Image Effectiveness Stock Photos vs Real Photos

Health IS Technology Blog

Image Effectiveness: Stock Photos vs Real Photos

Web developers looking over prints to decide the most effective image

Almost every webpage in existence has something in common: images. Outside of the realm of text-based information, illustrations, photos, and infographics are used on a regular basis to help emphasize important information online. Because visual elements are so important to the effectiveness of a webpage, it’s vital that each one be hand picked based on many factors. The biggest question you need to answer before implementing an image on a page is thus: when is a stock photo more appropriate than an original one?

Why are Visual Elements So Important on a Website?

Besides making a webpage look better, visual elements have been psychologically proven to be more effective at helping a reader retain information than just text alone. This phenomenon is called The Picture Superiority Effect, and is based on Allan Paivio’s 1971 dual-coding theory. On this theory, Paivio has explained:

“Human cognition is unique in that it has become specialized for dealing simultaneously with language and with nonverbal objects and events. Moreover, the language system is peculiar in that it deals directly with linguistic input and output (in the form of speech or writing) while at the same time serving a symbolic function with respect to nonverbal objects, events, and behaviors. Any representational theory must accommodate this dual functionality.”

Basically, our minds have gotten really good at being able to process both words and nonverbal elements simultaneously, and thus they have trained themselves to relate both of these things to one another. Read this word: “dog”. Immediately, did you picture a dog? That’s your mind relating language and nonverbal objects and events in the way Paivio has theorized.

The Picture Superiority Effect comes into play here in theorizing that visual elements take superiority over written word because of how our minds have been trained to retain information. According to John Medina with Brain Rules:

“Based on research into the Picture Superiority Effect, when we read text alone, we are likely to remember only 10 percent of the information 3 days later. If that information is presented to us as text combined with a relevant image, we are likely to remember 65 percent of the information 3 days later.”

How Do Images Affect Marketing?

This knowledge of the Picture Superiority Effect has become extremely beneficial for both web design and marketing efforts. However, it is important to remember that the associations between language and visual elements are present regardless of whether the experience is positive or negative. Here's where the first downside of stock images comes into play. If a visitor to your website has seen a stock photo you've used somewhere else on the web, and the experience they had on that site was a negative one, their response to yours will be influenced in a negative way. One of the easiest ways to avoid this happening to you is to use original images.

In a study done by Marketing Experiments in 2011, stock photos were put to the test against original photos. Implemented on sign-up pages, a stock image of an actress was used, as well as an image of a real-life employee.

Generic banner marketing design

Real employee marketing banner

The study found that when comparing a sign-up page with a stock photo versus an actual employee next to his actual name, prospective customers were 35% more likely to sign up when presented with the non-stock image.
Data like this is imperative in proving the point that original images are more appealing to users than stock photos. Especially when you consider how accessible stock photos are to anyone with a Getty, iStock, etc. account.

What if I Can’t Get an Original Photo?

If you really can't get your hands on a photographer to take some original images for your site, there are ways to ensure your use of stock images is more effective.

Reverse Image Search

One of these methods is to discover where else your photo is being used, and how often, by a reverse image search. This function is available on Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo and is easy to use. Using Google, simply upload an image saved to your computer to the search engine using the camera icon. Results will yield any locations where that photo can also be found, along with any visually similar images to it. 

Rights-Managed License

If you want to use a certain stock photo, check out the possibilities of purchasing a Rights-Managed license. Many stock image websites allow this option for some of their images in which you pay to "own" an image for a duration of your choosing, during which you can control how it is used. For example, the resource where USF IT gets most of its images, Getty Images, has this informational page about the possibility of using a Rights-Managed image:

Edit Your Stock Photos

Another possibility is to purchase a stock photo and edit it, or combine it with other elements to make it unique. Using Photoshop or other image editing software, adapt your stock photos to better suit you and your message or your brand. One very easy way that is accessible even to those with the most basic of editing tools is to crop an image so that the important aspects are highlighted and the message is portrayed more effectively.

Stock photo cropped for emphasis

How do I Choose the Best Stock Photos for My Website?

If you have no choice but to use unedited stock photos, be sure that you are being thoughtful about your choices. When it comes to searching and deciding to use stock photos, here are some aspects to keep in mind that will make your photos seem more original - even if they aren’t.

Try to Keep Them Candid

Woman eating a salad in front of a white background

This photo of a woman eating salad looks highly staged and edited; her pores are smoothed, she's on a blank white background, her pose is awkward, she appears to be in studio lighting and her smile seems forced.

Woman sitting at a table eating a salad while holding a phone

This image is more candid, her skin has texture, the lighting is natural, and while an initial response might be that this photo is less professional, it is more effective in forming a connection with a viewer because it seems more real.

Be Aware of Overwhelming Similarities

Let's look at some good things to keep in mind when choosing a stock photo by using an example of the search phrase "business meeting" on Getty Images:

Screenshot of Getty images "business meeting" search

A quick scroll down the page of 'Best match results' reveals some interesting similarities. Each image:

  • Has the same color palette (muted orange, blue, and grey)
  • Has a hazy light effect (either coming through a window, or in a filter applied over the image)
  • Includes people that are way too forcibly happy and invested in what each other has to say

Screenshot of Getty images collection of "business meeting"

Some of these are beautiful photographs, but they scream "I'm a stock photo!" because of the reasons mentioned above as well as in the comparison of the women with the wine glasses. The first step you can take to getting more authentic looking images is to change the images displayed to 'Newest results' instead:

Stock images from Getty

Not only does this offer a wider variety of subject matter related to a "business meeting" but there is also more of a visual difference in the colors, composition, and mood of each photo. Selecting 'Newest results' will also yield images that don't include people, such as food on tables at large meetings, empty rooms full of chairs, etc. but that's easy to fix. 

Refine Your Search

Here are some of the filters you can use to refine a search on Getty:

Getty images search refinement with "group of people" and "multi-ethnic group" checked

I've chosen to refine to images containing a group of people with a variety of ethnic backgrounds. This will help to narrow down my search to yield the best results for my purposes. There are many more fields to refine by, including one that allows you to search for images with a specific color included - useful if you are wanting your photo to tie into other design elements in your website navigation or style. Based on just those two quick changes, here are some images I managed to find in the first several pages of our newly refined search results:

More authentic-looking stock photos from Getty

These images tow the line between clearly having been taken using professional equipment, but also being believable snapshots. 

Choose Orignal Photos When You Can. But If You Can’t, Be Thoughtful of Your Choices

So, when it comes to implementing visual elements on your site, the overwhelming consensus is do it. Still, you need to be wary of the type of elements you’re choosing and be thoughtful of how your choices could affect your overall marketing strategy. Basically, if you can get your hands on original photos do that. However, this isn’t always a viable option. So if you can’t get an original photo, when choosing stock images, seek out those that have

  • Saturated colors without obvious "filters" applied
  • Elements that humanize the photo's subjects so that they seem more than just models (food/drink, cell phones, clothing choices, relaxed poses, more genuine smiles)
  • Natural light, or indoor lighting that looks like it would be present in a typical example of the situation- if everyone is perfectly lit in a bright and sunny environment with a halo around their heads your viewer is going to scroll by because it isn't believable

Depending on the subject matter you're looking for, some of these guidelines could change but they are a good baseline to consider when you're limited to choosing from stock photos and should engage visitors more heavily in your content.

USF Health Information Systems is a comprehensive technology group serving the needs of the Academic Research and Clinical missions. We partner with our customers to deliver agile responsive technology solutions that drive business value and make life better for our students and patients. Be informed at all times by visiting You can connect directly via phone by calling (813) 974-6288 or by sending us an email via, after hours.


Visit this author's

USF Health


Through a culture of excellence, we partner with our clients to implement innovative and impactful technology across the USF System.