The Case For and Against Stock Photography

Stock Photography Has Its Uses - Know What They Are.

Choosing Stock
Choosing Stock. Getty Images

If you say stock photography to anyone worth their salt in an ad agency creative department, they will likely look at you with a mixture of contempt and fear. Mostly contempt.

Despite stock houses making many millions of dollars from stock every year, most of the big agencies rarely touch it. But why is it so universally hated by the top dogs, and loved by smaller shops? Before diving into the issues, let's take a look at what stock photography actually is.

Basic Definition. 

Perhaps the simplest way to explain stock photography is to use the analogy of a suit or dressmaker vs clothing you buy "off the shelf" in a store. If you want an outfit that fits you perfectly, you go to a tailor and or dressmaker, who takes your measurements and creates something just for you. It fits you like it fits no one else. If you just want something quick, you can spend a lot less money and buy something that's roughly your size, but will not fit precisely. Stock photography is that "off the shelf option."

With stock photography, the photos are taken without any kind of assignment or brief from an agency of client. The photographer will take shots, and submit them to stock houses to be licensed. These shots can then be purchased for a specific price based on usage, or a flat fee. The shots are available to anyone who wants to buy them, resulting in some shots being used over and over again by many different clients.


The Problems with Stock Photography

The major problem most people in the creative department have with stock photography is that it's a poor substitute for a custom photo shoot. It's never a perfect solution, it's simply something that is a close approximation of the idea originally conceived. To be honest, even that is being too kind to stock.

As the shots are taken in advance and delivered "as is," there is no chance to redirect the subject matter, adjust the lighting, or take the shot from a different angle. And that's only just the beginning. Here are the biggest 3 problems with stock photos and illustration:

  • Stock Photography is NOT Original.
    Not even close. The photograph is taken by a photographer who has an idea for a shot, or series of ​shots, and submits the work to a stock house. He or she will be reimbursed for that shot in a variety of ways, which include a flat fee, a percentage or a combination of the two. But the shot was never intended for a specific idea, and as such is usually vague in its execution. Just take a look at a site like ​Getty Images or iStockPhoto and search for something like "happy family" or "playing with pets." You'll be greeted with thousands of shots that all look similar, with varying degrees of quality.
  • Stock Photographs Can Be Bought By Anyone.
    So what, right? Well, the big problem with that is one of brand identity. If you produce anything using a stock photograph, be it a flyer or a billboard, you are using stock that is available for anyone else to buy, and use. Many smaller companies have seen their ads look and feel like ads from other companies because they contain the exact same images. Use stock photos and you risk looking like any number of other businesses out there, and that's not good for standing out. You can negotiate exclusive rights, sometimes, but those rights come at a hefty price and will run out at some point.
  • Stock Photography is Often Cliché.
    Stock may have some strengths, but originality is not one of them. Sadly, if you look through any stock photo site you will be bombarded with tired old ideas of businessmen balancing on tightropes, families laughing in front of TVs, and people pointing at something in the distance. If you have a great idea for a campaign, you will almost certainly not find it executed in a stock photo library. And if you do, see problem #2. Anyone can use it.

The Advantages of Stock Photography

Having said all of that, and personally not being a fan of stock for ad campaigns, it does have its uses. And the reasons for that usually come down to speed, budget, and media.

  • Stock Photos are GREAT for Comps and Mock-Ups.
    This is the biggest reason creatives like stock. When you're dummying an idea for a client presentation, there's no time or money to do a shoot. In fact, it would be a waste of time when you consider how many ideas are presented. That's why stock is great. You can get across the idea quickly by comping together various stock images to create a unique image. Of course, it's too rough and low-res for any use, but it's very helpful. And every stock photo library lets you save low-res comps for free.
  • Stock Photography is Cheaper and Quicker Than a Photo Shoot.
    In most cases, it takes several weeks (or even months) to coordinate an original photo shoot. And that takes money too. With stock photography, everything's done for you and ready to go. All you have to do is figure out the price and get client approval.
  • Stock Photography is Available for Instant Download.
    When time is of the essence, stock is available immediately. Even the largest files can be downloaded very quickly with today's blazing Internet speeds.
  • For Brochures, Websites, Editorials, and Smaller Tactics, Stock is Fine.
    As always in advertising, you have to pick your battles. If you don't have a big budget and need to figure out where to spend the money, stock can be a nice fallback for the tactics that aren't getting mass media attention. Plus, you don't always need an expensive custom shoot to make your point. Take this article. The image comes from Getty, a huge stock library, and is a great way to lead into the subject matter. There is no need for an expensive shoot, it would be cost prohibitive and take way too long. 

The Two Main Types of Stock Photography

There are many ways available these days, but the main two are still Rights-Managed and Royalty-Free. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and the costs differ greatly between the two.

  • Rights Managed Stock Photography (More Expensive)
    With RM stock, you have a whole lot of fees to take into consideration. The final price for the stock image will depend on many factors, including usage, media, duration of the campaign, print run, location, size, industry type and exclusivity. For this reason, RM images can cost many times more than RF shots. But RM shots are often higher quality.
  • Royalty-Free Stock Photography (Less Expensive)
    It's worth noting that "free" does not mean "no cost." It simply means the image is free of royalties, and is available to purchase for a one-time, fixed fee. You can use an RF image multiple times and there is no time limit. However, there are limits to the number of times the image can be reproduced, and royalty-free shots are generally not as well executed as RM shots.