When to Use Illustrations, Stock Images, or Real Photos

Think of your piece of dream content. Is it an endless scroll of dry text? Probably not. All content needs an image or two to spice it up, not to mention improve its page rank. According to a study by MDG Advertising, 67 percent of online shoppers said that high-quality images were “very important” to their decision to purchase a product, which ranked image above other aspects, such as product descriptions or reviews and ratings. Another study found that when images were vivid and detailed, they increased an individual’s perceived ownership of a product.

Just having an image isn’t quite enough, even if it does pump up your SEO. To have maximum impact, you have to consider the type of image and the reaction it will garner. Discover a few image types and when you should utilize them.

Illustrations

Illustrations are not limited by concreteness and can be used to ignore reality to communicate themes that may be impossible to photograph. They also allow the brand to engage the audience on a different level: through its imagination. Illustrations can bring your brand to life in a way that photography may be unable to do. As a result, illustrations can also make your brand more memorable and build strong associations with your audience.

The appeal lies in practicality. Illustrations are often easier to bend to your strategic needs, especially in terms of tone. Some say illustrations can make copy look like the work of amateurs. But that’s the beauty: they can fall anywhere on the spectrum. Photographs are often perceived as more professional, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t send a message with an illustration. Just remember to keep your illustrations simple. You don’t need a watercolor painting spanning your webpage to be memorable.

When deciding when to use illustrations, consider how it would strengthen your content. You’ll need to decide if it can accomplish that strengthening better than a photograph would. Also, consider your audience. Younger people, especially children, will likely be more receptive to the imaginative, fun nature of illustrations, while many adults will likely appreciate photography more.

Real Photos

Image via Flickr by Elicus

Photographs are the best choice for depicting something in a literal way, such as in a piece of how-to content or if you’re trying to promote a specific product where physical representation is important, such as a piece of clothing. Photos are more common in content produced by large corporations or in industries where professionalism is crucial to brand perception. Photos make the business feel concrete, resourceful, and formal.

With today’s technology, you don’t have much of an excuse for not using photography. Even if you can’t afford to call in a professional, your smartphone can likely snap a feasible, publishable photo. Use your staff members to get genuine images of real people, which can humanize your brand. You’ll also have more control over all aspects of the image if you take it yourself.

Of course, if you can afford to call in a professional photographer, do it. They will be better equipped to take high-quality photos and they are actually trained in the art of visual storytelling, which may be what your brand needs. They’re pros for a reason. Your choice to use professionals or your own staff will largely depend on your budget, timeframe, and the importance of the image in the content. Shop around. Plan ahead and take the necessary time to find what you really want if you can.

Stock Images

Stock images are often better for those on a budget, and there’s so much stock photography out there that your chances of finding at least an approximate image of what you need are pretty high. The benefits of using stock photography, however, can also become drawbacks. Just like you’re considering stock photography because of its affordability, so is everyone else on the block. That image isn’t necessarily unique and many other businesses may be using it, even your competitors.

What’s wrong with using the same image as your competitors? Well, your audience is more likely to remember a concept or product when it is presented as an image, and they will associate that concept with the same image. If your competitor already used a stock image that you’re using, your audience may have a difficult time forming new and sufficient associations between the image and your content.

Tommy Walker, former editor-in-chief of ConversionXL, adds that if a competitor, or worse, a scammer, used the same stock image, that image could be associated with a negative experience for your audience member. That negative association may keep them from your content. If the experience was bad enough, even using an image with similarities to the negative experience can create subconscious distance between your audience and your content.

Stock photography can certainly have its place, especially if you’re on a budget or your image isn’t absolutely crucial to the perception of your product or concept. But if you’re going to turn to stock photos, you should take a few precautions to get the most out of them. First, see who else is using your potential stock photo. Tools such as TinEye can perform a reverse image search that finds where else that image has been. Using the results, you can decide whether the image has been overused, especially in your market.

Second, if you desperately want to use a certain stock image, consider getting a Rights Managed License, which allows you to “own” an image for a certain amount of time, usually the duration of a project. That means that within the markets you specify, only you can use that image. And finally, you don’t have to just admit defeat and publish a stock image as it is. Instead, use your stock image as a starting point. Crop it. Play with the colors. Adjust the lighting. Turn something generic into something that you make your own, that people can associate exclusively with your brand.

Fortunately, you don’t need to only use one type of image in your content. Mix it up if you need to, but ensure that everything has its place. Your strategy and an image’s purpose in your content should point you toward whether you use an illustration, a real photograph, or a stock image. Go with whatever will blow your audience away.

About the author

Michael Walton

Michael Walton is a freelance writer at CopyPress, writing tutor, and novelist. He has a passion for crafting creative content that meets the reader's needs, satisfies them, and leaves them wanting more. He is currently nestled among the mountains of Utah.