Stock Photography Sucks

May 30, 2006 by

In the Church Marketing Lab I’m always applauding people for using original photography. This is why.

Jason Kottke points us to some of the drawbacks of stock photography. Like the same girl who has feminine hygiene issues also wants to learn about Java design patterns.

Or how about the college girl pitching computers for Dell and Gateway, cameras for Samsung, tax advice from H&R Block, shoes for Avia, needs a boost from Vivarin and wants to be an actuary? And she can pitch whatever you like for the low, low price of $135.

Or how about the woman who appeared in the ads and marketing for multiple dating services, a pregnancy center, a mortgage company, a diet patch, Domino’s Pizza and more?

In Christian circles it can be even worse. Remember the image of the woman standing on the rural fence with her arms spread wide appearing on magazine covers and ads? Or the gritty urban image of buildings where the negative space of the sky makes a cross appearing on book covers and magazine covers?

And if seeing the stock person in your marketing materials show up in ads for the Democratic Singles Network isn’t weird enough, you could also fall into one of the top ten cliches of stockphotography.

I understand the need for stock photography. It’s a magnitude cheaper and easier than doing your own photoshoot. Often that savings is justified. But sometimes it can backfire and rather than lend profesionalism to your work, it can send the message that your church isn’t creative or authentic.

So consider doing original photography, especially for important pieces, like a visitor’s brochure or a web site. The authenticity can be worth the cost. And if you must use stock, choose your images wisely.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998 and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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35 Responses to “Stock Photography Sucks”

  • Cory
    May 30, 2006

    It always feels funny when I get the bulletin and see pictures of happy people I’ve never met at church before.

  • Gene Mason
    May 30, 2006

    All true, but remember too that “stock people” never get divorced, have an embarrassing outburst or situation in the church, cheat on their husbands or wives, have a baby out of wedlock or get recognized at a local bar. In many ways, stock people are safer. I actually had an experience about 10 years ago shooting a family of four for our church brochure–the couple separated about two weeks after the brochure came out. Out of respect for the situation we trashed about $4,000 worth of brochures. Bummer.
    I’ve done it both ways, and just a week ago spent a major amount of money on a custom photo shoot for all fall promotion. But I’ve also got subscriptions to and When you need some semi-custom art for a retreat brochure and you can get descent quality for $1 a photo in some cases, it’s often just good stewardship to go with stock.
    I agree, you have to choose wisely. But if I have access to 500,000 stock photos for less than $500 a year, I have a lot of choices (and not crappy choices, mind you–good quality stuff). Remember you can have bad custom photos just like you can have bad stock photos. It’s the overall design and message and the context in a particular application that matter most. In my opinion, stock photography works far more often than it does not.

  • RC of strangeculture
    May 30, 2006

    I think Gene has a unique point in that all these big companies are using stock photos and it obviously seems to work for them and it’s quick easy and quality.
    i like original photos b/c there’s a lot of talented people out there but i appreciate gene’s comments.
    –RC of

  • Janna
    May 31, 2006

    In our youth department we had a long debate over whether to use our own people or use stocks. We determined that not only moral failure…but also as soon as one of them gets a haircut, loses weight, or moves away, the piece is out-of-date.
    Just a thought.

  • Ben Walker
    May 31, 2006

    I think it depends…
    Professional and original photography would be great… but most churches don’t have the resources, or maybe aren’t willing to pay for it.
    Stock is a good secondary option, quick, cheap and looks professional.
    I think poorly done original, none-professional photographs should be avoided moreso than stock!

  • sturgglefish
    May 31, 2006

    stock people are happier

  • corey
    May 31, 2006

    Just about every time a client/church has handed me a cd full of digital photos that some “really talented” (their words) amateur photographer, I’ve cringed a little. Rarely are any of the pics useful and most of the time it doubles my time to make them work. Photoshop is powerful indeed, but there is a fine line between using filters to correct color and/or cropping and using filters to the point of excess.
    I personally prefer stock photography for the reasons listed above- but can certainly understand the desire to make the marketing materials and site an actual reflection of the congregation. “Pretty people” get out of the way and become non-distracting, but “real” people bring a level of authenticity.
    just my 2 pesos…

  • Brandon Meek
    May 31, 2006

    If you have a great photographer to work with, then your own stuff is great. The point about the problems that real people have is one that I have not considered before. I can imagine how uncomfortable having the family on your bulletin go through a messy public affair or money laundering or whatever could be. Trashing it probably would be what we would do and that seems unfortunate because its wasted money.
    For me, a good compromise might be, use real people on stuff that is cheap/free or easily replaced, such as a web graphic or maybe a piece you print in house. For us, we usually order 10k bulletins at a time, so stock might serve better for that.
    Personally, I’m hoping to get away from the smiling people everywhere when possible. For me, telling people, “HEY LOOK WE’RE HAPPY” is a dead giveaway for the “church face” people.

  • Rick
    May 31, 2006

    Church marketing might suck, but I think it’s wrong to just unequivocally say that stock photos suck. Besides, it’s possible to find (and use) stock photos that are original and of good quality.

  • kevin
    May 31, 2006

    Did I unequivocally say that stock photography sucks and you should never ever use it? Nope. Did I use an attention-grabbing title that said more than it needed to? Yes. (gee, where I have seen that before?)
    I think the range of reactions to posts like this is just hilarious.

  • Dallas Drotz
    May 31, 2006

    I agree with the comments about over-using image concepts and lack of originality. This is the reason that exists…to provide unique, creative, and exclusive images for churches, that the public hasn’t seen anywhere else. The price per image is targeted at budgets that even small churches can work with.

    • Jason McCranie
      June 24, 2013

      That site is down.

  • Gene Mason
    May 31, 2006

    Well, as long as we are meandering about the subject of “happy stock people,” let me drop this point as well…
    Happy smiling people in photos attract more attention and create more goodwill than the more sullen, serious, “real” people that the “authenticity crowd” calls for. Hey, I’m not dumping on authenticity–it’s important. But think for a moment–if part of what we are promoting is a BETTER way of life (and I think we can agree that Christ is THE BETTER WAY), then some of that is going to be reflected by our promotion in a positive outlook, i.e.: smiling people.
    It’s interesting to me how much argument I hear among church leaders and promotion folks about the evils of using “happy smiling stock people” in promotions, but I have yet to see some solid evidence/research indicating this type of marketing is NOT effective. In fact, generally, when I get something in the mail from a church that has those happy pictures on it, my first reaction is usually, “Hey, they’re doing at least something of reasonable quality–maybe I need to check them out.” And I KNOW that it’s stock art, yet it does not offend but rather intrigues me.
    I may be out in left field here, but I would love to see some hard data that happy stock people on church advertising turns potential guests off… There is so much argument these days against this, but I think little to back it up.

  • kevin
    June 1, 2006

    I never said you couldn’t smile in original photography. Whether or not people are smiling in the picture isn’t the issue. It’s authenticity.
    Are you using multi-ethnic stock photography that doesn’t come close to matching the Sunday morning reality? Do you use only smiling pictures all the time? Are the people in your stock pictures put together and perfect looking, unlike the folks who show up on Sunday? Those are the kinds of issues I have with stock photography that make it less than authentic.
    I’m not saying that means you can never use it, but I think it’s an issue you at least need to consider.

  • Gene Mason
    June 1, 2006

    No, Kevin, you never came out against smiling. :) In fact, I think you and I hold very similar views overall on stock photography. Just saying the “big argument” on stock photography and the church seems to be around “unnaturally happy” people or “pie in the sky diversity.”
    Just saying that maybe “unnaturally happy” is not such a bad thing…

  • john
    June 2, 2006

    I’ve complained that we use too much stock. Then we did a piece with profiles of four servants in our church. Within a year, two of the four had left the church.

  • Mark Pryor
    June 5, 2006

    We use stock photos for print and “real” photos on our website and keep a photo gallery full online. This seems to be a great balance for us. Another thing we try to avoid is using too many people on printed items. Instead we look for images that tell a story.

  • Jeremy
    June 5, 2006

    Perhaps a solution to this, provided your church has access to a capable photographer, is to take originals of people that don’t attend the church. Maybe your members have co-workers, neighbors, or friends, or members at other churches in your area that would be willing to let you take their pictures if you feed them or something.
    This way, the members of your youth group won’t also be shilling Invisalign, and you won’t have to worry about them leaving your church, because they were never there to begin with!

  • Bill
    June 8, 2006

    After visiting your link to the top 10 stock image clich├ęs, I thought that this was particularly funny :)

  • Bob Pardue
    June 14, 2006

    Kevin, I see all your points about the good and bad of stock photography (I promote both through agencies and photo buyers).
    But, I can sum it up for my church. They would most likely want me to donate my photo services (which I have at times). d:-)

  • QT Luong
    June 14, 2006

    Although some people will make fun of you, I’d say that for a church (esp. one that is so small that it doesn’t have the budget for commissioned professional photography) the embarassment of image conflict is a fairly minor annoyance. But if you want to avoid it, the best is to obtain a right managed license from an independent photographer, who will be more flexible in price than a large agency.

  • Stephen Kiers
    October 4, 2006

    Just a little tidbit of information for you all. There is a large Christian stock agency that takes pictures designed for the church. These pictures are also featured on sites like Corbis etc, and they give a awesome deal to churches.
    They shoot to make money on the big sites, but are also a ministry to help get churches out of the slump of using horrible 1 MP pictures on their billboards. All their images are 50 MB Tiff files, digitally edited to be as noise free, and distraction free as possible.

  • Church Website Helpdesk
    November 15, 2006

    Hey it’s a great article. And I agree with the sentiment that churches shouldn’t just use any old picture. But the majority of churches in the UK either don’t have the budget or the people who can take good photos. Truth is many church websites have ‘homegrown’ photography and it looks significantly worse than if they’d used stock. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water – stock photos have a lot of benefits for the average church. For a lot of chuches getting them to use stock is a great jump in the right direction. As they grow and realise the benefits of marketing then they can look to get their own photography done. With regards to wifi on the mountains that girl’s actually using her mobile phone for the connection :-).

  • Stephen Kiers
    November 30, 2006

    If anyone is interested in checking out Design Pics, the Christian Agency I mentioned above click on my name as the link. I was sure I had mentioned them in my last post, but I guess I missed that detail.
    They are the stock agency our church goes through and we have been more than happy. $300/year for 100 images. That is way cheaper than anywhere else you could find. (that was our last quote, it may have changed since then a little).

  • Nate
    December 12, 2006

    Several years ago I noticed that an image of a woman I’d seen promoting a Christian college was also featured in our local phone book in an ad for an abortion clinic. Yikes.

  • Nate
    December 12, 2006

    I get bugged sometimes when stock photography is used to represent diversity that may not really exist.

  • liz
    February 2, 2007

    you might find a great photographer right in your church. I help with a team of 20 in my church and we do a whole bunch of projects for them (us.

  • Andy Rowell
    February 27, 2007

    Kevin and Friends,
    Two links for you on this subject.
    At the first, I summarize the second.
    How to Find Free Legal Photos and Images
    Alot of great ideas here despite the title about getting good free photos.
    The Copyright Blues
    How to make sure your church isn’t in the wrong when it comes to copyright

  • Jim Miller
    March 2, 2007

    You know a discussion is great when the thread goes on for almost a year!
    The best thing about this conversation is that it will help new designers avoid cliches. I hope your negative examples will put a final end to the overused “baby birds” pose. (That’s what I call the shots taken from 17′ up. It makes everyone look like baby birds waiting to be fed.) We used to take our staff photos like that and I was tired of getting a sore neck!
    I use a lot of stock photography at my own church, but I’m typically going after objects instead of people. That doesn’t always work, but if you have the option for one over the other, go with objects.

  • Jordan
    March 2, 2007

    I would suggest when searching for stock photos if possible search by rating and not by downloads. A lot of stock websites like are community based and other contributors will rate photos they like. When searching by downloads you will get a good photo but it has been used a ton of times and might not even be your best choice because its a couple of years old. Just my thoughts

  • kimk
    March 20, 2007

    I do design for a church, I found out about stock photos and was hooked. It’s had to get people wanting to be in a photo, and then making sure its lit well etc. But also I’ve found with stock photos people look very american, so its not often i can use people photos for my church stuff because everyone can tell that they are not New Zealanders. But i’ve read some great points in these posts about how the photos age quick if you take them yourself, and stock people don’t age. Thanks.

  • AndyM
    April 12, 2007

    Since this thing is going on forever I might as well jump in. When I read the article I was reminded of the fact that alot of people in our church wanted us to get pictures of “actual people” who attended instead of the stock photos we went with. At the time it was an issue of getting good quality. Simple. Now that things have advanced and we have resources/people with photography talent we have started to utilize more homegrown stuff.
    What made me write, though, is the very first comment on this post where the gentleman is referring to the fact that stock people “never get divorced, have an embarrassing outburst or situation in the church, cheat on their husbands or wives, have a baby out of wedlock or get recognized at a local bar”. Wow. As a pastor that statement speaks volumes to me about the concerns of our image over actual ministry. I do understand that some of the situations (divorce being one) where people don’t want their picture attached to your church need to be considered, but with alot of the other issues it seems that we are way too concerned with “how we’re going to look to the other Christians” than with being a true church. Undoubtedly every situation is different. There’s no way to paint this with a large brush. The statements (and I’m sure that they weren’t meant the way I have read them) just hit me as a reminder that all the promotion, cool, slick ad copy in the world means nothing is we aren’t ready to face the reality of the world we are supposed to be ministering in.
    Maybe we use the fake stuff because we are worried our own people “aren’t clean enough” to use. I’m pointing the finger at myself when I say that this is probably a good time to evaluate quality/ministry and move towards a more realistic image in our communication. If we want to reach people that are hurting then a few bruises might be the right option.
    Just my opinion, though.

  • Sarah
    August 2, 2008

    Ok, so I found these postings while hunting up and down for good stock photography of a youth group. I’m in the process of updating our church website (click my name) and I discovered I was itching to add my two cents.
    My personal beef with stock photography is that, like AndyM said, it is all very slick and clean copy. It seems fake. When I look at a website or a brochure I can tell immediately from the photos whether it is actual people at their church or real people from their church.
    I believe that on a really good church website and in brochures and the like, you need a good, discreet mix of stock and “real” photography. I don’t have a problem with stock photography because it does have its place. When I need a circle of hands, a praying child or the like, I turn to stock photography. But for large images that really become a symbol in people’s minds that THIS is what that church is, I don’t want them picturing some generic setting sun with the three crosses silhouetted against it, I want the soaring bell tower of our own church against a bright blue sky. That has much more meaning.
    And I think that’s a big thing. I blink right past stock photography because it looks so fake and generic that it just doesn’t stand out for me. Whereas more authentic photography makes me stop because I simply “notice” it more. One trick I use is finding “real people” on free, user-generated stock websites like stock.xchng and MorgueFile. Then of course there are always Flickr photos that are licensed under the Creative Commons rules of copyright. Those are my best friends.
    Sure, if you are already a professional photographer who is making a brochure that will look EXACTLY the same whether you use stock people or not, who cares? Use stock. But if you are trying to show specific examples of what your church is like, you need that authenticity. Otherwise people just aren’t going to look twice.

  • Daniel
    June 19, 2013

    I completely agree! What message does it send if the people actually in the church aren’t suitable to put on the website? And what does it say about the Gospel we’re proclaiming if we need to use bait-and-switch in our advertising to get people to come? I just wrote a blog post on the same topic of mistakes churches make with website graphics here.

  • Just A Photog
    January 11, 2017

    I know this is an old article but it comes up consistently on searches so here goes.

    1. People in stock photos look “polished, slick, and fake” because the approval boards of the stock sites wont’ approve anything else. Believe me, photographers WANT to publish more gritty and “normal” people.

    2. Why is it the church photo discussion always comes back to free? I even have friends who have been yelled at by supposed Christians because they dared ask someone not to steal their work. They were told something to the effect of “it’s for church, how DARE you charge a fee in the first place?” without any thought to the fact they were stealing from someone trying to make a living.

    3. Creative Commons is NOT free. Creative Commons is a series of licenses (that are named separately – that range from full protection to public domain. It is nothing more than another way to quickly spell out terms. The vast majority of Creative Commons photography is not free to use in any manner. There is no “creative commons license” – it is a GROUP of licenses.

    4. There are more Christian based stock sites available now (2017) with photographers trying very hard to make their work relevant and useful to the church body. Lightstock ( and CreationSwap ( are the two big ones with CreationSwap offering something near unlimited downloads for around $30 a month (I forget what Lightstock’s licensing is right now but it is pretty low too) – putting relevant stock easily in the reach of the vast majority of churches.

    5. If you have a specific photo need, PLEASE publish it somewhere. Share it on a stock site forum or publish it on your church website on a page titled “church media photo needs” or “church stock photo needs” or “most wanted church stock photos”. Photographers are looking for guidance on what churches need and are ready to make it happen.

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