How to choose good stock photography (and why it matters)

Connecting with other people, especially visually, is kind of our thing, as humans. We love seeing ourselves, our friends and other people, which is why billions of humans do selfies, Instagram and TikTok.

And that’s why photography is so important in marketing and communications. Because business isn’t about spreadsheets and laptops. It’s about people. When we see people that we can relate to, we feel more invested, we feel a connection. We’re much more likely to spend our money in stores that represent us.

Part of the responsibility lies with the sites themselves. (Oh, how I wish every stock image site would pull down those awful “working mum” photos.)

Caption/alt text: Two images showing harried women struggling to work while simultaneously looking after young infants, head in hands.

But anyone using stock photos also has a responsibility. So if you’re in a role that involves selecting images (no longer just a task for the marketing and communications teams) you’ll need to give it some thought, and practice overcoming your own (perhaps unconscious) biases.

For example, if your world is predominantly white and male, you might not notice that all your images are of white, often male, people in positions of authority, whether it’s managing a team, or a doctor treating a patient. But I promise, once you see your biases, you can’t un-see them.

Caption/ alt text:
(Left) a woman with her head on her hand, with a white person in a suit with a clipboard off to the side.
(Right) a man in an aggressive stance towards a female co-worker

In short: if you want to include lots of people in your customer base, don’t exclude them in your images.

If you can, opt for people in realistic poses in realistic settings, over abstract items. It’s just so much harder to feel an emotional connection to disembodied hands, lightbulbs, or words written on blackboards.

If you can afford it, commission local photographers to shoot what you need. If that’s not an option, hunt around online for existing photos – they might not be on international stock sites. The less generic and ubiquitous your imagery, the more authentic and relatable it will feel.

Finally, don’t forget to pay for images that aren’t free, to credit where required, and to add alt text to ensure as many people can get the sentiment you’ve put so much thought into.

Here are a few aspects of diversity to think about:

  • Age (are you unconsciously excluding any age groups, young or old?)
  • Body type (are you showing different shapes and sizes? Consider that the New Zealand Health Survey 2019/20 found that around 1 in 3 adults are obese)
  • Disability (not just wheelchairs, please. Check out this site for inspiration)
  • Ethnicity (With the US a big stock image source, you’ll find that ‘ethnic diversity’ mainly translates to Black and Latinx. Not so relevant in New Zealand, where I’m more often looking for pictures of Asian and Māori).
  • Gender (Consider who you’re showing in positions of power or authority, and who is shown caring for children or the elderly.)
  • Gender identity and sexuality (show non-binary or LGBTQI+ people just being)
  • Style (do the hairstyles or clothes types look right for the time and place? In 2020, in New Zealand at least, most women aren’t wearing grey suits and stiletto heels…)

Here are some sources of diverse photos to get you started:

Screenshot from Lean In website of their collection with Getty

Thanks for reading, and good luck on your search for authentic images that will help you build a genuine connection with your customers.
Got any other recommendations? Share them in the comments below!

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