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Design Basics: Moving Beyond Stock vs. Original Photography

Design Basics: Moving Beyond Stock vs. Original Photography

February 26, 2014 by

You know it when you see it: That perfect photo that embraces the tone and voice of the message. The great debate in finding that photo is always stock photography vs. original photography. You will find designers and communication directors on both sides of the argument, but I think there can be some middle ground where we all win.

Pros & Cons of Stock Photography
First let’s chat about stock photos. Yes, they are super easy to come by. With dozens of sites out there, you can pay anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds per image. The models are often well dressed and good looking. More good looking than you or me (well, at least me for sure).

But do they look like people who go to your church? Does that wonderful park they are in look like a park in your area? Is the diversity in a stock photo anything you’ll find in your church? Stock photography presents a reality your church may not be able to live up to.

Let’s not forget that the image or the models could be featured in other work that has the wrong message. Anyone remember the Friends episode where Joey sees a stock photo of himself in a subway ad for safe sex that implies he has an STD? Yikes!

Pros & Cons of Original Photography
Original photos can have their own issues. Yes, they’re unique and custom, so you can get exactly what you want. They also reflect an accurate reality of your church—but sometimes that’s too accurate. Too many pastors ask, “Can we get a shot of the church looking more full?” It should go without saying that boosting attendance is not the photographer’s job.

A good photographer can also be expensive. Hopefully you have one at your church you can bribe with free lunch and a hug (don’t forget the hug). But the added effort of managing the shoot and finding the right people, scene and tone of the photo can be a lot of time and work. You think wading through a sea of stock photos is rough, try sifting through the 500 photos you took of the same two people.

Original photography has its own hidden issues too. What happens if the people in your pictures leave the church? What if their departure is messy and leaves some scars on your church? Do you still want them on your website?

Find Some Middle Ground
There can be a happy medium. At my company we have the benefit of working with hundreds of churches in their marketing and web design. They’re often small to medium churches, and 99 percent of the time they are out of state. We’re usually stuck with stock photography. But we rarely use a stock photo out of the box.

When working on a design strategy, we’ll often set a clear photographic direction that all key photos should follow. Identifying things like color, texture, layout, cropping, and typographic overlay. We make sure this is all on brand and on message. We apply that to both stock and original photography, resulting in photos unique to the project no matter what.

Original Photo Tips:
When you do need to use original photos, here are some tips to make them work:

  • Avoid focusing on a single person or family. Group shots with lots of people de-emphasize any single person.
  • Crowd shots that don’t highlight specific people can be a good way to show off an auditorium or kids ministry area.
  • Happy people are always a win. Make sure they’re smiling.
  • The group photo of the staff can quickly be outdated, so use individual head shots for staff photos.

Stock Photo Tips:
Here’s how to make the most of stock:

  • If you do opt for stock photos of people, be sure they feel natural. Unless you’ve got a church full of supermodels, you want stock photos of reasonably normal looking people.
  • Another good way to make stock photos of people work is to avoid photos where you can identify the people. Pictures of crowds or close-ups, such as an over the shoulder shot, can be good ways to get people in your pictures without running into problems.
  • Make sure any background you can identify is reasonably accurate. A picture for an Arizona church should not look like New England in the spring.
  • Depending on the photographic direction you want, apply similar filters to all your stock photos so they lose that stock polish and look more uniform in your project.

How do you get good photos for your church communication projects? Share your ideas in the comments.

More: Check out the rest of our Design Basics series.

Post By:

Matt Adams


Matt Adams is a full-time web designer for factor1, a digital creative agency located in Tempe, Ariz. He and his wife have twin boys and spend more hours cycling than most sane people can imagine.
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4 Responses to “Design Basics: Moving Beyond Stock vs. Original Photography”

  • Rita Endres
    February 27, 2014

    I have been a photographer for, well. . . let’s just say a long time . . . but nonetheless, I still love the art and I love sharing what I know. I started a team here at our church. It’s kind of like an interest group, yet a team. We meet once a month to talk tech, look at the church calendar and share how we can create momentum for the church vision. We do portraits for new members, child dedication, and we shoot all baptism services. The people we shoot get an 8×10 compliments of the church to remember their “next step”. We also use the images for the website, Facebook (which is a huge promotional tool), for posters around the church for decor, and for advertising in our announcements, etc. We also use them on occasion for our message series graphics. I challenge the team to find new ways to expand their skill and use it for God and in turn, they are given opportunities to learn/use their personal cameras. It’s a total win win in my book!


    • Rita Endres
      February 27, 2014

      Oh, and we don’t shy away from close-ups of our people. I’ve found that people connect better with people/faces they know. Since I feel our church does a bang-up job watching over our people, if someone should happen to leave our church, we simply take the photo down and replace it with another. We try to keep things current/changing anyway. :)


  • matt adams
    February 28, 2014

    Good stuff Rita! Glad you found a way to serve others with your skills. Forming a group is a great way to connect with others outside of the church, yet for the Church.


  • Lora Shirley
    July 19, 2014

    Matt, I am developing a new website for my church. The issue was raised as to whether there are legal issues with photographing people in the congregation or at fellowship activities and then using these images on our website. Do you have any pointers or resources on this regard?



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