock-up… I use a cliche. If you want to save several hours work and just get paid for work you don’t really have a heart for, use istock and get those multi-cultural mashups rolling. Works everytime.


  • A

    I constantly get clients asking for stock photography in their web design and when I cannot convince them otherwise, I find it hard to put the photos into a design and make it look good!

    Can anyone provide examples of websites that have used stock photos in an effective way?


  • Amanda

    I can’t stop laughing at the example with the istockphoto watermark! Who in their right mind would actually do that? What, they couldn’t even bring themselves to use the clone tool in Photoshop? XD How horrid and yet hilarious! This blog has made my day.

  • Couldn’t agree more on that! After all these years on the Net, I’ve grown kinda wary of stock photography. Those smiling models shaking hands, those nature photography oozing deja vu, can’t designers be a little more creative or original?

    I agree with typography being a better substitute. This is one area worth exploring further. Simply put, if you can’t get an authentic image, say it with beautiful typography. You’d leave a better mark!

  • Good post. Have also a look at ;)

  • Interesting post, thanks for this. The overuse of certain stock imagery especially in corporate sites has long been a bane of the web design world.

    There is simply no excuse for not purchasing the stock photo you choose though, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a watermark left in a so-called professional website!

  • Good article Paul,

    I know the title you’ve given this post is about how evil stock photography appears at times, but the sites you’ve chosen and the reasons you outline would seem to be more of a mixed bag of rather bad corporate sites, versus some rather interestingly designed and well marketed/managed sites. Neither of the bad examples chosen are examples of anything more than 500 quid sites really do they?

    Sometimes, due to time constraints, client wishes, or just the fact that we don’t always have time/money to spend further man hours on a project, clichéd imagery will be the only avenue available, but that’s still better than using the photos my client provided which his 15 year old daughters boyfriend took on his Sony Walkman Phone…

    Like the comment about typography working as imagery in its own right!

    Don’t really see what the problem is with two blokes shaking hands in a corporate setting either really, unless of course it’s in a cubicle of the corporate loo…


    • I am not saying that all stock photography is bad. I am merely saying that some stock photography has been used so much that it has effectively become invisible and meaningless. Take for example the shaking hands. That has been used on so many different types of sites that it says nothing. It is merely a placeholder. My point is that you could easily replace that image with a better stock photo/illustration or enhance the image by stylising it in someway. It need cost nothing. Hell just making the same image black and white will make it a little more original!

      Universities have the same problem. The vast majority of work I do is with HE websites and they all use the same stock imagery. Ethnically diverse smiley students standing in front of some generic HE building. The result is that all HE websites look the same.

      I cover this in my talk ‘10 Harsh Truths About Institutional Websites

      Anyway that is my personal perspective. You are more than welcome to disagree :)

  • Great article – raises some good points concerning stock photography. Though too often i’m found with a short amount of time and an “any old image will do attitude” from a client.

  • Glenn

    The advice is good though the comparisons is a mess. It’s to easy for you to compare a mangement and financial site against a cool radioshow or a fansite for a band. For example I wouldnt take a bank with doodles or crazy typography seriously. But as said, the advice itself and the tips are good.

  • Great article Paul and yes it makes a lot of sense.
    2 years ago we changed the imagery on our homepage ( to reflect our (award winning)prospectus and boy did we get a kicking from internals and some externals!!! They said the images were “moody”, “like Hollyoaks”, “taken in a nightclub”, “sultry”, the list goes on.
    The upside however is that we had an immediate incease of 20% to our site by external visitors and we don’t struggle to recruit.
    Currently going through another restyle of the whole site so those images won’t be there for much longer.

  • Antje

    Considering the message of the post it is a bit strange to have the ultimate famous National Geographic photograph by Steve McCurry as first example photo. I.e. the Afghan girl of some 20 years ago.

    It is copyrighted and as it is so well used and known one might consider it a stock photo.

    • I chose it because it was a powerful image, not because it was stock photography.

  • Aravind Potadar

    Thanks for the post. you are right! if we use illustration and some other tricks which you mentioned in this post would be very helpful to us. I think, we designers will improve our ideas by doing this and bring out amazing designs.
    Once again thank you dude!!!

  • I guess I am having a hard time seeing the case you are making. It is easy to criticize a financial services website because they are typically very clean, polished, straight-forward, to-the-point and corporate. I would like to see a positive example of a finance site, because the positive examples you used were artist portfolio sites, etc. The closest example to a financial services was the university website screenshot.

    I don’t have a disagreement with you, but I do see a disparity between the stale/cliche finance site and the (not surprisingly) good portfolio sites. It just isn’t comparing apples to apples. I believe we would need to see an example of a finance site (or some other typically stale website) that applies your principles without sacrificing a clean, simple corporate design and clean, clear end-user experience that achieves organizational goals.

    I completely agree with your criticisms and woes about stock photos and that there could be a creative touch integrated in more work that we do. It’s just sometimes difficult to see how I could apply these ideals to the website of the financial planning client I occasionally serve.

  • Great concept. Got it right away! Beautifully executed.
    I am definitely bookmarking this page and sharing it with my friends.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • I don’t see an issue with the first example ( probably because it’s my image :) ). The page discusses business management relating to customers, creating relationships. How better do business managers and customers seal a relationship than with a handshake? Even if it is a “cliche'”, it does a fine job of illustrating the text.

    You may need to argue, instead, that the copy is a bit bland and vague, but that’s another issue. Or that the site design is forcing the image into a box, and you don’t like that. But the consumer knows what they like and what makes them want to “buy”, and a lot of times, that is what they are comfortable with. People that look like them. Happy. Well off. So you play to the market. I don’t see a terrible issue with that.

    Nothing against thinking creatively when you have the opportunity, though.

  • Thank you! You’ve definitely done great inspirational work! And of course, your call to action is something real (however, professional designers already tend to be more accurate and to give the time to work).

  • Very nice post, the shaking hands is for sure one of the most overused stock photos.

  • You are spot on Paul. I see so many people stuck inside the box when they design and it’s all about staying in the norm. Break away from the norm and be unique. I’m with you in 2010.

  • Nice post Paul.

    My initial reaction was the same as Rob Smith’s… that we know this is the most creative approach and all hate searching stock image sites for the same old images that answer the same old briefs and how clients are often not prepared to pay the additional time to ‘go creative’.

    But then I thought about all the times I’d trusted the designers to create something bespoke and how often they hit the brief and took less time than finding “that perfect stock image” (it can take agggggges with a picky client)

    I can’t help but now think we may often use stock imagery because we havent evolved our skills enough to produce creative solutions quickly enough – hmmm.

    I think if the project is right, maybe 2010 is the year to go bespoke a little more and see how things pan out!

    But, if I get one more request for a jigsaw with a piece missing I may have to hurt someone.

  • Really great post and very much enjoyed reading through. Only problem I run into is my clients tend to be very small companies and often the person in charge thinks they know exactly what they want… you try and push them in new exciting directions but in the end you back down and agree as they pay my bills!

  • I absolutely can’t stand iStockPhoto. After having gone through a lengthy process of looking for stock images in a company redesign last fall, i hate (HATE HATE HATE) pictures of businesspeople shaking hands.

  • Absolutely a classic post. You summed up the importance of being creative with your design to make your call to action stick out. Totally agree that illustrations will become more prevalent in 2010.

  • Thanks, this has been one of the things I never really liked that people did a lot of. I am happy I am not alone in thinking it should change.

    Great ideas for alternatives to using stocks too.

  • Nice one!
    I’ve just published my idea, from a photographer side, and I link back to your post because I think it’s important to get also a well-written designer point of view.
    Thanks for sharing,

  • I agree to a point. That said, you did use two fairly poor examples of sites with stock images…

  • Rachel

    Great post – thanks.

    A little ray of home on the ‘persuading clients to spend money on photography’ topic: my old agency persuaded the client to spend 3 times as much as usual on a shot of a can of paint for an ad. He resisted (couldn’t see the point) but eventually relented.

    When he saw the shot, he was so blown away that he cried.

  • I work at a world famous large corporation, and every single day I bemoan the blandness of the stock imagery that makes up our visual communications. Exactly what you said, ethnically mixed subjects who seem to be mildly content, shaking hands, looking at each other’s laptops, etc. Nobody else seems to be feeling this pallor of unoriginality, so thanks so much for your article. I always imagined there must be something more .. genuine … and I think some of the examples of the good work you provided are just wonderfully alive.

  • Eva

    Great article! I put my hands up to admit i have used cheesy stock photography in my designs, but because the client has insisted upon it! and it breaks my heart everytime, its not creative or exciting, but clients love it and they think they know best (everyones a designer apparently!)
    so many beautiful designs have been pushed to the way-side in order for the bland mediocre,.. the clients get the final say because they’re paying for it.

    • Well said! What’s also annoying is you start seeing the same photos on different sites. If the client is insistent on selecting photography perhaps the trick is in the image selection you show them – and more importantly what you DON’T show them. Pick all the interesting and less cliched shots and present these as a contact sheet – put the best ones in your mock-up.

  • That was wonderful, and the watermark of istock image is wow, cant believe the client and web designer left the watermark intact.

  • Brilliant. Just brilliant. Not only do you identify the hideous problem (which I recognise is still a temptation for me), but you identify solutions and link to some fantastic, inspirational ideas.

    Thank you.

  • Nice piece – I’ve seen the same stock image used time and again – makes me think “I know her, but where from?”

  • Nice post, I like it. But I agree with Chad about disparity between your examples. The 2 first are really bad not only for stock photo, but typo, logo and… all!
    For other examples (I know some of them) I would have liked to get direct links on pictures to visit them :(

    Interesting website, I bookmark it… and great footer!

    • “The only reason to resort to such hackneyed clichés is lazinesses.”

      That just made me smile. You have no idea how many times I created layouts for clients with cool imagery and every time I had to change back to lame pictures with people shaking hands and other like that.

      “The designer was so lazy he did not even manage to purchase the image (see the watermark from istockphoto).”

      From time to time I send proposals to clients using pictures from iStock and other websites BUT if the layout is approved I make sure to tell them they have to BUY THE PHOTO. If they don’t then is not designer’s fault.

  • I suggest a UN resolution is passed against an agreed list of imagery designated as WOMD (widely overused metaphorical depiction). These could include:

    handshakes, PC configurations of people in suits around boardroom tables, jigsaws, cogs, people pointing at computer screens/whiteboards, goldfish, water drops, men jumping in fields….etc

    Also a button in istockphoto called ‘cut out the crap’ would be good and save a lot of time :)

    • “Also a button in istockphoto called ‘cut out the crap’ would be good and save a lot of time :)”

      Or you could try out :)

  • This article was just the shot I needed to move forward with a design!
    Thank you!

  • Much of what has been said is very true! There is good stock out there BUT also a lot of crap. It’s about finding the good content and using it creatively! Feel free to post comments about individual stock agencies on our site –! :-)

  • Wow, awesome examples here how to use stock illustration and stock vector art effectively :) 

  • Yeah stock photography is usually cheese.  People expect so much more now.  Hell with things like instagram anyone can take a great photo and add to your site.

  • My client wants to use generic free stock photos on his website.  Your thoughts really express well what I would like to convey to him. Better use few images that are original to his organisation and meaningful to the web visitor. Also using free stock pics actually deteriorates the web layout quality…and IMO adversely reflects on me as a web developper.

  • Paul,
    You have written another great article. I really need to start looking over your posts more often, as is probably one of the best sites online for finding a balanced perspective regarding web site design. (ok there is also zeldmen etc.) but I really like the style and humor of your writing. Great work.

  • Paul,
    You have written another great article. I really need to start looking over your posts more often, as is probably one of the best sites online for finding a balanced perspective regarding web site design. (ok there is also zeldmen etc.) but I really like the style and humor of your writing. Great work.

  • I’ve been guilty of some of these clichés in the past, but there are some funny people out there that often give weird feedback. You need to know when to ignore them. Your advice is great, and although some other people will tell you different things, you need to stick to the advice here. As an example, check out which uses a grim reaper as the logo. It’s amazing how many people say “cool logo”, “interesting art work” and other such things, but we actually have lost twitter followers because of it. We’re okay with that. We want to be a bit edgy, we don’t want everyone. If we did, it’d probably mean making our brand (which I think is quite strong) much more bland.

  • Oziel Perez

    Wooooow this is amazing!! Thank you for sharing this link! Definitely appreciate nice photography :D

  • Oziel Perez

    … and then they wonder why their sites don’t seem to appeal very well to the public :/

  • How about a Random button? So you get a random selection