The Pros and Cons of Using Stock Photography

Photo Editor Working on Computer at Desk in Office

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

Despite stock houses profiting from their photos every year, most big agencies rarely touch them. But why is it so universally hated by the top dogs and loved by smaller shops? Before diving into the issues, let's look at what stock photography is.

Basic Definition

Stock photography is like clothing you buy off the rack at a popular department store. No matter how beautiful it looks, you won't be the only person wearing that design.

Stock photos are taken without any assignment or brief from an agency or client. Photographers 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

Stock photography is generally considered a poor substitute for a custom photo shoot. The shots are taken in advance and delivered "as is," leaving no chance to redirect the subject matter, adjust the lighting, or take the shot from a different angle. And that's just the beginning. Here are some of the biggest problems with stock photos and illustration:

  • Stock Photography Is Not Original: Not even close. Photos are never taken with specific products or ideas in mind and usually are vague in execution. Search sites like Getty Images or iStockPhoto for something like "happy family" or "playing with pets." You'll be greeted with many photos that all look similar, with varying degrees of quality.
  • Stock Photographs Can Be Bought by Anyone: The big problem with this is brand identity. If you produce anything using a stock photograph, be it a flyer or a billboard, you are using images 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 same images. That's not good for standing out. You can sometimes negotiate exclusive rights, but those rights come at a hefty price and will run out at some point.
  • Stock Photography Often Is Cliche: Look through any stock photo site, and you will be bombarded with tired old images of businesspeople balancing on tightropes, families laughing in front of TVs, and people pointing at something in the distance. If you have an excellent idea for a campaign, you almost certainly will not find it executed in a stock photo library. And if you do, remember that anyone can use it.

The Advantages

Stock images do have their uses, which usually come down to speed, budget, and media. Here are some of the biggest advantages of stock photos and illustration:

  • 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. It would be a waste of time when you consider how many ideas are presented. You can get an idea across quickly by comping together various stock images to create a unique image. Of course, it's rough and low-resolution for any use, but it's enough to portray what the final image can look like. Stock photo libraries typically allow you to 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.
  • For Brochures, Websites, Editorials, and Smaller Jobs, Stock Is Fine: If you have a limited budget, stock can be a nice fallback for the promotional 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 vast stock library, and is a great way to lead into the subject matter. An expensive shoot would be cost prohibitive and take way too long. 

The Two Main Types

Many types of stock images are available these days, but the main two remain rights-managed and royalty-free. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and the costs differ greatly between the two.

  • Rights-Managed (RM) Stock Photography Is More Expensive: With RM stock, you have a 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 royalty-free shots. But RM shots often are higher quality.
  • Royalty-Free (RF) Stock Photography Is Less Expensive: It's worth noting that free does not mean no cost. It simply means the image is free of royalties and 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 generally are not as well executed as RM shots.