Stock Photography – A Love / Hate Relationship

Have you ever paid any attention to the generic photos that are inside the photo frame at a retailer? You know, the cute child and mom sharing a smile in a special moment. Or the close up of the young couple laughing as they’ve just fallen in a pile of autumn leaves. Or how about the daydreaming woman looking out the window streaked with raindrops and an abstract reflection? If you’re like most people, you’re not looking at the photos, but the frames you are supposed to be shopping for. The photos are just to help you see what the frame looks like surrounding a picture. You may notice the photo – but it isn’t the focus.

If you’re a designer on the other hand, you may be just like me and instantly look at those and see – stock photo. The last time I was in the photo frames aisle in a local retailer I recognized 4 out of the 5 images being used as stock I had previously seen (and in one case purchased) in image searches I had done for client projects. So is this a bad thing? It depends on which side of the coin you’re looking.

I love stock photography for a lot of reasons. Stock photography today is amazing in many ways. It’s diverse in style, quality, subject matter, pricing, and quantity. There are literally millions of images available at my fingertips ranging for as little as pennies an image up to the hundreds of dollars. The style, quality, and subjects span the gamut of your imagination. This is a far cry from the stock of old which had to be purchased on CDs for hundreds of dollars each. You just hoped you’d be able to use more than a couple of images on the CD to help make it worth it. And the subject matter wasn’t very inspiring or creative (I have a business image CD at home which doubles as a coaster).

Working in the design industry over the years, I’ve watched the stock photo industry grow and compete for the attention of designers. That competition has turned the stock industry into something truly remarkable. But as amazing as it is, there is a side of stock that I don’t like. Here are the flaws I see.

As abundant as stock images are, it should be no surprise that there is good stock and not so good stock. The good stock tends to get used a lot. Take for instance the picture frame example. The images used by the picture frame manufacturer in their frames can also be used in large retail box store branding, local business promotion, a blog you subscribe to, a still image in a local television commercial, and a website you frequent. It’s not uncommon to see good quality stock images with broad appeal have over 10,000 downloads from a single stock source. That’s a lot of the same image out there. And with every download, the chances of you or your customers seeing the same image used in multiple places grows. I see the same stock images used by multiple businesses quite often. While the price and variety of stock available makes this a great resource for businesses which really need to stretch their marketing dollars, you run the risk of having your audience recognize it was used somewhere else, perhaps for something totally different, and it waters down your brand message.

Another downside to stock is finding the perfect image. With millions of images to choose from you may think that finding just the right one for that ad would be easy. But while there may be thousands of images of birthday cakes and party decorations for your ad, finding a birthday cake with candles being blown out by a second grade girl with short blonde hair, taken at a 3/4 view angle, wearing a party hat, with streamers and confetti on the table and several friends on the left side as well as copy space to the right – becomes quite challenging. Another way to put it is this. Often times with stock you have to settle in some way with what’s available because you cannot find what would best communicate your vision.

That’s where custom photography comes to center stage. Using custom photography for all promotional material for a client would be a designer’s dream. Working with a professional photographer and being able to art direct the shots is truly the best option for communicating the essence of your brand in the imagery of your advertising, business literature, website, or marketing. Unfortunately, budgets and time constraints do not always make this possible. So when it comes back to stock, the challenge is to find professional looking images which come as close to the qualities you’re looking for in communicating your brand without picking the most popular ones out there. And if budget is truly the concern, finding these images quickly is paramount; otherwise the time spent in a stock search may end up costing the same as a custom shot.

So, I love stock photography. I love the variety, professional quality, and creative styles from which to choose in the various price points. Having online stock is an invaluable tool in my designer toolbox. But I hate it when I see stock images used over and over again for different businesses and when I can’t find the right image – no matter how many various combinations of search terms I use. Even so, in my opinion the positives of stock definitely outweigh the negatives, so the love side of stock wins.