How to Be Better Than Bad Stock Photography

Adrian Dubler hates stock photography. He told me this over the phone as we discussed his company’s recent study about visual content. Dubler is the CEO of Foap, which connects brands to freelance photographers. “I can only guess why bad stock photos have stuck around so long,” he said, laughing at some of the examples I brought up: a woman laughing with salad, and five people in suits high-fiving all at once. “Most people engage with brands they feel are genuine in their messaging, so to be honest, I don’t know why rejecting stock photography is a new idea.”

Though many marketers and publishers still lean heavily on stock photography to illustrate their work online, that reliance may eventually change. This year, Getty Images partnered with AI platform Cortex to determine which colors, framing, imagery, and keywords work best with different demographics. According to early results, marketers who use AI to find imagery “outperform their industry benchmarks by up to 300 percent.” Many agree that the stock photos we often see adorning corporate hand-outs and Powerpoint presentations aren’t the most dynamic. Technology could help find better alternatives.

Bad stock photography is so immediately recognizable in its bland, stiff-looking lack of context that it inspired its own subreddit. All of that stilted imagery seems to be set in a world where every wall is stark white and every team of coworkers uses a single laptop to get things done simultaneously. Oh, and that one woman is there—you know the one—the model who looks absolutely psyched out of her mind about Curves gym, Costco, salads, adding Spanish to her resume, and boxing during the holidays.

Because they’re often categorized by a basic emotion or environment when they’re collected, stock photos often end up in the uncanny valley, a place where human-looking figures do inhuman-looking things. They can look as though an alien or an algorithm mixed up a bunch of random facts about humanity and spat out a strange combination like “too happy businessman.”

“The images look divorced from the average person’s daily life,” Dubler said. “They can’t really convey a brand’s message to consumers, and we live in a world where most consumers want to experience a brand’s personality.”

The data backs him up, at least in the sense that visual content is rapidly becoming more important to brands and consumers. Contently’s 2018 report on visual content, created in partnership with Libris by PhotoShetler, demonstrated an increasing demand for better photography and video. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they always use a visual in their content, and 70 percent said they noticed an improvement in their marketing’s ROI after adding visuals. But where are small companies supposed to find images if stock photography has become so cliché?

A curated collection

Part of the reason stock photography lives on is the fact that it’s readily available online, and it’s often comparatively cheap (and sometimes free). Using stock photos is easy for small brands whose content strategies are in their infancy, and it looks feasible enough for companies that still underestimate the importance of unique design. Contently, full disclosure, uses some stock photography, but also incorporates custom graphics and original photography.

When we choose stock images, we typically use Unsplash, a photo service with curated collections. After some time spent testing out our options, Contently’s team concluded that Unsplash offered more artistic and editorial style than the standard stock schlock.

Annie Spratt, a curator at Unsplash, told me that her team searches for visuals in their database which “feature more creative and soulful imagery” than stock photos. “The biggest clichés have to be the accentuated over-expressions and the lack of creativity,” Spratt said. “There’s a real lack in imagination when you search for a stock photo of ‘happy’ only to find hundreds of photos of grinning people who always look pretty unnatural and slightly creepy.”

Readers on the internet know within a few nanoseconds whether they find an image effective or not. As Unsplash contributor Andrew Neel wrote recently, “Our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text.”

unsplash photo skyline

Photo by Roberto Nickson / Unsplash

In order to parse through images quickly and choose appropriate visuals, Spratt pointed to Unsplash’s unique collections. “Warm & Muted [comprises] over 500 warm-toned images that are more muted and moody,” she explained. “Just Add Type [allows for a] blank space, and the images are perfect for typographers, calligraphers, and hand lettering specialists. One Color collects striking imagery that features one main color.”

Freelance collaboration

If you want to ensure your content has the brightest and most engaging photography adorning it, going right to the source isn’t a bad idea.

Contently’s talent network doesn’t just include reporters and bloggers; we foster connections between brands and visual artists who can customize and elevate their content. Working directly with a photographer who can study a brand and express its mission through their lens offers an advantage, especially when you consider most companies are drawing from the same pool of stock images.

unsplash stock photography

Photo by Nick Karvounis / Unsplash

“Avoiding stock imagery leads to better returns on investment and cost effectiveness,” Dubler added. “It helps set your brand apart from the countless others using stock images.” For example, financial services company Deluxe sends photographers to showcase exemplary customers for a content hub they call Small Business Revolution. Amtrak’s branded magazine, The National, features original photography, and in some cases, original art from cartoonists. Red Bull’s Red Bulletin features original travel and lifestyle photos in almost every piece of content.

When you’re choosing a great photographer, the freelance hire ought to be an artist who can think on their feet. ” Nothing too fancy or overproduced,” Dubler said,”and their images have to feel like they came out by chance or were found through intuition. Someone who enjoys telling stories will produce the right photos, whether that story is branded or not.”

Image by Guilherme Vasconcelos / Unsplash

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