Finding stock photos that work

Finding stock photos that work

One of my clients, a therapist, wanted a new site design. I suggested we incorporate stock photography to help visually indentify her four areas of focus: families, adults, teens, and children. Each audience has a separate page and I thought a photo would quickly identify the page.

I started with the page for family therapy. I went to the usual stock photo sources, such as Fotolia, iStockPhoto Shutterstock.  These sites have thousands, if not millions of photos available. Surely there would be one that represented “family” Something that people seeking counseling could identify with.

A search under “family” did indeed find thousands of photos at each site. But in spite of the many choices they seemed to repeat themselves. Each photo portrayed parents and children smiling intensely, incredibly happy, beautiful, and healthy. In sum, an idealized image of what we would like to be but know in our hearts we are not. And nothing that someone seeking therapy could identify with.

The perfect family by iStockPhoto, ShutterStock, and Fotolia

I thought I would try the keywords “family therapy” and instead came up with serious, arguing couples and alienated teens. Ok, that may be an accurate image of how therapy plays out but potentially a big turn off of a visitor to the site. What I was looking for was a ‘normal’ family. One that had potential for friction and discontent but for joy and loving as well. That is a family like all of us. Seems like it shouldn’t be too hard.

But it was. There were few if any photos of families that looked to me like a “normal” family. So I thought I would try more unconventional sources.

I took a look at, a place I assume where good pictures go to die. I indeed did find some very realistic normal families but not really enough choices to find the right one.  I also tried Flickr Creative Commons and found some great examples of normal families here. But I was realizing that I was running into a problem. The more ‘normal’ someone the more unique they are. And the more unique they are they harder it is for someone to identify with.

Some all too real families courtesy of Morguefile and Flickr Creative Commons
Some all too real families courtesy of Morguefile and Flickr Creative Commons

I also realized that I might run into a problem if the actual family pictured might see their photo on a site for therapy and be offended with the implied message “this family needs therapy”. Not all of these photos had model releases.

I realized there is a reason stock photographers use typically beautiful models. The more beautiful people are the less unique they are and less likely someone is going to thing they represent an actual individual.

So back to the stock photos. Digging a little deeper I found a photo for a family grouping that seemed real enough. It was unique in that they were all women and multi-generational but still clearly models and not real people. And still very much said “family”.

A not-too perfect family from iStockPhoto

Placing this photo looked good on the page and did underscore the “family” in family therapy but still had a problem. With a testimonial so close it, it seemed like there could be some confusion. Was the quote from someone in the picture?

The first attempt
The first attempt

The solution I finally came up with was to move the picture down into the text  and crop it significantly to just the essence of “family’. To further set it off I give it a border (borrowing from artwork elsewhere in the site) that clearly identified it as an icon of sorts.

Bingo! This should work. Now on to the other pages…

The lesson here: thousands of stock photos can’t be all wrong.

Next week: Selecting Keywords for Dummies

7 Responses to Finding stock photos that work

  1. Firstly let me say Great Article!

    Selecting good stock photos is so important to begin your creative projects with.

    Another valid point I think is that it is really important to edit stock photos further than how it is bought as you run the risk of another company having the same stock photo as you and then a visitor visiting your site might visit another site using the same image which will degrade how the businesses brand is perceived. I know it does depend on client budget too but the more we can make websites extra special through imagery the better! :-).

    Keep up the great blogging!

    It is easy to tell, even as an untrained designer, when people use unedited stockphotos & I feel it doesn’t add any value to the site. I would recommend always to edit images as much as possible combining them with others and such like.

    Look forward to reading your future articles 🙂

  2. I like your choices in photos. I also wonder if you have heard about yet. It is a new stock photo site with a heavy emphasis on lifestyle and authentic imagery. In face I am also a Frederick local and I will be giving a talk about Stocksy and other agencies tomorrow at Cowork Frederick at noon. I hope you can make it! I have a few therapy photos in my portfolio on Stocksy, though I haven’t uploaded any of the group/family therapy photos I took earlier this Spring yet. Your post may be just the motivation I need 🙂

      • Thanks for coming out, it was nice meeting you! Please let me know if you have any questions about the talk, and also I hope to have a chance to talk shop a bit more about photography one of these days soon.

  3. Another good source for stock images is the new Symbiostock Network. This is a network of individual artist offering their work direct to buyers. It allows the artist to receive a fair commission for their work as it takes out agency who often takes a 80 percent or more cut. A list of stock sites in the network can be found at

Anything on your mind?