You can always tell the websites that want to be big, but aren't. How? By the sheer number of stock photographs plastered all over the design. If you've ever been to a business' website and seen one of those ubiquitous photos of a guy in a suit or a woman smiling and wearing a headset, you'll know what I mean. Before you venture into the world of stock photography for yourself, there are a few things you need to know.

How Stock Photography Works.

Stock photography companies have libraries of photographs that they believe will be useful in graphic design. If you're starting a site about tennis, for example, you'll no doubt be able to find stock photos of tennis balls, tennis players, tennis courts, and so on all of which can be integrated into your design. The photographs broadly fall into three categories: landscapes (including landmarks), objects, and models (people posing in a particular way).

There are two types of stock photography: royalty-based, and royalty-free. In royalty-based stock photography, you pay a small fee each time you use an image a part of this fee will go to the company, part to the photographer, and often part to the model (if any). For the royalty-free version, you pay one flat up-front fee and get a license to re-use the image as many times as you want.

Unfortunately, when stock photography is used on the web, it pretty much has to be royalty-free: there's just no way of tracking use in a way that would create a sensible royalty structure. This means that stock photography for the web is typically very expensive: you basically have to buy a permanent license for an image you only want to use once. This, in turn, forces people towards lower-end, cheaper stock photos, which is how we all end up with uninspiring pictures of some guy in a suit.

Is It Worth It?

In most cases, then, stock photography on the web simply isn't worth it, at least when it comes from the established companies. You can pay absolutely hundreds of dollars and end up with images that aren't exactly anything to write home about. If you're a big corporation and you're planning to use the same image for a year, then perhaps but even then it's unlikely.

Look at it this way: not only are you going to end up paying an absolute premium to use relatively mediocre images on your site, but all your competitors will have easy access to the same ones too, and might even use them without noticing.

There are plenty of sites on the web devoted to tracking how often stock photos turn up in different contexts. Magazines regularly have to send ads back to advertisers because two ads have ended up using the same stock photo for wildly different products? Wouldn't you be embarrassed to have some site circle that girl you put next to ‘friendly customer service' and then present their visitors with the same picture playing all sorts of roles at other sites? I know I would be.

Cheaper Stock Photos.

Instead of jumping on the stock photo bandwagon, then, the much better alternative is this: do it yourself! In most cases, you can create stock photos that are just as good as, if not better than, the stock ones. Why pay $100 for a picture of a pencil when you have a digital camera and a pencil of your own?

If you don't have access to the thing you want to photograph, though (you don't own that object, or live near that place), then an excellent alternative is to go looking for appealing amateur photography. If you look around, you'll find people with great photos who are willing to let you use them, often in exchange for nothing more than a credit and a link back.

Alternatively, you can use stock photography sites that aren't big and ‘established', but are more like groups of enthusiasts, doing it because they like to and charging minimal prices to get their work out there. Take a look at, for example, where many photos are only $1.

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