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Stock Photography 101: How to Pick Photos That Don't Look Fake

March 23, 2015

The right photos can transform your direct mail campaign from successful to outstanding. From product photos to photos of your target audience, choosing ones that suit your offer can have a huge impact on your return on investment.

For most small business owners, hiring a professional photographer to capture photos is a major expense that’s not always necessary or attainable. As a result, most small business owners opt to use stock photos to illustrate their direct mail postcards and other marketing materials.

Stock photos offer a huge range of benefits. Since they’re shot using high-end photo equipment, they’re crisp and perfectly focused. With millions of stock photographs available online, it’s also easy to find a high quality photo of almost anything.

Despite these advantages, stock photos have one serious downside: more often than not, they look generic and extremely staged, which is by design so that they appeal to a broad audience. Here are three tips to help you find stock photos that enhance your offer instead of distracting from it.


Choose photos with models that don’t look at the camera

One of the biggest reasons so many stock photos look staged is because they are. In most stock photos containing people, the models are looking directly at the camera, often smiling as if they’re posing for a family photo.

If someone took a photo of your office or retail store right now, how many carefully posed people would it contain? None, right? When you use photos with smiling and posing models, you create a fake image that doesn't represent your business.

If you’re choosing a photo that contains a model, pick one in which they’re looking away from the camera. For example, a photo of a bartender busy mixing a cocktail is a far better image for a bar or nightclub than one of a model posing behind a countertop.


Choose photos with plenty of room for you to add copy

The amount of inactive space within a stock photo is an important factor that’s often ignored. If you use a stock photo that’s completely busy with no plain background space, it can distract from the marketing message you’re trying to send.

If you want to add copy to an image, an overly busy stock photo is almost always a poor choice. Since all of the frame is taken up by important elements of the photo, there’s nowhere for you to add copy or your company’s logo.

Try to choose stock photos that contain at least 30% inactive space. Backgrounds that are out of focus or single-color areas of a photo area ideal places to place your copy and integrate the photo into your direct mail postcard or poster’s design.


Only use a photo with a model if it’s related to your product

How many postcards, posters, and brochures have you seen that included stock photos of smiling people for seemingly no reason? Many businesses seem to default to smiling models – often in uniforms – for their stock photos without any specific reason.

While showing images of people that match your target demographic is a great way to make your offer more relevant, inserting stock photos of smiling doctors, lawyers, or tradespeople only succeeds in making your offer look generic and replaceable.

Unless the model in the image is directly related to your offer – a photo of a dentist showing a patient a dental hygiene product, for example – it’s better to choose a stock photo that doesn’t contain a model for your marketing materials.