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Why Bad Stock Photos Make Us Want to Cry

And a checklist to avoid them
  • October 1, 2014, 8:07 AM EDT
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Picture this: It's ten o'clock on a Thursday night and you're still at work. All you want is to finish up the project you've been wrestling all week and go home. You just need one final image.

At this point, almost anything will do. But creatives beware: It's conditions like these that cause some of the worst stock photo crimes to occur.

You yourself might not have committed a stock photo crime, but you've undoubtedly seen your share. Some are so ridiculous that they inevitably become the subjects of mocking posts, like this guy stupidly smiling while signing what may or may not be divorce papers. 

Humor aside, bad stock images do the minimum amount of work and inflict the maximum amount of damage to a final product. In short, they're visual clichés—the No. 1 enemy of creativity—and consequently overshadow any idea they are meant to illustrate, no matter how clever.

So next time you're under the gun and desperate, try asking yourself these three questions to make sure you're not on the verge of a major stock photo blunder.

Is it emotionally authentic?
People hate being lied to, by art or otherwise. Like the best books and movies, winning stock photos present their subjects honestly. That means no shots of executives in a boardroom leaping joyously into the air—even the happiest of workplaces keep their heel clicking to a minimum. No matter what emotion or feeling you're trying to capture, make sure it strikes a good balance of being both straightforward and subtle. Here's an excellent example of a parent and child shot done well:

Is it happening in a real place?
Too many stock photos take place in an empty white space. They offer up a figure—a woman on a phone, a man with a calculator—but the photo has been taken against a blank white backdrop. Partly this is intended to make it easier to crop and superimpose images on other backgrounds, but too often these void backgrounds make it into a final product. In real life, there are no blank white backdrops. Things happen in living rooms, parks, stores and offices, as seen here: 

Do these people look convincing?
Do the people in the photo feel like real people? Or do they feel like actors hitting you over the head with caricatures of what "happy," "confused" or "professional" look like? Before choosing an image, ask yourself if you can imagine seeing the person in the picture. Is she someone you'd come across at a neighborhood café, in your office or on the bus? Is she feeling something you've felt? A good stock photo does all those things, as with the example here:

If your image is emotionally authentic, happening in a real place and inhabited by people who look convincing, then you've found yourself a good stock photo. Well done, and carry on.

Image credits: iStock by Getty Images (28520330, 23007192, 34369358, 29681602)


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