Last week the NYTimes Bits blog reported on a study that website usability expert Jakob Nielsen conducted (here) that purported to show how generic/bad photography is ignored by people visiting websites. Well, duh. It’s amazing how much filler there is online… heck even in magazines these days, which I’m chalking up to the rise of inexpensive stock. People feel like they need a photo but aren’t willing to spend some money to get something decent (or don’t have a clue what good photography looks like). I believe very strongly that as the web space matures the need for high quality imagery will increase. This report confirms that.

“…the random or stock images on Web sites are completely ignored by users, add more clutter to the page and don’t necessarily help from a business standpoint.”


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  1. “I believe very strongly that as the web space matures the need for high quality imagery will increase.”
    I believe this as well Rob. It’s just a matter of time.

  2. Generic, bad photography is akin to a banner ad. I don’t even see them anymore.

    I’ve NEVER been a proponent of stock photography, not once, and this just solidifies the belief that boring photographs and/or those made by amateurs aren’t worth the royalty free or low price that’s paid for them. Original, engaging photography done by professionals are the only way images are useful. You get what you pay for.

    • @Anthony, While I agree with many of your points Anthony, I must say that I see tons of generic stock work done by professionals as well as amateurs, much the same way that an amateur has the potential to create a truly groundbreaking image. I think it comes down more to a point of generic images being crap no matter who they were created by. The nature of the micro-stock business rewards quantity over quality.

      • @Luke Copping,
        Regardless of who is making the stock, professional or amateur, it’s not good. I understand not having a budget to hire someone to shoot, but then don’t use a photograph. Might as well save the little money you have than throw it away. Yes, generic images that may fit many generic needs, get rid of them all no matter who produces them. Micro-stock or not. Stock – not.

        • @Anthony,

          Claiming that all stock is crap is hilarious; hilarious in that anyone would actually say something so sweepingly ignorant and put their name to it. Stock runs the gamut from $1 boring crap to premium priced content from world-class photographers. Are the 10,000 stock images Joel Sartore offeres through Getty and National Geographic crap? Is Magnum crap?

          Your only experience with stock may be of multi-ethnic models in business suits shaking hands against a white backdrop, but I assure you — there is a much larger world of stock, a world full of some incredibly high-quality content.

  3. How does today’s magazine photography (advertising and editorial) compare to those taken in the 1950s and 60s? Not only stock, but all photography has become generic, committee and boardroom approved, and digitally dehumanized.

  4. Wow, good read.

    Hopefully in the coming years people will see that it’s not always good to be the penny pincher when it comes to photography or graphic design or any type of art for that matter.

  5. @Andy,
    “digitally dehumanized”…I just want to point out that some of the most engaging imagery on the web is assisted by “pixel pushing”. I’m not saying all interesting work is (certainly not in the case of reportage). Digital manipulation is a tool. Whether or not purist would consider it photography or mixed media, digital manipulation can be engaging and exciting and I see as an integral part of the new paradigm on the web. Take a look at the work of Nick Knight. It’s not digital manipulation that is bad it’s bad manipulation that is bad. I’m curious to see how the next 12 months play out. Not to piggy back on your post but I think interactive media and images that challenge our sense of reality may be a sure fire way to gain the public’s attention.

    • @MissB, for every Nick Knight there are 10.000 clueless/talentless button pushers who specialize in Digital Dreck.

  6. @c.d.embrey,
    Ah but the same can be said for every film (or digital) “straight” photographer.
    For every variant of photography style there are a million hacks who do because they like the idea of being a photographer but have no idea how to be an artist with a vision. My point is bad is bad but great image making can come from a number of different processes. Digital manipulation isn’t always the easy way out as some suggest. It can be said that it is more difficult to make a great image when everything is at your control and can be changed. It is easier to shoot and print what’s in front of you and make a great image. I, for one, would like to see more liberties taken with the medium. Viva la surréalistes!

    • @MissB, “…Whether or not purist would consider it photography or mixed media, digital manipulation can be …”

      Purist is a hot button word, so it really sounds like you are defending bad, even if that was not your intension.

    • @MissB,

      But if the hacks shoot film at least they shoot a lower volume of crap or at least post less of it online!

      • @Toby, Medium is irrelevant. Crap is crap, the medium or technique used to arrive at it does not matter. MissB makes several valid points. Digital or film, stock or commissioned. Shit is shit. boring is boring. I don’t care if it was created by an amateur or a professional. An engaging photo is an engaging photo.

  7. The state of the industry is just like all the others that are suffering. The economy is bringing changes to a variety of mediums but they will always be there in one form or another. There may be fewer newspapers and magazines in print but print will hang around. I think they used to call them bills back in the middle ages, newspapers now days.

    Those who are cutting corners to save a buck will get the rewards of doing so. It falls back on the old adage of you get what you pay for, thus the results of using crappy stock for what ever will result in crappy returns. I think as the economy begins to recover you will see the desire for a higher ROI. I think many are settling for what they can get, even if it means using the crap. It is the choice they are making.

    Professionals will win out in the long run and if they focus on business they will be successful. Easy money is a fallacy. Being a photographer may be the dream job but is still WORK.

  8. Maybe some people are misunderstanding what is meant by generic photography. Web users only want photographs that directly relate to their search and this is why people shopping at the pottery barn online are interested in detailed photographs of the specific products available for purchase. Generic photography is a term used to described images that are unrelated to the user’s search. It’s not about “good or bad” photography in terms of technique or artistry.

    • @Mike M,

      Thank you. This is not about bad photography but instead it’s about a smiling woman holding a child advertising a credit union.

  9. BTW – this is why lifestyle photographers are mostly failing online. People that want to buy shoes want to see the shoes instead of some guy playing basketball. People that want to buy a car want to see a car rather than some artsy landscape with a car driving through it. Right now is a great time to “sell the steak instead of the sizzle.”

  10. “I believe very strongly that as the web space matures the need for high quality imagery will increase.”

    I’d have to disagree with that statement. It’s not about the quality of the image, but the relevance it has in relation to it’s surroundings.

  11. I’m going to disagree here with the notion that photos must just be about the surroundings or of actual product. That’s just incidental documentation. The web is flooded with mediocre, generic photos. Sure, there may be a need to shoe the shoe in all it’s detail and many angles, but a dynamic, attention getting photograph is needed for branding, to create reader (consumer) interest and add to the whole marketing aspect. Dull, boring photographs are just that and might as well not be included at all. The imagery must sizzle and the need for storytelling/attention getting images is more important now more than ever before just for the sheer number of photographs produced today.

    • @Anthony, You just described exactly what the web surfer is rejecting because they view branding and “dynamic imagery” as false and insincere. They simply want a quality product or service and wish to see it documented well and presented in a way that allows them to clearl understand how it can be useful to in their personal lives. The most successful commercial photographers of the future might be the most unnoticed. Maybe they need to “get out of the way” so that the product or service literally sells itself without trying to be clever or in-your-face with trendy technique. It’s hip to be square!

      • @Mike M,

        We put the flashy pictures in the book and on the website, but most of what we shoot is pretty much straightforward commercial work.

        This often leads to a conundrum – we need to capture the art director or buyer’s attention with something visually interesting, but we then need to close the sale to their client (the end user) with straightforward competency.

        I remember a post on here that quoted a buyer as saying to an artist “We like your work, but our client (Exxon) pretty much needs to see a wrench in hand”

        • @craig, Yes, that is my experience too. I’ve noticed that the type of work that many consider to be visually interesting is usually some kind of clever or avant garde reaction to popular culture. Snowboarders turned photographers, teenage celebrity shooters and pretty girls with cameras are really good at producing that kind of hip sensory based or reactionary imagery. That type of photography is what we’ve become accustomed to viewing in magazines etc, but I just don’t think that it works on the web. The web needs a more straightforward approach. Right now, it’s very difficult for a technically oriented and straightforward craftsman to get the attention of the current generation of advertising folks that are still looking for cool and hip branding. Maybe the web will eventually help to eliminate them, and give the straightforward photographers more of an opportunity to work directly for the end user rather than going through somebody in the middle (buyer etc) Who knows what the future will bring? We’ll see

  12. Validation! If I even have a sales pitch, it’s a basically a variation on this idea.

    Viewers are sophisticated and at the same time, saturation bombed with inauthentic mediocrity. I believe those viewers will respond to some degree authentic originality, the trick is getting someone to pay for it.

  13. Mike M. is the only one who “got” it.
    Dumbing it down:
    Near perfect photos of near perfect people pretending are ignored.
    Real people doing real things gets noticed.
    But no statistics on sales results one way vs. other is offered.
    A photo getting noticed doesn’t guarantee a sale…?

    Is the fashion industry going to downsize
    after discovering that product sales double if unstylized
    ordinary people appear in ads with no special lighting or direction…?

  14. GREAT read, and fully agree. I’m not sure exactly how, but it’s always painfully obvious when a website is using stock photography, and further alienates me from what they’re trying to sell/inform.

  15. Is this really such a revelation? Of course readers (viewers) pass over
    visual crap. Using generic images just scream “I’m cheap “.

    Online image value will continue to rise as the market responds to lackluster response from uninspired imagery. There are markets where this is already happening. The internet is the happening media and serious money will be spent, but the current value model needs some attention to bring the new “industries” into the marketplace.

  16. Thanks so much! Great article and great study. Think kind a best form of marketing for us as photographers!

    Best regards from the polar circle


  17. Time and Newsweek have fallen into this trap recently. As Paul wrote above, generic=cheap.

  18. Boring images are boring images – no matter who creates them (professional or amateur)…just as good images are good images no matter who creates them.

    I think Rob touched on one of the really big problems, which is that there are a whole lotta people out there who have NO idea what a ‘good’ image is…

    And the nature of the internet is that it there are no more (or at least far fewer) ‘gatekeepers’ of content, whether it’s visual content or written content; there are fewer professionals operating in this space, to the extent that ANYONE can have a website or start an online magazine or a blog or whatever. There are fewer editors and fact checkers and art directors –people who are professionals in these areas– creating/providing/’judging’ all of this online content. And even those who do have some real, professional experience and/or training in these areas are asked to do more and more with less and less in the way of both time and resources.

    To use just one small example, I think about how much things have changed in recent times –how much the standards have changed– with regard to simple typos found in written content; in the world of printed magazines and newspapers, it was very rare to find a typo… Somebody was being paid to make sure the magazine didn’t go to print until those things had been vetted by someone who was paid to do that. On the internet? You can hardly read a paragraph anymore without encountering a typo — and this applies to both ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ content. I see them all day everyday online, whereas I hardly ever remember seeing them in the print realm.

    So what constitutes ‘good’ anymore? People seem to have stopped caring…or else they just don’t even know.

    Just look at what happens on facebook every day: someone posts some dark/shitty/blurry image of their morning coffee that they took with their cell phone/iphone (and that they may/may not have processed with an app like hipstamatic), posts it on facebook, and 10 friends give it the ol’ thumbs up by using the “like” button. What’s to ‘like’ about these images, from a photographic/artistic perspective? (Very often nothing!) But I think as a result people have come to consider themselves judges and connoisseurs of visual content…

  19. […] A Photo Editor – Generic Photography Ignored Online Last week the NYTimes Bits blog reported on a study that website usability expert Jakob Nielsen conducted (here) that purported to show how generic/bad photography is ignored by people visiting websites. Well, duh. […]

  20. I’ve long thought that a big part of the devaluation of photography has more to do with the increased volume of people perceiving a need to have it (usually a real need), but without the knowledge of how to use it effectively – or how to buy the right picture.

    We look at the Yale page and see that no one looks at the picture. To us, that says, “find a better picture.” To Yale, it could very well mean, “we got something that fills a space and doesn’t hurt us, so good for us.”

    This is different, but no worse than, paying a talented photographer to create the great art that will help sell and engage the audience, but then running them smaller than a postage stamp or murdering them with cropping and retouching.

    The challenge is to overcome the notion that anything is better than nothing, and to help clients understand how to use the quality work when they have it.

    After all, if the client gets great art and has no idea what to do with it, the perception will be that the great and “expensive” art didn’t do them any good either.

  21. Now someone just needs to reprogram the print or web media editors (typically with a BA in English and no design training) who (unfortunately and inexplicably) often manage the design team on a publication.

    When I was a young designer I did not have the experience yet to say why but, I knew using stock photography of boring crap in the many corporate collateral print projects I worked on was not good for anybody! But my boss, either above or similar, insisted on it even when it was clearly not needed!

    Here’s a thought: let the designers make the design decisions and let the editors make the writing decisions.

  22. This is why you market yourself as selling original images created by YOU that won’t be seen or used as stock.

  23. The sad fact is: digital technology and the web have created a world in which photographs are a dime a dozen. They are considered “throw away”. A good image still has the ability to stop and move people – for maybe another 10 seconds…

  24. […] A Photo Editor – Generic Photography Ignored Online Nov 9, 2010 … Last week the NYTimes Bits blog reported on a study that website usability expert Jakob Nielsen … […]

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