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Tribal Splash

The Use of Stock Photos on Church Websites

A question for designers: What do you think of church websites that use tons of royalty free, stock photo images of people and families? Seriously? Is this some sort of false-image creation, or something slightly worse? None of the people in these stock photos actually attend these churches, right? In fact, I think it’s safe to say the people pictured never even heard of the church. So, is a liberal use of royalty free, stock photo images of people and families proper for a church website? I’m very, very interested in your thoughts on the matter.

Personally, I think it is a poor choice to use images of people and families on your site, if these people don’t actually attend the church. I almost want to call it false advertising, but I honestly think it’s something a tad worse (it’s church!).

At any rate, I’d love to hear the opinions of web designers. Readers - non designers - can chime in with their thoughts too. After all, we are all visitors of these sites, right? Right. When you publish it, you open yourself up to critique.

35 Comments

  1. Chris Horst
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I honestly didn’t even know churches did this. Because of that, I haven’t really had time to think through the implications. However, at first glance, it really rubs me the wrong way.

  2. Kathi Sharpe
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I know some very large and very small churches that do this. I don’t like it.

    I’ve always used either real pics of real people who go to the church, or stock photos of anonymous people (silhouettes, for example).

    The big advantage of the former is that a visitor who’s seen the site will have an instant connection with people they’ve seen on the site. Disadvantages are the need to get signed consent from people… the relative dangers to children… what if people leave? Will people who aren’t on the site be jealous? So it’s a mixed bag.

    YMMV :)

  3. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    @Chris - Yep. It rubs me wrong, after multiple glances. I think the question begging to be asked is a deeply theological one.

    @Kathi - Good points. I think I’d rather not put any images of people up, if consent is not comfortably granted, than put images of people up who have nothing to do with the community.

    That said, a picture of a single individual raising their hands towards heaven in a worship pose in not the same as peppering a site with stock images of smiling families and happy children. There is a line between an artistic shot meant for aesthetics and images meant to portray … something else. Does that make sense?

    It’s almost like leaving the photos that come in picture frames in the frames, and not telling your visitors that they don’t really contribute anything at all to your home.

  4. Kathi Sharpe
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Shawn, absolutely makes sense… and good analogy, too.

    Fake is fake, after all.

  5. Josh
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Fear of hypocrisy. Hate to say it, but when we put our site together years ago we used stock photos because we didn’t want misrepresentation on our site. We didn’t want peoples pics featured on our site and not representing the church well when they weren’t at church.

    We’ve since switched and put photos from our congregation on, but to give another view that’s why we did it originally.

  6. nick
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Honestly, when I read this post this morning I was confused. I had no idea a church, of all things, would do that. A church is all about the people not the building or the money people give, it is all about the people. When you throw a “stock photo” of someone, or a family up on a church site, you are lying, flat out lying. You are telling people these people go to this church and this is what you can expect. If you are not comfortable showing us the real congregation, I fear your church is not right for me.

    I don’t know, if I saw a site that did that, i would feel like they are “selling” something to me, and I don’t like that.

    I’m going to think some more on this and get back to you… again. I don’t know why but this kind of upsets me.

  7. Ben G.
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    It definitely contributes to a feeling of “marketing to a generation” rather than being up front and honest about things. As I was perusing a site like this I felt like I was being “sold” their church … I didn’t like it.

    I’ve designed church sites, I’m designing one right now for a friend as a matter of fact. But I won’t use any stock photos at all. Actually, I probably won’t use pictures at all unless they’re of the church building or something like that.

  8. Kathi Sharpe
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    I guess pictures need to be chosen carefully - whether of people in the congregation or of something else (the pastor, the building, etc.)

    Josh makes a good point - what if you’ve got a smiling family on the website, and all their neighbors know that he’s got a girlfriend on the side? Got to really know people, I guess.

    Pics of the building or the pastor are good (so folks know what they’re looking for building wise, and a smiling face makes everyone feel more comfy) … but I’ve seen some sites that make you feel like the building is The Biggest Grandest Thing In The Universe That All Must Come See And Worship… no kidding! I’ve also seen some sites that absolutely glorify the pastor, like he’s something *special* - people come to see/hear Pastor Joe, not to worship the Lord. I’m NOT saying every site that has pastor/building pics is like that (When I do a church site I put both up)… just saying care needs to be taken. (a little off topic, maybe - sorry!)

  9. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    @nick: I feel your pain, brother.

    @Ben: I agree, but I wonder to which generation this sort of marketing is directed? Almost every person I know that is 35 and under flees from this sort of “marketing” as if it were the plague. I think Baby Boomers and Busters dig it. Gen X,Y, and Net Gen’s run.

    @Kathi - Yeah, Josh raises good points. Points that sort of really get to another issue all together! It’s like a can o’ worms, right! :)

    I also agree with you 100% re: the building and preacher. That too gets to another issue: motives. What drives us at church, and should we really celebrate that by expressing it on our church web sites? Good, good questions!

    I see you are church planting too! Praise the Lord! I’ll be keeping up with your efforts and praying for you guys all along the way!

  10. carl
    Posted September 15, 2007 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I can think of several reasons to use stock images.

    The people in those photos never split your church. Ever do a layout and have the people in the pic get divorced, or leave in an ugly way? Time to redo the site.

    The people in stock photos never grow old. You never look at the photo of the guy and remember when his hair looked like that. They are timeless images.

    I don’t think it is false advertising. If a church does not have the people to update a site frequently it makes sense to me.

  11. Kathi Sharpe
    Posted September 15, 2007 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I’m not trying to open a can of worms here, but I got to pondering the comment I made yesterday, and then saw Carl’s comment this morning… isn’t that a sad commentary on how much like the rest of the world the church is?

    The other comment I’ve got - church websites need to be updated frequently. Weekly at the least. Church sites don’t have to be hugely techie…they do have to be relevant. A simple site that’s well done is far easier for a newcomer to navigate. If a congregation has a site but no one to update it, find someone. Hire them if you have to. (Don’t ever let them update the site without pastoral review, though!)

  12. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 15, 2007 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    @Kathi - I think you just touched on one of the very serious and very deep theological issues inherent to this discussion. I personally think a church should really, really be cognitive of the theology - spoken or unspoken - that their website represents. Seriously. I think this means that churches should take the time and energy to find a designer who understands their expressed theology and can re-interpret that via a web site. So, yeah, churches should be serious about hiring the right designer.

  13. Ariah Fine
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    http://www.hopelutheran-aflc.com

    just ran across these guys

  14. Billy Chia
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Shawn,
    I feel you on the bad vibes sock images can create.

    At the same time there are some valid reasons to use them:

    1. Age/culture diversity. If you are marketing your church towards a new demographic that doesn’t currently exist in the community, it makes sense to include pictures of those people on materials like brochures and websites

    2. Church plants. You can’t put people from your community on your website if they aren’t there yet (much like reason #1).

    Essentially a church with photos of families says, “This is the type of church we want to be” even if that is not the church they are now.

    It’s not false advertising. They are simply advertising their mission and vision for the future rather than the current reality.

  15. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    @Billy Chia: Thanks for the comments! They are always welcome.

    I almost agreed with your thoughts, Billy. Then I thought of an alternative: text.

    I’m planting a church right now, and while we do have a very healthy group forming, we want to especially focus upon families. So, while we are preparing for our families to arrive, we could put up images of the sort of family we want, or we could simply express that dedication via text. People still do read today, so why not express the vision with good ‘ole text? I think it would be a healthy alternative to stock photos.

    As regards you first point, re: Age/Cultural Diversity: If you are marketing your church towards a demographic that doesn’t currently exist in your community, then I think you have much bigger problems than stock photos.

    Thanks for the thoughts, bro!

  16. Ariah Fine
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Billy, I would disagree with that. I went to a college (I know college is slightly different, bigger commitment, etc) that used that technique. The ‘diversity’ displayed in the viewbook and admission material was nothing like what the actual campus body was like. It’s deceptive to the people that view might appeal to.
    I think if your striving for cultural diversity but don’t have it you need to just say it, whether in the church or on the website. Either don’t include pictures or include ones of the current church body, but note that your striving to be more culturally diverse.
    I just think displaying stock pictures on your site is not a very clear way of expressing your vision.

  17. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    @Ariah: Right on. Well said. Expressing your vision for church should not include the sort of “bad vibes” created by plastic looking photos of complete strangers.

  18. Billy Chia
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Great thoughts Shawn. (and exciting to hear you are planting)

    On diversity:

    I live in Evansville, IN where the highest growing population demographic is Hispanic. Most churches around here are all white folks. However, a forward thinking group might say, “Wow there’s a lot of hispanics moving into the area, how can we minister to them?”

    I would venture to say that a picture of a Hispanic person on a website says, “You are welcome in our community even if you are not white,” in a way that text cannot convey.

    (by “community” I mean “the people of the church” as to differentiate from using “church” which often means “the building” or “our Sunday morning service”)

  19. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    @Billy: Thanks for the clarification! I hear you now. Sorry for my slowness.

    Still, I think it would be better to use text to express that desire for diversity, as it would seem to me, from my personal experiences, a Hispanic might actually be sent the other way by a picture like that, especially if they showed up and everyone in the church was … not Hispanic.

    I do not, of course, write the laws on church website design and/or philosophy. So, my opinions regarding the use of text over stock images are my own. Personally, it screams of fake to me but anyone and everyone can choose for themselves, obviously.

    As an aside, I think using a website to actually reach people in the community is a detrimental practice. I think relationships in real-time should be the priority. A website is simply a medium in which information regarding the church should be passed to members. So, trying to bring people “into” the church should be discarded for trying to “be church” in the already existing community. that said, I think stock image use is mostly perpetuated by the churches who want to “bring the community into their church.” What other use for this sort of stock is there?

    Thanks again, bro!

  20. Ariah Fine
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Billy,
    Well said, I definitely support your desire for your ‘community’ to reflect your actual geographic community. And I agree images are a great way of conveying messages that text sometimes cannot.
    However, I think being geniune is extremely important. Here’s one thought:
    work really hard at bringing in your first hispanic member (or family) into the community, then feel free to put a picture of them on your website, along with other pictures.

    I think it’s frustrating and does more harm then good when you see a website, decide to visit and then sit uncomfortably because the church you thought you were visiting (based on the website) is nothing like the church your sitting in.

    Just my two cents.

  21. Ben G.
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    @Billy: The problem is that if you really are trying to reach out to Hispanics, why aren’t there any in the church already? Why aren’t people going and inviting all their Hispanic friends to the church?

    By and large, if a church doesn’t have any Hispanics in it then it’s only a symptom of people in the church not liking Hispanics to begin with. A fake picture on the Internet won’t change that.

  22. Billy Chia
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    “relationships in real-time should be the priority”

    Absolutely.

    All marketing is just that: marketing.

  23. Billy Chia
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    @ Ben G.
    I’m not advocating dishonesty or being unauthentic.

    If your asking, “How can we minister to out community?” then inviting your friends and simply being a friend are going to be part of the conversation as well as everything else you can come up with to answer that question.

    Marketing materials, whether it’s a website, brochure, or mailer always need to reinforce what you’re already doing. You’re right in that they can’t create it for you.

  24. Ben G.
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    @Billy: I see what you mean. Yeah, we agree then. I just wanted to highlight the fact that what’s on a website should reflect what’s in the church, not what you’d like to see in the church.

  25. jordan fowler
    Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    We try not to use them in our header’s etc. However, for some event boxes (like ones we have never done before) their exists no photos, so we have a choice….

    waste a bunch of kingdom time to set up a mock scenario photo shoot (which could be equally considered inauthentic and cheesy) or grab a great stock quickly and use it. We often go away from the stock “faces smiling” shot on these as well. (see a sample at http://www.northwoodchurch.org).

  26. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 18, 2007 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Jordan - I think your site is an example of a great use of stock images. I have nothing against stock images; they can be used well. I use stock images. What you are doing with them is not the same thing we are talking about here. Pasting fake people up on the site, in an effort to portray something that isn’t a reality at your church, or to perpetuate something a church hopes to achieve, is not the same thing as using aesthetic image stock. I think most people would rather see some great aesthetic imagery rather than stock photos of smiling, happy people that do not exist. Make sense?

    Thanks for the thoughts, bro.

  27. WorshipCity
    Posted September 19, 2007 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    Never, ever, did I imagine I would be considering stock imagery for a church’s website much less the theological implications of such, so thank you! I have utilized some new brain cells :)
    As soon as I read this, I checked our website and regardless, what a relief, we do NOT use stock imagery of people on ours! I did bring this up with our Jack-of-All-Trades staffer who does our website and asked her opinion. She said this:
    “Hmmm, you know I don’t know if I’ve done that online or not. I sure try not to and can’t remember a time when I’ve done it recently at least. I did it once on a mailer we sent out one time. We fixed a bunch of images on the sidebar of the flier and this guy came to our event. He was hacked off because he got the impression that our church was really diverse and multi-cultural because of the images and it was really a bunch of white people! He made sure to complain to (our pastor) and never came back.”

    I’m still laughing at that. It is our church’s stance to be multi-cultural and diverse and we are much more so now. HOWEVER, we were a church plant, planted by middle-aged white couples in an area where predominantly middle aged white people live and so in the beginning guess who was there!

    I thought you might get a kick out of that.

  28. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 19, 2007 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    @WoshipCity: Great story! I really appreciate the fact that you and your church gave this some thought. I think it is a serious issue that more churches should consider. You and your church are inspirational!

    That is a great story. On one hand, it’s quite funny, but on the other hand, it’s a little sad because that guy was looking for something deeper. Well, at least you guys learned and acted on it. Good for you!

  29. oh amanda
    Posted September 19, 2007 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m really intrigued that this is such a conversation. I guess I understand it a little seeing as you are planting a church. And I appreciate that you are thinking about every facet of your church. But, I just don’t understand why it would be “false” advertising. I don’t think there is a person alive who looks at an advertisement and says, “That guy isn’t really enjoying that food. He’s just an actor.” Pictures are just there to help you visualize or understand…they just ADD TO the rest. So, if I can put up a stock photo that is QUALITY rather than my picture from my disposable 35mm, I’m going to put up the stock photo! Would someone who’s looking to go to your church really come in one day (after visiting your site) and say, “hmmm. I don’t see that guy that was on the website. What a bunch of hypocrites!” Maybe I’m just not understanding the question…

  30. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 19, 2007 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    @oh amanda: I can understand your intrigue. I can also understand using a - one - stock photo of a person on a church site. I was talking about a site plastered with a bunch of stock of people no where to be found in the church.

  31. Tim Hoover
    Posted September 21, 2007 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    Interesting question and conversation.
    How about is using stock photos on a church website good stewardship of funds? Often they are expensive and better images can be taken with a descent camera and a good sense of composition. As far as authenticity…the only true way to reach this may be candid photojournalism of the congregation in action. Does posing a family from your church, make the message more real than using a posed family from a stock catalog? Probably not. It just makes the people recognizable to others within the congregation.

  32. Shawn Anthony
    Posted September 21, 2007 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Stock photos can be expensive, Tim. Very expensive at times. The second part of your comment raises good points too. I’m not totally sure, however, that authenticity is ever a motivator in some of the sites I’ve seen. I think it is purely marketing in most cases (i.e., marketing a very specific but narrow idea or vision of what church is in a particular community setting). This of course opens up the can of theology I’ve been been trying to get at in this post. :)

  33. Kathi Sharpe
    Posted September 21, 2007 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I’ve used hundreds of stock photos (tho generally not for church sites) and never paid a dime. There’s many websites offering them for free or as linkware - sxc.hu is one big one (they have pay-for photoz too).

    Google “free stock photos” and you’ll come up with some sites.

    Unless you really, really, really, really, really want a particular picture, you shouldn’t have to pay for it when there’s so many places to get it for free.

  34. Emma
    Posted September 23, 2007 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I apologize that I haven’t read all the comments so I may border on repetitive. I help with my church’s website and we’ve only used photos of the congregation, but we didn’t even think about putting stock photos up, because our site is mostly geared towards the actual congregation. We’re doing a building project so a big part of the site is updates on that (which of course we use pictures of the project for). Speaking as a designer, I don’t feel like it’s necessary to have photos of people on every page in a website… it’s more important to have photos that are relevant to that page’s content.

  35. Church Web designer
    Posted May 2, 2008 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I feel your comments… I wouldn’t go so far as to say that using stock photos are hypocritical though. What about the doctors that use stock photos in their publications of happy clients. I hope you don’t think that all the advetisements in papers show people that actually work within the company… most of the time they are hired actors and models who are paid to hold a can of hairspray or smile and point to the car. The photos represent a demographic or type of people who would use the product or attend the business. Its pure marketing and a true marketer would know that.

    I do agree that using actual images of people in the business or church is best, but to call these churches that do hypocritical is not fair. The church may not even have a photographer that can capture the images of the people as well as professional photographer can. It may be more affordable for the church to pay the dollar or two to buy a photo of a family. Also the members may feel uncomfortable about having their picture online. What do you do then… publish a boring uninviting site on the web with no pictures or images for people to relate to??

    I’ve used stock photos for church websites and never paid more than a $2.00 for them. You have to know how to shop around and be a good stewart of the church’s money. Why does everyone automatically want to beat up on churches anyhow?

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