Skip to Content Skip to Footer
What Do Your Stock Photos Say About You?

What Do Your Stock Photos Say About You?

Christopher Gillespie

man's feet hanging over side of swimming pool

Reusing the same stock photos as everyone else is far too common. Here’s where to discover new visual asset pipelines to create better custom content.

The saying today that “everyone is a content creator” belies the fact that the titanic slug of imagery that oozes through the internet and powers the half-trillion dollar marketing industry can all be traced back to just a few sources. That’s our visual supply chain, and it’s in critical disrepair.

In an age of more platforms, more channels, more formats, and the need to publish at blistering speed on all of them, good visuals are vital. Their authenticity, from the feelings they evoke to the people they feature, can be the difference between an ad being clicked or an account being followed. But if you aren’t considering how yours are sourced, they can repel just as easily as they attract.

Every marketer today needs to be asking, “Where do my visuals come from and what are they actually saying?” As I’ve found through my research, the story isn’t always clear.

man wearing animal skull sitting at small dining table holding cigarette
Photo by Blake Bronstad.

A Deal with the Thumbs-Up Devil

The first tool in the visual marketing kit is the stock photo. From journalists at the BBC to the editorial team at IBM, nearly everyone draws from the massive, royalty-free databases of the top 30 or so stock photography sites. These obviate the need for your social media team to, say, hire a photographer to snap a shot of someone in a black hoodie at a laptop every time you write about a cyberattack. But the photos also get used by the same people in the same spaces—a lot.

pie chart showing estimated library size of stock photo vendors, as of 2020
The biggest stock photo vendors have hundreds of millions of images, but there’s a shocking amount of overlap. The number of original images is much, much lower. Data via Stock Photo Secrets.

On Unsplash, its first 400,000 photos were downloaded an average of 775 times each. You may not think this would pose a high risk of you posting the same photo as someone else anywhere in the world. But those downloads aren’t evenly distributed; in fact, the top photos receive a disproportionate number of downloads and have been used millions of times.

That means if you come across a photo, it’s likely because it’s a featured photo on one of these sites, and it’s featured because a lot of people are using it. Now, layer in the fact that a photo that’s relevant for you is also likely relevant for your competitor and it’s actually quite likely that you’re scraping the bottom of the same shallow bucket. Some stock photo models are so overused they have their own mock fan clubs.

Consumers notice reuse of a well-worn photo and can suss out which ones are stock. Consider the photo below: Can you tell which smile is fake?

Photo courtesy of Paul Ekman.

If you guessed the one on the left, congratulations! You can spot stock. That’s because all of us are wired with machinery to detect what the psychologist Paul Ekman termed micro expressions. These are tiny “tells”—like someone’s orbicularis oculi muscle not activating when they smile, which triggers a subconscious alarm that informs us that we’re being deceived. This is the source of the notorious stock effect: It looks manufactured because it is. The emotions are fake and every detail is “curated to create a distinctly un-curated vibe,” according to Vice, which makes it all feel curated. If these are the sort of visuals you use to tell a story on Instagram, for example, you are subconsciously telling followers to be suspicious.

Not all companies rely entirely on stock photography, but it accounts for an increasing share of imagery. Brands with in-house production teams are struggling to keep up with the raging demand for visuals. If you think of your company’s visual assets as a pool, the demands of digital publishing are a piano-sized drain.

There’s also the issue of stock photo subjects being painfully, overwhelmingly white.

“It’s possible to find empowered, diverse women in stock photography, but it’s a real slog to get there,” writes T.L. Stanley for Adweek in an article about a partnership between Dove, Getty and a female-led agency to shoot diverse stock and undo some of the perceptual harm wrought by years of editors and algorithms.

One of many worrisome Google search results encountered in my research.

Most stock images are also predominantly heteronormative. Search “family” on the stock photo site Shutterstock and the result is hardly representative of the world today, to say nothing of evolving social norms. Stock repositories also come up short when portraying workplaces with the accuracy and specificity that customers demand.

On the military social network RallyPoint, there are daily jokes about brands trying to advertise U.S. veteran discounts while using a stock photo of a Russian tank. Or consider this series of tweets where scientists ridicule stock science photos that involve improbably-bright colored liquids and unfathomable procedures. The Twitter hashtag #BadStockPhotosOfMyJob is a gold mine for such gaffes.

And if all the above doesn’t make you queasy about stock, how these platforms obtain those photos might.

man in athletic wear sitting and checking watch
Photo by Blake Bronstad.

A Highly Edited Echo Chamber

Stock photos are there because someone somewhere with a camera is trying to make a quick buck (just kidding: contributors are often paid in cents) by showing you something you expect to see. Contributors follow and anticipate news cycles to know what will be in demand. A news story about a drought-induced avocado shortage, for instance, can trigger an avalanche of avocado-related submissions. “Stock photos are art imitating life—creators capture photos that they think will be hot. It’s sort of like betting on stocks,” writes Vox.

These multi-sided marketplaces are essentially squeezing sellers (the photographers) into doing the unpaid work of anticipating what buyers want. A contributor has to deliver many photos in the hopes of being paid for one or two. It’s like Uber, but if the drivers are only paid for every hundredth ride.

There is also human-induced bias as a result of hand-curation. Each stock photo site has human editors (who are sometimes preceded by an algorithmic sniff-test) who select photos based on what people are searching for on their platform. Some, like Shutterstock, use algorithms to anticipate where these trends are headed and put out calls to creators. This drives everything toward the mean—male CEOs in suits smiling at computers—and makes for a massively warped view of the world. It is not at all the type of market that caters to the long tail—that’s you—searching for a photo that represents your brand, fits your aesthetic and gets your industry right.

By definition, one cannot build a brand on stock unless you happen to sell stock photos.

two pairs of hands holding glasses of water with straws
Photo by Blake Bronstad.

What’s a Marketer to Do?

Marketers need to find new, less troubled visual asset pipelines. Some stock photo sites are innovating, though slowly. If you search for “family” on Getty Images, you get a surprising array of diversity. That is the result of public criticism. Many of the bigger brands are launching offshoot brands to produce stock that doesn’t feel like it, which have received some positive press but are, quixotically, still stock.

Perhaps a reversion to the 1980s is in order? There are many marketing and advertising agencies whose teams used to produce most of all marketing imagery before the internet. They certainly have the skills, equipment and expertise. But they too, like in-house production teams, are groaning under the demands and speed of modern marketing.

“Four content pieces per year has turned into 4,000 … and budgets have not gone up,” said Brad Jakeman, then-president of PepsiCo, at an event a few years ago. Agency prices haven’t exactly dropped to match. For teams running high-volume ads on Facebook, where imagery trends and tastes change every week, agencies with long project timelines have been pushed out of the picture.

There are automatic photo-generation tools, which draw photos from your brand’s social media feeds. But user-generated content (UGC) suffers from the issue that most stock content does: It’s not always high quality and rarely consistent. And if it’s from influencers, it’s the influencer’s brand—not yours.

couple in hammock at night underneath palm trees
Photo by Blake Bronstad.

Go Custom

So here’s the solution: Make your own photos. Rather than dip into shared buckets, marketers at leading brands such as GE and Carlsberg are increasingly building their own. Some are commissioning entire custom photo and video libraries of their locations, products, people or customers that the entire business can draw from—and which is rights-managed or royalty-free and on-brand. See the example below, a photo shot by custom content photographer Blake Bronstad, who pointed me in this direction.

The infrastructure that makes this economical are what are known as visual content creation platforms, which constitute a booming category within the visual asset market. These platforms harness the same forces that create the demand for all this imagery—millions of people networked together—to create it. They curate networks of geographically-distributed photographers and producers who work on contract.

Custom content platforms can afford serious advantages. Distributed photographers means less need to pay for plane tickets. Software means it’s possible for a team of one to manage dozens of projects. Contract work means the service is pay-per-use, and a large pool of creators means projects are done in weeks, not months.

Take Snapwire, which relies on a network of 800,000 photographers, models, producers and videographers. These contractors are on call and notified of projects through an app. Snapwire manages shoots through a team of project managers who act as a sort of outsourced agency, but the company also has an API to more or less automate the process. This is how the food delivery app DoorDash is able to produce an endless stream of high quality photos for hundreds of thousands of restaurants. When a restaurant signs up, it triggers a project. It’s also how The Royal Bank of Canada produced a library of Canada-specific photos (no pesky Golden Gate Bridges in the background) and how TAG Heuer found two models for a high-end nautical-themed photo shoot.

overhead view of two women standing on edge of sailboat
Photo by Blake Bronstad.

“With custom, all usual constraints aren’t there,” Snapwire CEO Chad Newell said in an interview. “You can coordinate a global shoot with dozens of photographers all around the world, featuring your product, before your next campaign launches. That sort of speed, accuracy, and scale just wasn’t possible before.”

The great advantage of custom visuals is that they are, by definition, on-brand. But marketers can also rely on local experts. A common project on Snapwire is for a brand to ask locals to snap iconic locations that reflect their community. If that sort of authenticity sells, as Snapwire claims it does, it may be worth the expense of custom—which my research shows might be on-par with the cost of purchasing stock.

Stock photo companies make notoriously fat margins. Eighty percent of a stock photo sale goes to the platform, 20% goes to the creator. Collectively, stock platforms are projected to soon be making $4 billion per year selling photos that range from $30 to $500 depending on file size. Thanks to a lack of overhead, custom visual content platforms can often get that cost down to as little as $150 per asset.

Custom is not a cure-all. In-house teams with a studio for high-volume product shoots have their place. Agencies, with their promotional resources and creative expertise, have their place. UGC has its place. But for a surprising number of scenarios, it offers an upside.

What Does the Future Hold?

Perhaps one day we’ll exclusively use machine-generated content, if the popularity of the site is any indication. It uses an algorithm to generate a composite face from many real photos. The site Generated Photos has used a similar method to generate 100,000 photos that are free for use for attribution. You can try them out.

But until artificial photos cross the uncanny valley and do more than generate headshots, custom content creation is a bet lots of marketers are happily taking. It’s created based on their designs; can feature their product, customers or locations; is relatively fast; and most importantly, it’s of their brand. If it involves actors, they likely have more context and preparation than stock models asked to trapeze through a rapid-fire series of stiff poses. And it’s not markedly different in cost, while being much higher pay for the photographer.

So what do your visuals say about you? Hopefully something much more profound than a bunch of people in suits with unconvincing grins all high-fiving at once.

Lead image by Blake Bronstad.

Chris co-founded Fenwick (formerly Find A Way Media)—an upscale content studio that specializes in clear and precise writing for B2B marketers. Amateur historian, aspiring outdoorsman, occasional baker. Join his newsletter for workplace writing wisdom: