When to use stock or real photos in marketing.“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This old adage still rings true, especially in the world of print marketing. Selecting the right images to represent your company is as crucial as the copy that supports them. You might find yourself wondering (especially if it’s time for a print collateral refreshwhat kind of images should I be including? Should I showcase our best-selling products? Do I feature members of our amazing staff?

As you start thinking through exactly what you want to include, you’ll have to start thinking about the execution—will these be real photos or stock images? Budget and brand aesthetic certainly play a role in deciding which to use. But how else do you decide?

Let’s walk through a few common print marketing scenarios and weigh in on the things your business should be keeping in mind when selecting images.

When you’re showcasing a product or services specific to your business – REAL

If you are showcasing a product that is integral to your business, it is absolutely optimal to use real photography. It helps give customers a better idea of what they can expect. Could you imagine walking into a local bakery and seeing their brochures filled with stock images of items they don’t even serve? Or visiting a clothing store’s website to see photos of brands or styles they don’t carry? By not showing customers real examples of the products you’re offering, it could ultimately lead to a sense of distrust.

When talking about the employees that work at your company – STOCK or REAL

This one is a little bit trickier. In a perfect world, you would include pictures of real people that work at your company, so that it creates a sense of familiarity and puts a face to your company (literally). However, it does pose the challenge of having to print new materials if the employees you’ve featured end up no longer working there. If you do end up putting in pictures of actual employees, consider using group pictures featuring many different employees instead of solo shots of individual people.

If you do end up using stock photography to complement information about your team, you may want to select images that don’t show people’s faces. Or, choose photos that represent your team’s demographics and diversity to more accurately portray your business.

When showcasing happy customers – STOCK or REAL

If you do want to feature photos of real customers this can come with some challenges, such as getting consent to feature them in marketing materials or capturing professional looking shots. When done properly, this always pays off because you can explicitly say, “Customer since 2005” or “John Doe, real customer”.

In other cases, using stock photography is just as good. At the end of the day, it’s not as important for future customers to see photos of actual happy customers—it’s more important that they can look at the photos and picture themselves as the happy customers.

When trying to illustrate an abstract concept – STOCK 

Unless you employ a professional photographer, illustrating an abstract concept, such as an emotion or uncommon service, is hard to do on your own. In which case, it’s best to use stock photography. Not only is this typically the easier option (stock sites are pros when it comes to illustrating hard-to-capture concepts) but it also can ensure your print materials are more visually interesting.

A business that offers financial services is a good example; instead of including pictures of stacks of paper or even a handshake, it might be better to include a bright pink piggy bank illustration or even someone enjoying their savings on vacation in a foreign location. Stock sites have hundreds of options to sort through, and likely have some options that will fit your business’ needs.