Why some library photographs are the kiss of death

July 5, 2011

Are you really passionate about what you do for your clients, anxious to demonstrate you really think about their needs and keen to show you try harder than your competitors?  Then there are certain types of library shot you should steer clear of like the plague.

A words person discussing pictures – what the…?

What’s a copywriter doing writing about photography?  Copywriters that answer “yes” to all the questions in the previous paragraph are very visually aware.  They appreciate that words and images combine to create a single impression and understand that if you want to communicate effectively then you cannot consider the two elements in isolation.  The fact that most copywriters just don’t get this is, to my way of thinking, absurd (but that’s another blog post!).

So, what types of library shot are best avoided?

Lies, damned lies and library shots

Those that misrepresent who you are.  Let’s say you are an accountant in Burnham-on-Sea.  Don’t use library shots of tanned, fit, young, well dressed, happy people, with perfect teeth, from ethnically diverse backgrounds, smiling around a huge boardroom table, in an expansively sleek futuristic office, with blazing sunshine pouring in from a clear blue sky.  Why?  Because your potential clients know Burnham-on-Sea is more like Blackpool on a bad day than LA on a good one.  And, when they come to your cramped office above the chip shop, they’ll discover you and your team are closer to The Office than Sex in the City.

What’s wrong with this?  The image is so far removed from the reality that it puts serious doubts in the visitor’s mind.  As in “do they think I’m stupid?”, “what planet are they on?”, and “can I trust these people?”.

Positively nauseating

Then there are those shots of the same creepy clone-like characters in business situations being mindlessly positive – I think the attitude portrayed by these shots is a turn-off.  We’re talking happy-clappy people applauding a presentation, high fiving each other around a laptop, jumping for joy or gazing adoringly at a colleague who has just written the word “vision” on a whiteboard.  My favourite is a shot of a businessman crowdsurfing on the outstretched hands of his colleagues.  Personally I don’t meet people in the world of business who behave like that – but maybe I’m going to the wrong companies?

Would I like my accountant, my solicitor, my IT guy, my vehicle procurement chap, my HR consultants, and all the others I look to for help and advice, to be like that?  No.  They’d drive me crazy.  I want advice from characters who operate in the real world, not la-la land.  I find it reassuring to deal with experienced individuals who understand business is a bit of a struggle, not some kind of joy ride.

Complete bollocks

The third category of shot best avoided is those you find listed under “business concepts and metaphors”.  Some are fairly literal – people in a field building a human pyramid, close ups of hand shaking, man arranging huge pieces of jigsaw, guy in suit in starting blocks for a sprint, money pouring down a drain.  Others are more lateral and abstract – a pile of pebbles arranged in an arch, a businessman sitting in a field raising his arms skywards, ripples and bubbles, swirling graphic patterns, lighthouses, blue skies, waterfalls and goldfish (goldfish?!)

What’s wrong with these?  At worst they are irritating, at best irrelevant.  I recently wrote a blog about how effective advertising creates an explosive effect by compressing the maximum meaning into the smallest space (go to https://storiesthatsell.co.uk/?p=149 ).  These images are literally a waste of space.  What the heck have goldfish got to do with your offering?  They just suggest you haven’t got one.

Want my business?  Then try harder

Worse still, they are clichés.  In fact all three categories of shot I’ve outlined are clichés.  What’s wrong with that?  Clichés are used by lazy people who can’t be bothered to think for themselves.  I don’t like taking advice from, or paying money to, people like that – and I don’t believe I’m alone in this.  Furthermore, people who think crass clichés will do the trick are being complacent and condescending.  Anyone who believes that this kind of mental fast food will get punters to sit up and beg like Pavlov’s dog is insulting the intelligence of their audience.  None of which is likely to win you much business.

Disappearing act

There’s another thing wrong with these three categories of shot.  The fact that you have a girl who looks a lot like Cameron Diaz working in your surveyor’s office in Scunthorpe is somewhat surprising.  Discovering that she’s also employed as a credit controller in Dudley, an HR consultant in Bracknell and a mortgage advisor in Stoke on Trent is truly incredible.   One of the biggest challenges your business faces is the fact it’s hard to stand out from the crowd and differentiate yourself from the competition.  Library shots, whether of models or lighthouses, that regularly pop up on thousands of websites, for businesses that range from software development to sales training and asset finance to marketing consultancy, make you look exactly the same – not just the same as your competitors, but the same as most of the businesses on the entire planet.

So what should you do?

Get real, get a photographer

Think long and hard about exactly what you do and how you go about helping your clients.  Then focus on explaining this in the most motivating and differentiating way possible.  Resist all temptation to use any form of crass cliché.

Then get a photographer to take some pictures of you and your staff doing what it is you do.  Ideally you should also get some case studies where your clients explain, in their own words, exactly what you did to solve their problem.  As the saying goes “people buy people”, and this is especially true in a small business – the people are the business, so feature them.   Furthermore, in B2B markets the simple virtues of honesty, sincerity and transparency can trump spin, hype and gloss.  Show who you are, instead of who you are not!

No paid-for library shots were harmed in the production of this article.  All free courtesy of


Cliché photo courtesy of Brechtbug http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/4583439368/

  1. Caroline J July 9, 2011 Reply

    Jim - I'm really liking your style! LOL

    • Jim July 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi Caroline,
      Thanks! I'll try to keep the HQ up (humour quotient).

      Kind regards,


  2. Andy Neilson July 11, 2011 Reply

    Very good post Jim (though I imagine the good burghers of Burnham-On-Sea might be less than enamoured with it!)

    While on the subject of terrible generic library photos, you might also be interested "Women Laughing Alone With Salad"( http://thehairpin.com/2011/01/women-laughing-alone-with-salad) and "Delighted Black Women Shopping" (http://img411.imageshack.us/img411/7092/gettyisnuts.jpg)

    • Jim July 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi Andy,
      Many thanks for those links to more cringe-making library shots. I'm not sure the link you posted re women/salad is quite right, I found it at
      http://thehairpin.com/search?q=women+laughing+alone+with+salad Anyhow, LOL.

      Re Burnham-On-Sea, let me put record straight. I live in picture postcard village near Cheddar, and sometimes it is just too...err..perfect, and picturesque, and nice, and boring. Going to Burnham is a relief - not pretty, not perfect, just normal. Lots of caravan sites with "Baggies on tour" banners flying, chip shops and greasy spoon cafes, a Wetherspoons pub with meals for £2.99, an Aldi and an ASDA, people from the Midlands yelling at their kids, little old ladies with thick overcoats on in middle of summer, curry houses painted purple, a little pier with a kiosk selling candy floss...and a surpisingly nice beach with lovely views of Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

      That's the reality of Burnham, and I don't think the locals would argue with that picture of it (let's see if we get any comments from Burnham!). My beef is with people pretending that their business is something it is not - not with Burnham.

      Hope that clears up any confusion...

  3. Grant Holland July 14, 2011 Reply

    Hi Jim - yet another worryingly apt post. The architectural analogy shots I was considering for the new site may have to go out the window (pun intended).

    All I have to do now, is reconsider what kind of images can truly illustrate the excellence of our employee survey, team briefing process and HR communications services.

    Thanks a million..............

    • Jim July 14, 2011 Reply

      Hi Grant,
      Sorry about that! Looks like I'm buying the drinks then?


  4. Dorrian Carrington July 15, 2011 Reply

    I agree with Jim. I have been beating the drum for the small business person to have their own stock images for the last three to four months. Ever since I read an article saying that some people have been faced with huge bills for their so called free stock images. Cheaper to get your own.

  5. Marc French July 15, 2011 Reply

    Hey Jim, nice post. It seems that folk are happy to have their communications styled rather than designed. Stylists are 'fancy dressing' business communications rather than thinking about appropriate and relevant communication.

    And it's not just down to the so-called designers, businesses are responsible too. With a little careful consideration and less concern about buying dirt cheap stock images the world of business would be a much more exciting, real and vibrant place – customers would be able to find a level with their suppliers and wheels of business might turn a little faster.

    Good work.


  6. Sarah July 31, 2011 Reply

    Hi Jim....finding your blogs so refreshing. Its so easy me follow the crowd and to fall into what so many others are doing with pics and all sorts of other marketing stuff. So thanks for shaking my tree!

  7. Barnaby Adams August 2, 2011 Reply

    Many business people and designers think stock images are a cheap and quick option compared to employing a photographer/illustrator. It's been my experience however (as a graphic designer), that there is a false-economy with this thinking. It takes so long to find 'the right image' amongst all the tat, that it would often cost less and be quicker just to have commissioned the production of an image – not to mention it being unique and exclusively yours.

  8. Laurence Cremetti August 3, 2011 Reply

    Hey Jim, what a gem! You know, I've spent most of my day today, (Wed. 3rd Aug), shooting corporate portraits to replace library shots for a client.
    Don't want to blow the ol' trumpet too much, but these good folks now have real, honest, and warm images to use on their site. I think prospective clients will be drawn to them.
    I can't say who they are, as I think they want to surprise everyone with the new pics, but I will post a couple in a week or so, after their launch.

    Regards to you,


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