All About the Photos: To Stock or Not to Stock

I can’t tell you the number of times I’m asked to talk about photo use on websites. What’s better – stock images or client-supplied images? Abstract or realistic? Should I use that mangled car on my auto accident page?

There are as many schools of thought for image use on sites as colour, placement of the quick form and text size. But there are a few talking points you can share with your clients about how and when photography should be used.

Copyright and Getty Images Worldwide Stronghold

I think the first thing that should be addressed though is where we actually get our images from. While we don’t see it quite as often as we used to, we still do have instances where a client will right-click and save a random image pulled from some random location on the internet before trying to sweet-talk us into putting it up on their site. But we must resist this urge to just do whatever the client wants in order to get through our day. Copyright is a serious issue that lawyers seem to have a ginormous blind spot. There is still a common misconception that just because something is visible on the web, it is instantly and freely available for use on every other site out there and that’s just not true.

Images, content, video, sound files, you name it – once an original instance of content (in any form, visual or verbal) has been uploaded to a particular site – whether it’s been submitted to the copyright office in Washington DC or not – is subject to copyright protection under the law.

Certainly, if you’re reposting a photo of, say Benedict Cumberbatch on your personal Facebook page, nobody is going to come and put you in cuffs. But we are creating commercial sites for our clients, where we are selling the services of their practice. In this guise, we must be certain that the imagery we use on our company sites come either directly from the client in the form of a commissioned photo shoot, properly acquired permissions from an outside photographer via a release form, or through our contracted current stock image source (which is most recently iStock). Our contracts with image source partners permit the options of millions of photos on our websites and keep us in compliance with copyright law.

When this is not done and non-vetted images are placed on sites it leaves us, our clients and our parent company open to litigation from the creator of the source material.

So let’s just err on the side of caution here, shall we?

The Nitty-Gritty – Stock Versus Custom Client Photos

This is where it gets more interesting – the question of what’s better, personal photos or stock photos? Well, this, like everything else in our industry is a two-fold answer. All things being equal, I would always prefer to use custom client photos for several reasons:

  • Custom photos are unique to the business. Nobody else looks like client X and so images of client X will instantly create a unique visual that sets the site apart from the 100 or so other sites I design every year. I can even further customize the overall site based on these photos, ensuring that what we create is fully a cohesive brand visual that fits the personality of the lawyer or lawyers.
  • Custom Photos allow end-users to visually connect to the firm. Which, in turn, connects the lawyer to his or her business and furthers the brand identity of the site.
  • Custom photos create authenticity and trust. End-users want to see who they are considering spending their hard-earned money with. This is not possible when stock images are used.

Part two of this answer is the caveat that not every client we work with is comfortable with this recommendation for various reasons and even armed with the information above, they prefer not to use custom photography, in those cases we can and will work with stock images.

What Goes Into Selecting a Stock Image, Anyway?

When I’m working on a site there are a lot of factors that go into selecting what I recommend as the best visuals for a site design. And it is entirely determined on the overall goals and strategies of the site I’m creating. Is this a client that is looking for a high amount of new business (conversion)? Or is this site’s goal only to reinforce other marketing efforts (validation)?

Of course there are lots of other shades between those two very black and white bookends, but that’s the first factor I’m looking at.

The second, though no less important factor is how does this particular image I’m looking to use reinforce or support the site’s written content? One of the big themes I’ve been hearing more recently is to “provide content in context” or “context for content” (same idea). An image is far more powerful when it visually reinforces the subject matter of a particular statement, callout or paragraph.

Sounds logical, right?

It wasn’t always this way. As hard as this is – as a designer – to admit, my job is now less about how pretty the site looks. My job now is to visually support the strategy of my sister teams (SEO and Content) and to address the big ideas:

  • Does this site promote the brand’s message and a strong user experience (UX)?
  • Does this site provide clean and clear usability so my end-user can easily move through the site?
  • Does this site use clear visual triggers to evoke action on the part of the end user (conversion)?

The images I elect to use should ultimately provide a “yes” answer to those three questions, if not, then I need to re-assess how and why I’m incorporating a particular image into a design. Only then can I ask the final question, does the site still look good while doing all of those things?

Abstract v. Realism – The Big Winner

In recent years, I’ve really tried to move away from abstract imagery from the sites I’ve worked on – for the very reason noted above. Abstract images do not provide content in context nor do they convey any particular message about the firm, what it stands for or why I should emotionally invest in them.

That said, there are a few instanced where abstract imagery may be suggested by your designer:

  • Does the firm practice in multiple disciplines but elects not to use custom photography?
  • Does the firm have an extremely diverse clientele and does not want to alienate any one particular demographic (and doesn’t want to use custom photography)?
  • Would the firm’s prospective clientele have an objection to people-based photos?*

*I have run into exactly one instance of this particular issue – for a UK client who practices internationally, including Islamic countries, where most of the imagery we would normally recommend could be considered offensive to their potential end-users.

As I’ve noted above, the best imagery on sites help to reinforce the firm’s brand messaging and our image choices should also reflect that.

No, Really – Let’s Not Show That Mangled Car, Please

One of the things we can all look to improve upon and educate our clients on is in regards to image subject matter. This is particularly true in sites where we are dealing with a serious or uncomfortable subject matter, such as domestic violence or a serious personal injury. In sites I’ve worked on in the past, as long as the image visually hit the page topic, it didn’t really matter what the image depicted.

But this completely ignores the potential needs and wants of the end-user.

So I’ve shifted how I approach these types of image searches and I’m putting myself into the shoes of prospective site visitors and asking myself some deeper questions about what a particular photo represents.

Do I really want to see an image of a completely crushed-in subcompact car (that eerily looks like the one I drove into work this morning), on a page that talks about car accidents?

If I’m looking to retain/instruct a lawyer or solicitor because my own car looked like that after the accident I was in last week, probably not. I really don’t want to be reminded of this traumatic experience or the fact that I’m now terrified to drive. I would rather see a reassuring image of what I can look forward to – whether it be the reassuring face of the lawyer I’m about to meet for the first time or a representation of what I hope my outcome will be when this particular lawyer has taken my case and brought it to a satisfactory conclusion.

These are the considerations I’m taking into account when advising clients on image use on their sites and subsequently searching for the right visual message to include on any particular page.

One Last Thing…

Of course, this doesn’t address those times when a client agrees with the recommendation for custom photography and sends us some serious bag of awfulness that the secretary took with her iPhone or 200-year-old instamatic. In these instances, and with as much diplomacy as possible, I can only try to impart that we are trying to present the client in the most professional light possible and that the investment of securing a professional to take photographs will definitely pay off in the long run.

But that’s a post for another day…

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