Stock Photos: The Love-Hate Relationship

I love stock photography. It’s the worst.

I, and many designers, have an intense love/hate relationship with stock photography. It can be a great resource and allows us to provide imagery quickly and with a comparatively low cost to our clients. You need a picture of Rio de Janeiro and you need it today? Stock photography has you covered. You need a photo of people skiing but it’s June? You need stock photography. You need vintage images of old-timey people doing old-timey things? Stock probably has it out there somewhere and you, my friend, have neither budget nor a time machine to create that type of image yourself. It’s fast, it’s easy to license and it’s certainly cheaper than doing a full photoshoot.

However, there are drawbacks to stock photography. These images can often look, well, stock:  generic, posed and stilted. You also run the risk of using images that are being used by other companies, including your direct competitors. You can curate the images that you use, but you cannot exactly direct what they will look like. If you need a highly specific image or you are tightly committed to a certain concept, stock is probably not going to fulfill your needs. These photos might be able to convey feelings and emotions, but they cannot show your particular product or service, your people or exactly what it is that makes your company unique.

Stock photography also has developed its own sort of language: In essence, it has a visual shorthand for thoughts that photographers think industries will find useful. For instance, what is a hacker? According to stock photography, a hacker is almost always a guy in a dark hoodie and hunched over a laptop. Want to get fancy? Throw on an overlay of blue binary and lines. It’s the difference between writing your own story or trying to assemble one from a pre-existing list of words.

Women laugh and eat salads by themselves. Business people stand next to each other, point at screens and maybe scowl thoughtfully. People make “surprised” expressions that never cross the face of a human being naturally. There’s something about a lot of generic photography that cues you in, knowingly or not, to the fact that what you’re looking at is not truly tied the the product or service being advertised. And disingenuity is rarely something you want to communicate in your advertising.

Beyond the good and the bad of stock photography, there is also the realm of the truly bizarre. How photographers come up with the idea that some of these images will be sought out, I do not know. I do know I’m glad they exist. Whether it’s a woman wearing an octopus as a wig, a man with a beard of succulent plants, a pregnant lady in a bikini skiing through a forest or a hairy, topless fellow popping out of an egg, stock photography has you covered there, too. But in the middle of a long day, after fruitlessly searching for a photo that you know must exist somewhere (seriously, why are there no stock photos of ‘90s grunge kids?), it’s always nice to have one of the true left-fielders pop up in your results. Most designers have a folder or list of these photos somewhere, and Fluid occasionally features these images on our Instagram account so they can somehow see the light of day.

So how should you look at stock photography? Is it a useful tool? A necessary evil? A lazy way out? Maybe all of these. It all comes down to how you use it.

Choose your stock photography prudently. Many photographers who license their work for stock are very talented. The good images are there — you and your designers just have to find them. If this works for your budget or your timeline, go for it. Stock can give you a sleeker, more professional look than trying to use low-res and snapshot-quality images. If you are trying to give full context to your business, have a highly specific story to tell or have a strong vision, then make the extra effort to acquire custom photography. You can talk to your audience using the exact images and words you want, and not by choosing from a pre-existing palette. Create the look that is uniquely you.

(And yes, all those examples were real)