Stock vs Original Photos: Can You See the Difference?

Advertising | Marketing | Photography | May 12th, 2019

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Contributor Dallen Clark. Copywriter & Marketing

Everyone has come across stock photos while looking at websites, even if they didn’t know the term. Stock photos are professional pictures that are taken by a large company. The company then sells you the license to use the image for commercial use so that you can use it freely to promote your website. Usually, it comes out to a few dollars per image and they’re generally high quality.

Sounds like a sweet deal.

But stock photos aren’t ideal and come with a set of issues that you can’t avoid.  For the best results, we recommend hiring a professional photographer to do a photo shoot–read here for more about all the benefits of using professional photos for your business. We’re going to go over 3  major issues of using stock photos in this post that you should be aware of and why you should take stock of your photos and use original, high-quality photography whenever possible. Be original; be yourself!

Issue #1 Unbelievably Good


Stock images are high-quality, sure, but sometimes that high quality can also be a disadvantage. This becomes apparent with images with people for instance—everyone and everything is so clean and tidy.

A search for “Office Team” for instance shows groups of people with similar body language and complementary clothing and everyone manages to pose at the same time. Where’s the guy partially hiding in the back with the T-shirt and the cheese roll? And nobody’s caught mid-blink? Sure, every once in a while you’ll get a genuinely good group photograph with no one looking awkwardly out of place, but most of the stock photos are of people perfectly poised.  Candid shots like these show your personality and are great for social media posts, although your official staff photos should be done by the pros!


Issue #2 Impersonality

A lot of people use stock photos, and some businesses use them exclusively. And with literally over a billion websites uploaded every day, you’re bound to come across some duplicates. Occasionally, people will come across your own original images and reuse them on their site, (And in most cases you can legally make them take them down) but that chance skyrockets when the image is a stock photo.

One of the biggest misuses of stock images is using them to represent some general, abstract idea. Something like “social media” or “friendship” or “teamwork.” It’s better to go in with a more specific idea like “Best friends on the beach with a dog” and then use your content or captions to show what you wanted to represent.

Otherwise, you risk being impersonal and using the same image other websites are using, which is a terrible way to represent the uniqueness of your brand.

Want proof? Take a look at this image below, using the search term “Teamwork”.




This was the very first result. It’s not a bad image, and it represents teamwork in a decent way. But a quick image search shows that there are 25,270,000,000 results. That’s 25 billion hits. Now that’s probably exaggerated, but there are definitely hundreds of businesses using this same image for something, ranging from a Diabetes Support Camp in the United States, to a Restaurant in Canada, to an Accounting Firm in the UK, to a Community Outreach Event right here in New Zealand. And that’s just in the first few pages of the results.

Having the same picture as someone else isn’t necessarily bad, but your brand will be less genuine than if you use original photos. Compare that to our Unplanned Teamwear picture below:

Unplanned Synchronicity


2 search results, and none that are an exact match. It’s unique and it’s real.


Issue #3 Extra Cheese


A lot of stock photos are cheesy. And not just a little bit. Extra, extra, extra cheesy. People notice, too. Studies vary wildly, with some giving a solid boost of around 35% better conversion by using genuine images, and others with staggering results such as over 4x as much engagement.


Huffpost even used to do a segment called “This Week in Ridiculous Stock Photos”. The Business People Vs Nature set was particularly… Interesting.


Now you might be thinking that the stock photos are taken by professionals and that a lot of people wouldn’t know the difference. So we’re going to do it right here: A real picture vs a stock photo of the same thing. Can you tell which is real? Highlight the black bar to check your answer!


Mhmm, bagels. The holey-est of the breads. But which one is real and which is disguised?

Food VS


Left is the real one. Did you get it?


Everybody loves kittens! But one set of kittens is modelling. Which is it?

Animal VS


Left again. Are you on track or getting left behind?


We have great beaches here in NZ. One of these is from Southland, the other on the North Island. And one is stock. Which one?

Scenary VS



Left for a third time! Is this a pattern or by accident?

Gear and Stuff

Pens and pencils are common items, but one of these photos is much more common than the others. Do you know which is which?

Gear VS


Right is right! They couldn’t all be left you know.


People are the lifeblood of any good business. Because of this, it’s a strange choice to not feature any of the people that make your business a success and opt for Generic or Generica instead. Which one of these people is Generic, and which works for Back9?

People VS


Back to left, to make sure you didn’t get comfortable. 

How’d you do?

You probably did a pretty good job of spotting the stock from the unstocked, right? Some might have been trickier than others, but there was one that you could probably spot right away as being a stock photo because of the stock feel and quality that’s hard to describe. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what those qualities are, but studies show that most people recognise when an image is real and not a stock photo.


So I should never use stock photos?

While you should opt for high-quality original images whenever possible, stock images have their uses as well–in the right circumstances. Stock Photos are a great way out of a pinch. Maybe you thought that you had a great picture of you with a sunset backdrop you wanted to use to promote a product and wrote out a description and everything, then found out that someone in the background has their finger up their nose. Thankfully, there are literally over a million options that come up on Adobe Stock when “sunset” is the search term, so you have plenty of options. And if you need to use a stock image, try to check with an image search to make sure billions of people aren’t using the same one first!

When you need a decent image quickly, stock is sometimes your best and only option. But when possible, hiring a professional photographer to supply the images for your company will provide greater value and a stronger sense of identity and branding, which in turn means you’re more likely to translate strangers into customers.


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