How to Use (or Not Use) Stock Photos

Illustration of man deciding whether to use a stock photo.

People like pictures. So health communicators often rely on stock photos to grab a reader’s attention. Finding one is a cinch. Just enter a health topic in a stock photo agency’s search, and you’ll get pages and pages of results.
But there’s a problem: A lot of those results are just not that helpful.

Some are freaky.

Doctor giving a mummy a shot.

(A few keywords you may have searched to get this result: Doctor, injection, nurse, patient, mummy.)

Some are inexplicable.

Mother and son wearing gas masks.

(A few keywords you may have searched to get this result: Kitchen, peanut butter, pollution, toxic, post nuclear winter.)

Some feature fruit bowls fashioned from human heads.

Woman with fruit on her head.

(A few keywords you may have searched to get this result: Banana, fruit, healthy, nutrition, fashion.)

Some illustrate hazards faced by women eating salad in zero gravity.

Woman eating floating salad.

(A few keywords you may have searched to get this result: Food, organic, salad, vegetarian, cheerful.)

But more common — and actually worse — are pictures that mean absolutely nothing. You’ve seen ones like this a million times:

Woman giving a thumbs up.

Oh, hooray! She’s so, so happy! But why? She’s gone gluten-free? She refinanced at a low rate? She makes $6,000 a month from home? This picture doesn’t tell a story.

Using photos as mere decoration is a missed opportunity. Instead, use images that help communicate your message. You know, photos of real people doing realistic things that are actually related to your content in an obvious way.

If you’re writing about bike safety, show someone wearing a helmet and riding safely on a bike path. If you’re writing about quitting smoking, show someone circling a quit date on a calendar. Choose images that really show what you’re writing about.

Otherwise, what’s the point? We doubt the thumbs-up lady knows.

The bottom line: Too many sites rely on staged, generic stock photos. Be choosy — only use images that directly support your message.


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