Amazingly, some stock photography doesn’t suck.
So why hire a pro for custom shots?
There was a time when every single stock photograph in the whole universe was an embarrassment to the very idea of imagery. I am still haunted by the memory of disturbingly phony models posing stiffly, their unnaturally white teeth glaring like the fangs of deranged wolves.
We have come a long way since then. It is now possible to buy quality stock photos at low cost. Many talented photographers sell their work to stock houses. When companies like Red Letter buy those images, the license often allows unlimited use on websites, brochures and any other form of commercial communication including blimps and tattoos.
Startups and small businesses love stock—and who can blame them? These companies scrutinize every expenditure. When Red Letter proposes to a cash-strapped client that we hire a pro to shoot custom photos for their website or sales kit, it is so tempting for them to say, “You mean I can pay $25 per shot for stock but you’re suggesting I should I pay much more for new pictures? [Pause] Have you seen my office? Do I look like the Queen of England?” (None of our clients have stated the case in exactly those words but we have heard similar expressions of sensible budget stewardship.)
We totally get that. And we use stock photography for our clients all the time. Not just because some companies simply can’t afford custom photography, but also because hey—if you’ve got persistence and a discerning eye, you can find some excellent stock photos.
So should we just tell pro photographers to learn a new skill like quilting? Um, no. Partly because quilting pays squat and partly because there is still a vast gulf between even the best stock photography and custom images conceived and executed by a talented professional. A pro is engaged by the client company and its marketing partner to lend his or her vision to the illumination of a unique brand that no other company owns.
A top-notch pro brings not just technical expertise and visual flair but an irreplaceable understanding of what they are there to convey. It is literally impossible for a stock photographer to have this awareness, regardless of their talent. They don’t know how their images are going to be used.
Even competently-executed stock shots often exude phoniness. Did you see the movie Unfinished Business? Neither did I. But I heard about it. It was a major release in 2015 and starred Vince Vaughan as the head of a sales team. The promotional campaign for the movie featured images of the cast in blatant parodies of the stock photos we see all around us.
The producers knew that we would recognize the sheer vacuousness of so many business-themed stock photos. They trusted us to look at these fake pictures of office workers and think “Yeah, there is something creepy about these people. For one thing, who could possibly be that happy about typing?”
There are so many clues that give stock-ness away. Is there a team of suited businesspeople arranged in a “V” formation, with the Head Honcho front and center, arms crossed, glaring confidently at the camera? Is there a transparent attempt in a group shot to represent all ethnicities, with bonus points for models that could pass for two or three? Any handshakes going on? Are there mini-blinds everywhere? (Check out Huffington Post’s “This Week in Ridiculous Stock Photos” for more fun.)
And another thing: the good stock photos wind up all over the place. Good designers see a good shot and they buy it. If they buy exclusive rights, it is now off the market. But if they just buy the image and use it, there’s a chance your audience will view your marketing materials and realize they’ve seen the pictures before.
I’m not making that up. It happened to us. We were designing a brochure for a client and we did suggest custom photos but it wasn’t in the cards for this project. So we sifted through the available stock images (we needed pictures of trucks) and after looking at 999 bad ones, we found a really good one and placed it in the layout. Everybody loved it but just when we were getting ready to send the files to the printer, we discovered that one of our client’s competitors used the same image in their brochure! We thank the gods of marketing that we caught that in the nick of time.
Later, that same client decided to bite the bullet. We hired a talented pro for two days of shooting. I was there with our client, a smart guy who perhaps still wondered whether the expenditure was going to be worth it. After the first few shots I turned to him and began a question: “Do you see—“ He interrupted me: “Yes!” He has never looked back. We’ll be using that portfolio of awesome pictures for years—in brochures, trade show booths, websites and more.
Your company is unlike any other company. It deserves its own authentic imagery. If your small business needs a new HVAC system and you’ve got to choose—sure, get the air conditioning and use stock for now (with the help of an experienced designer to find the good ones). But recognize the value of custom photography that represents your company authentically and put it on your “someday soon” list.