Happy couple in La Crosse

Taking stock of stock photography

True story…

Recently, middle and high school students from a school near our downtown office walked over for a tour and to see what goes on at an advertising agency. A co-worker of mine, speaking to the group, began with the question, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of advertising?” 

“Liars,” shouted one of the students. 

I think about that student's response a lot.

Hope for a new generation

While ad agencies and their employees aren’t liars, I admire this student’s skepticism. At no time in history has a generation been so bombarded with messages—look here, think this, buy that. They're fed misinformation, they use apps to perform digital plastic surgery, and they listen to music that’s surely been autotuned. But yet, these kids are thinking for themselves, requiring facts and seeking truths. I think it’s not in spite of, but because of being the most media- and advertising-savvy generation, that they see through these forgeries and seek reality in the media and advertising they consume. That leads us to the topic of stock photography.

Stock photos aren’t exactly dishonest. They're not misinformation. But they aren’t telling the whole truth, are they? Even if your customers, clients, patients or students don’t know a photo is stock, they can sense something’s just not right. The people don’t look like they’re "from around here"—they're not on your campus or in your store, and they're not dressed like your employees or customers. The funny thing is, it's all intentional. Photographers who sell their images to stock photo companies want their images to sell to as many people as possible, so their photographs are nonspecific by design. The more generic the photo, the more it'll get used, and the more money the photographer makes.

How do you want to spend your time?

You can get lucky and find the perfect image after hours of searching half a dozen websites, paying licensing fees and doing hours of Photoshop work to remove or extend a background, remove objects, add objects, recolor objects, etc. Whether you’re doing that yourself or paying an art director, those hours add up. Even if you then have the perfect on-brand photo, you can't tell much of a story. Because rarely do you find multiple photos with the same people, in the same setting, that all hang together for a campaign.

Truth be told

A well-run photoshoot also requires many hours—talent search, location scouting, managing the shoot, processing photos—but you get exactly what you want, with photos tailored to your brand. You also get exclusivity. Keep in mind your competitors and/or their agencies will be searching stock image databases using the same terms you are. Run a photo you’ve used in an ad through a reverse image search site like TinEye, Image Raider or Google Images. Or… don’t—ignorance is bliss, right? Even competing global industries have discovered they were both using the same image in their advertising. It happens on all scales.

But I need it now

Okay, so your photo budget is a buck fifty, you’ve got 15 minutes to meet a deadline, and your camera is on your coffee table across town. Stock to the rescue. But keep these points in mind when stock is your only option:

  • Review your client’s brand standards and select photos that adhere to those standards.
  • Look for photos with alternate angle options from the same shoot session. Even one alternate angle supplementing the main photo will make it feel less like stock.
  • Most any photo can be improved, so edit away. While we’re beginning to see more RAW files offered, most stock photos are offered in JPEG only. If you know your way around Adobe Lightroom or other photo editing software, a RAW photo file will allow you to really make an image your own given the wealth of image data it contains.
  • If you’re using a series of stock photos in say, a carousel ad, look at them as a whole and see what you can do to visually tie them together—use a similar color balance, ensure black and white levels match, give them all the same tint, diffusion filter, similar crops—anything to make them look less like stock.

So use stock if you must, but if your brand encompasses uniqueness, honesty and building trust, how will an impersonal, staged stock photo reflect that? Your brand is how people feel about what you manufacture, sell and the services you offer. Use photography that is uniquely your own, photography that has been crafted to tell an authentic story that aligns with your unique brand, and it will make a difference. That’s no lie.

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