When on a website and going to the contacts page or form there is often one or more photos of people (supposedly) working there.

Stock photos

Some companies use stock photos with beautiful energetic harmonic smiling people The photos are even often polished with some after effects so they look even more like the cover of a fashion magazine. If the "employee" is in a situation, like working on a computer, it is obviously staged. Even when I google for "real people stock photos" I find photos of people that are (probably) real, not computer renderings, but they look very far from any person I've ever met and the photos are very far from any photo I have ever taken. The photos below were even found when searching for "real people stock photos".

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Actual photos of staff

Then there are other websites, where the contact form shows photos of employees, or maybe a group photo, of actual people. You can see that, they look like you and me, the photos are not staged other than people lining up in front of the camera.

enter image description here

Which one makes people trust and like the company

I once read somewhere, something like: "Research has shown that people are more likely to call and they expect better and more honest help when calling, when there are actual photos of real people". I can only agree with that.

Then, why do companies use alienating stock photos?

And furthermore, if the above mentioned research is really out there, does anyone have a reference to that? I need such a reference for my master thesis.

  • Cost and time. Stock photos are cheap and available instantly, as compared to the services of a professional photographer.
    – topher
    Aug 27, 2015 at 12:30
  • 1
    Good point, but: 1) Imo decent photos can be made by amateurs with today's cameras, I could certainly do photographs as in the real people photo above. 2) Why don't the stock photo companies provide "stock photos", that don't look like what we have come to call stock photos, ie photos that don't look like smooth magazine covers. Aug 27, 2015 at 14:26
  • 1
    We use employees exclusively for our catalog and web site, and it has a clear positive affect on our relationship with our customers. It takes a significant investment of time and energy, though. Aug 27, 2015 at 16:24

4 Answers 4


Just a comment first: they're all "real people", the difference between both scenarios is one of them is staged and with obvious models, while the other is just casual. If you use the same "beautiful" people in no staged, casual scenarios, they will turn "real".

The above is because this difference is fundamental in the answer, which has several different parts:


Stock photos are cheap if you have to hire a professional photographer. Of course, as you mention, you could take the photos yourself, making for more realistic, in the wild photos. But...

Self esteem

...problem is everybody wants to be beautiful and flawless. Many times, if you go to an office or work place and tell them "let's take a picture" they will feel awkward and uncomfortable. And it shows on the photo. Some people will even refuse to pose. And many company owners and managers will think "I don't want to show my real life flawed employees, I want to show how beautiful we are!". This is most common than you think, as a matter of fact is the vast majority (hence Stock Photography sites)

Broad Subjects for Design

With stock photos, you can find literally thousands of options for your designs, in a wide variety of subjects. No matter how good of an amateur photographer you are, it's almost impossible to compete with the variety of options at the same cost. Think about this: not all sites wants/needs to show the "behind the curtains". As a matter of fact, most of them don't need it at all, but they need the mood. Which leads to another thing: the creation of mood boards: when you create a mood board, you will be almost certainly use stock photos or Google images. This will influence the final design and more often than not you'll end using an image you have seen when building your mood board


Obviously, you have the "laziness factor": designer is left with "make it pretty" and companies won't ever provide any material at all, let alone personal pictures (so far, unless I get almost to the verge of annoying the client, I have NEVER got a personal picture at first request. NEVER IN 19 YEARS!). As you may imagine, stock photos are the salvation here

History and Cultural Background

Finally, Stock Photo services are (and have been) used by printed media and advertising companies. First stock photo service was created in the 1920s decade, and based on contemporary history and cultural development, you can't say it was a wrong idea!

Please note

The above is to explain WHY STOCK PHOTO SITES DO THIS. Whether to use "real" or "fake" photos will entirely depend on your site, mood and approach.

People is used to "fake", embraces it, do it themselves, many people try to have cosmetic surgeries or at least photoshop their pictures.

If you try to sell a perfume with your neighbor and your digital camera, no matter how pretty she is, the ad won't work. Think about this: companies aren't stupid and they don't spend billions in "fakeness" just for hobby, this is an aspirational principle! Take a look at McCann's article Truth abut Beauty for a more detailed explanation.

And of course, if you want to do a site about a software company or gardeners or whatever, the "real people" approach will work better, because you're deviating from aspirational to productivity models


If you need to get "real" stock photos, there are lots of sites where you can do it. Even better, for free. As an example, check Morgue Files and Library of Congress Photo Catalog

  • 2
    "MorgueFile.com" i wonder how many clicks they've lost because of that domain name......
    – HC_
    Aug 27, 2015 at 19:17
  • indeed, first time I heard about it I was afraid to click. But it's incredibly good and useful despite the spooky name!
    – Devin
    Aug 27, 2015 at 19:25
  • Such an elaborate, complete, high quality answer! Definitely much appreciated :) Thanks. Aug 27, 2015 at 19:25
  • @Devin yeah looks good! I only commented because I was hesitant to click as well, despite seeing it in a good context lol
    – HC_
    Aug 27, 2015 at 19:25

From NNGroup: Users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but ignore fluffy pictures used to "jazz up" Web pages.

The bottom line is that real photos from a company show a user what a company is all about, and they appreciate that much more than seeing stock photos of generic "good looking" people at professional shoots. Stock photos are like ad banners from the 90s/2000s -- experienced computer users gloss over them efficiently and easily, and don't take away anything from them because they're skipped so fast.

On the other hand, seeing the ACTUAL employees or ACTUAL office space or ACTUAL customers using the ACTUAL product, serves to build trust.

Anyone can get a stock photo from google in under a minute.

Not everyone can get photos of the actual business operations/staff (because it takes more than one minute!)

source: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/photos-as-web-content/


I also found this article talking about why you should avoid stock photography: http://www.intechnic.com/blog/why-you-should-never-use-stock-photography-on-your-website/

The article illustrates several good points, which I'll try to summarize in case the link ever dies.

Original photography benefits you by

  1. Presenting/Controlling your vision
  2. Having original content vs content that is used everywhere else
  3. Despite the (probably) higher cost of hiring a photographer, you can build a library of images that you own outright. And, you spend less time trying to find the perfect image (goes back to point #1)
  4. Getting the perfect picture vs. "good enough"
  5. The user forms an immediate connection vs. recognizing "fake people" (especially when the image is ubiquitous - as is the one in this example)

I also found this project which is aiming to combat the "unreal" stock photo. This project is primarily aimed at realistic female stock imagery, but there's a few men and children in them too: https://500px.com/shestock

So despite all this, why do some sites still use stock photos? It could be a limited budget, a lack of designers/resources, a lack of time. Some companies are happy with "good enough", or don't believe that a web presence is necessarily important. (It's hard to believe, but it's still true in this day and age)


The UX answer would be "don't lie to users". If you're showing a photo of an employee, show a photo of that employee.

Now marketing, on the other hand, may disagree.

  • How do you feel about taking real employees and staging them in more than mugshot type photos. Is that just a matter of if you have the time/money to get a good photographer?
    – DasBeasto
    Aug 27, 2015 at 16:31
  • @DasBeasto one should always strive for quality photography if budget and time allows. If not, you make do with what you have.
    – DA01
    Aug 27, 2015 at 16:32

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