Stock imagery sometimes gets a bad rap. Sure, if you don't make the effort – or find the budget – to source something fresh, relevant and high-quality, you may end up descending into cringeworthy cliché.
Cheesy stock has its place. It can even be a guilty pleasure. But stock has so much more to offer, and if you really want your brand to stand out you need to be smarter with what you choose.
It's like a logo idea. If a client specialises in ideas and innovation, would you sketch a lightbulb on a napkin and leave it at that? Hopefully not. Or if a company works internationally, will a hastily scribbled globe tick the box? Again, we hope not.
So why be lazy with your choice of stock imagery? Used skilfully, a stock photo can contribute to a brand's image rather than dilute it. It can give a brand a particular vibe that connects with its target market, rather than feeling generic and tired.
There are a few classic pitfalls when it comes to stock, but with the right approach you can side-step them with ease. So read on for eight well-worn clichés to avoid, and eight authentic alternatives to be found over on iStock by Getty Images (opens in new tab)...
01. Awkward corporate handshake
We're starting with one of the biggest offenders on the list. You want to represent 'doing business', or 'negotiating', or 'reaching an agreement' – what better way than with a hearty handshake?
Sure, the handshake is a fairly universal gesture. It could even be a relevant one. But there are so many pitfalls here. Two disembodied arms, in close-up, perhaps with some kind of motivational 'lens flare' effect behind to signify a new dawn of business... it's just not relatable.
Even worse: a Clip Art-style handshake, more at home on a school newsletter. These are the crimes against design for which the word 'cliché' was invented.(opens in new tab)
So what's the alternative? Well depending on the nature of the business, for a start it could be worth rethinking the suits. In the modern world, the grey-haired, briefcase-carrying, shiny-shoed stereotype suddenly looks very old school.
A handshake can be a powerful gesture, but consider a more natural, lifestyle-affirming image. Look for something set in a real-world, relatable environment, with people who look like they're mid-conversation and have actually reached some kind of agreement, rather than just gripping and grinning for the camera – like the one shown above (opens in new tab). Believe us, it makes a huge difference.
02. Woman laughing at salad
Everyone wants to be part of the healthy eating trend. Whether it's as specific as showcasing the virtues of home-grown produce, cooking with fresh ingredients or just promoting a healthier lifestyle in general, brands want a piece of it.
But you're targeting real people, and authenticity is everything to consumers. Just as pin-striped business people flashing teeth and squeezing flesh feels fake, so does a glassy-eyed model who somehow finds a forkful of lettuce to be the most hilarious thing she's ever seen.(opens in new tab)
Somewhere along the line, someone decided that a woman laughing at a salad would be a logical way to represent healthy eating. Maybe at one point it was, but it's been so over-used and diluted that it's unlikely to connect with the average person.
Again, look for images that sell a lifestyle and feel aspirational, but natural. Someone in a kitchen surrounded by piles of fresh vegetables and tackling a recipe, like the example shown here (opens in new tab), or out on the allotment harvesting produce in the morning sunshine – preferably not laughing at their lettuces in the process.
03. Plucky little seedling
Stock image clichés are often at their most tired when they're straining a well-worn visual metaphor to breaking point. Incubating new ideas, developing and nurturing talent: these are the kind of abstract themes where seedlings, saplings and all manner of verdant symbols of growth can be found.
Perhaps the most commonly found is cupped hands filled with soil, a feisty young plant thriving inside. Let's not get into the practicalities of having employees walking around your business caked in earth, without any hands free to do actual work – it's a metaphor. But it's such a tired one that no matter how good the image, you're selling yourself short.(opens in new tab)
That's not to say that the natural world can't be a source of inspiration here. An image that draws you in, builds an emotional connection and tells a story is always preferable to that cold, detached metaphor.
For instance, this candid shot (opens in new tab) of a young child getting to grips with gardening – a trowel defiantly thrust into the earth beside her as she enjoys a strawberry – is a much more powerful image, particularly when paired with the right copy.
It says nurturing new growth in many different ways, without laboriously ramming the point home.
04. Meeting of grinning businessfolk
This is the next step up from the corporate handshake. We're into a meeting room now, with a team of euphorically happy employees staring at each other with fixed, toothy grins signifying that something critically important has been agreed.
There might be an artfully placed notebook and pen in shot, a glass of water or two. Sometimes, this posed approach might be exactly what you want. But it can also come across as more clinical and soulless than a dentist's surgery, and says nothing about most modern businesses.(opens in new tab)
Consider the alternative shown here (opens in new tab). Shot from above, it shows more of the interaction between the team. There's stuff happening: papers, laptops open, half-drunk coffee, pens poised at the ready. In short, it actually feels like they're having a meeting. And they're mid-conversation – not fixed in time for the camera's benefit.
Rather than corporate suits and sensible blouses, they're also more smart-casual in appearance, which sells a more relaxed, accessible lifestyle. And the group is also much more diverse in terms of age and ethnic background, giving the whole scene a more modern, contemporary vibe.
05. Motivational chalkboards
Another classic stock cliché – the opposite end of the scale to plucky seedlings of growth – is to make abstract ideas too literal. Sometimes painfully so.
You want to express the theme of dynamic leadership? How about an image of a chalkboard, with 'leadership' written nice and big in the middle? Maybe even a few arrows shooting off it to explain what leadership is.
It's like we're in the middle of a super-productive meeting, charged with dynamic energy – better Photoshop a hand on there, holding some chalk, to be sure. Cheesy stock may be a guilty pleasure, but there are so many ways to be more creative.(opens in new tab)
Choosing an image like that really isn't the best way to inspire confidence in your leadership skills. Instead, consider real-world situations that demonstrate leadership, and feel inspirational without being cheesy.
Something overtly goal-orientated like climbing a mountain could miss the mark if the choice of image is wrong, but if you can find a stylishly shot photograph like this one (opens in new tab), which establishes a strong, confident leader at the head of a purposeful, engaged group, there's a powerful message that transcends that particular situation.
06. Signs to point the way
Rather like a chalkboard, a sign with the theme in question written on it is desperately clichéd, and again, very literal. It feels like the result of someone struggling for ideas, shrugging and ultimately just settling.
We get it. You're pointing people in a certain direction – towards an opportunity, say. Signs point people towards things. At a brutally simplistic level, it works – and if cheesy is your goal, go ahead. But we think you can do better.(opens in new tab)
If you're conveying an abstract theme like this, think about the bigger picture – that feeling of optimism; that the world's your proverbial oyster; that you have it in you to reach out and grasp something better. This merits an image that makes a powerful, emotional connection. It's definitely worth more than a sign that says 'opportunity'.
Finding a high-quality image that conveys an emotion isn't always easy. As with many of the examples above, the last thing you want is a posed, inauthentic 'scene' that's trying too hard. Consider this image (opens in new tab): a silhouette of a father, holding hands with his child as they gaze out over a stunning sunset. It's a view filled with opportunity.
07. Inspirational lightbulbs
Whoever first made the association between a flash of inspiration and a glowing lightbulb has a lot to answer for. The cliché is now an integral part of popular culture. A lightbulb is now the go-to visual metaphor for almost anything to do with ideas and innovation.
There are plenty of beautifully shot stock images of lightbulbs to choose from, so if you're determined to embrace that cliché – perhaps with a slightly ironic twist on it – don't let us stop you, as long as the image is high quality.
But given that it's neither an original idea, nor particularly creative conceptually, why not try something different?(opens in new tab)
There are plenty of ways to express the idea of creativity, from abstract splashes of colour, to something more representative of the creative process itself.
If you're featuring a person in the image, make it natural and effortless. Take the image above (opens in new tab): a young girl, sleeves rolled up, fully immersed and truly enjoying the process of painting on a canvas. An image like this encapsulates the joy of creating, and feels human – rather than a detached, well-worn cliché.
08. Piles of cold, hard cash
Money is an integral part of any business and, in its literal form, is easy to visualise. Heaps of bank notes, stacks of coins, vaults full of treasure and the perennial favourite of anything to do with savings and investments: the piggy bank.
Search any stock image library and you're spoiled for choice of money-related images, of varying quality. Sometimes you'll find exactly what you need for a particular purpose by searching simply for 'money', and good luck to you.(opens in new tab)
But it can be much more engaging to consider money as a form of empowerment; a catalyst for bigger things. It gives us access to experiences and opportunities. In short, it only becomes interesting, and useful, when you use it for something.
The above image (opens in new tab) features a handful of bank notes, but it puts the money in context: it's in the hand of a young tourist, bargaining for something she's found in an outdoor street shop. It makes it personal, relatable, human. And that's the common theme with all of the examples here.
Clichéd stock might work for you, but to really make your product or brand stand out it pays to think more creatively. It won’t even break the bank to do so: iStock by Getty Images (opens in new tab) is offering new customers 12 per cent off all credits by using code 12CBLOQNEW at checkout. So no excuses – ditch the clichés!