The Good and Bad of Stock Photography

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There’s plenty of discussion about stock photography. Love it or hate it, searching for the right pictures and spending money for them is a part of everyday life for designers. Whether you're an amateur or pro in putting together communication materials, you need to think about why you're using stock images.

This post from our archives isn’t about saying “yes” or “no” to using stock photography in general. Instead, we want to help you think strategically about stock images and when you should avoid them.

Reasons not to use stock photography:

It doesn’t give a real picture of who you are. When visitors come to your website, or see something from your church for the first time, they want to get a sense for who you are. This is your chance to show how you are unique. It’s your time to show who you are and what you stand for as an organization. Do you really want to send the message that you’re a cookie-cutter church?

Plus, we have to remember using stock photography that doesn’t reflect who we really are creates a disconnect for a visitor. If they see one scene on the website or in a brochure but something completely different on a visit, they’ll feel duped.

A prime example of this is using a picture that is an ethnic rainbow blend of happy men, women and children when that’s not who you really are as a congregation. You may only have one chance to engage with a visitor to your church. Don’t let choosing a bad photo ruin that opportunity.

People know when they see stock photography. In a world where we are always exposed to marketing, people are savvy to what looks too good to be real. You don’t want your church’s image grouped with the postcards people get from the local dentist or bank. 

It can be used as a lazy way out. It takes work to get good pictures of individuals in your church in action. You have to create a system for letting parents opt-out of having pictures of their kids taken. A few people will probably be unnecessarily upset that you’re taking pictures around the church. So often it’s easier to buy a stock picture instead. 

Keep the end goal in mind. If we’re trying to reach people in our community and give a real picture of who we are as a church, isn’t it worth it to do the work?

Popular images show up all over the place. I remember a pre-service slide at my church that showed a young, hip woman holding a cell phone. It was part of a piece reminding people to silence their phone. Apparently, the church wasn’t the only one who thought it was a great picture. I ended up seeing this woman, who I wished actually came to our church, on the sides of buses and in other ads all over town.

Or take the picture in the header of this blog post. I would say it’s become the most overused stock image in the ministry world. I can understand why. It’s a great idea for a photo. But now the headless bible man is everywhere. It has lost its uniqueness. These are the risks that come with using stock photography.

Reasons to use stock photography:

There are some pictures you can’t get on your own. Whether it’s time, skill or access, there are some pictures you can’t take. Especially when it comes to photos without people in them, stock photography can give you some great options. Artists take unique pictures and have a great eye for composition. They can give you access to things, places and points of view you couldn’t get on your own. 

Sometimes stock images help you tell a better story. We use quite a bit of stock images here on Church Juice when we aren’t showing a place or people. Instead, we look for images that match the content we’re writing. Whether it’s something simple, complicated or abstract -- sometimes the right stock picture can accent and bring life to what you’re creating.

It’s better than stealing from the rest of the internet. Google Images makes it easy to type in a keyword and see a lot of pictures. It’s even more tempting to take something you see that looks perfect and use it on a project you’re doing. That’s illegal. You’ll probably never get caught, but it’s the wrong thing to do especially as a Christian organization. When you buy a stock image, you own it to use. There are some free stock photography options, too. Either way, use pictures you have the legal rights to use.

Here’s the big point of this post: Stock photography isn’t inherently bad as long as you’re making intentional decisions about why and how you’re using it. It becomes a problem when you’re just using it out of habit. Show your church in action. Highlight the people and programs you have. Use what’s in front of you first. And then, supplement the story with stock photography.

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