Who, What, When, Where: Custom vs. Stock Photography & Video
“Everything in moderation”
– Me, as I open my fourth Party Size Snickers Bar.
The origin of the above quote has been traced back to the phrase “mhden agan,” which was found chiseled into a wall in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. This roughly translates to, “nothing in excess.” There’s a reason that that phrase is still standing – it’s just good advice, though the Temple of Apollo could maybe benefit from a consult with The Property Brothers. It’s applicable in a plethora of situations, too. Today, we may see it used most commonly to justify our candy addictions, but it’s also a useful reminder when applied to stock photography or videography usage.
Stock photography is an immeasurable resource, as there’s a photo for just about every situation imaginable in the various libraries of stock photography. Need a photo of a woman laughing while eating a salad? Know the Internet has you covered. In a pinch, a solid stock photo can be a worthy substitute to custom or low-quality imagery. But just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you should use it. Just like how a 5lb. bag of M&M’s doesn’t need to equate to one serving size.
The crux of stock photography is that relying on it too heavily can result in an uneven visual language, a generic identity and, in some cases, a false representation of your brand or services. Let’s break it down a further by looking at some synonyms for the word “stock:” basic, dull, common, banal, normal, ordinary, overused. These words are the stuff of creatives’ nightmares. If your goal is to excite and entice your audience, “dull” and “basic” aren’t going to cut it. Audiences crave authenticity more than anything, and if they don’t feel your passion through a photo, what reason do they have to be passionate about it? In other words, if you didn’t care enough to take out your phone or camera, compose a shot and share it, why should anyone else?
It boils down to this:
Consumers are savvier than ever.
They can sniff out the fake stuff at the speed of light, and the only way to lose a follower faster than getting political is to be bland and boring. The more often you can be authentic, the more your audience will connect and champion your mission alongside you. Nine times out of ten, custom photography will elicit a more desired response than something from a stock library. It’s like calling your bank because something is wrong with your account and being connected to a robot reading a menu; all you want is to speak to a real person so you can fix the problem and when you aren’t provided that option, it’s frustrating. You might even consider switching to a bank that offers live customer support.
Let’s dive a little deeper with some case studies:
Case study #1 – Setting
Stock vs Local restaurant
Above are two sets of images; one stock photography results for the word “tacos” and the other custom content from a Mexican restaurant’s Instagram page. Stylistically, there is nothing wrong with the stock photo. It has good composition, solid color saturation and the food looks appetizing. The imagery from the restaurant is not perfect, but it’s adequate enough. I would change things about the angle they were taken from, overall composition and layout of the food, but it gets the point across and keeps the focus on the important things like food and drink. Objectively, there is nothing wrong with them and it’s a proper representation of the experience you can expect at the restaurant.
Now, if this restaurant were to use the stock image on the left to advertise their Taco Tuesday promotion, it might garner a decent response. After all, the food looks tasty and it’s a nice image. However, right off the bat, there are some major differences between the presentation of the food in each set of images. Savvy consumers will notice that the board the tacos are served on is different and the tortilla shells are also a different color. The food is also placed on a wood table and the tables in the restaurant’s imagery are metal. So, while it’s a nice image, it doesn’t entirely line up with the aesthetic of the restaurant and might confuse patrons that seek out the restaurant for the first time.
In choosing stock photography, consider every element of an image and whether it properly represents your organization. I would sooner reuse an old image that is more telling of my business than choose a stock photo that runs the risk of misrepresenting it in some way.
Case study #2 – Servings
Stock vs Local restaurant
Here we have two sets of imagery: one a stock photo of chicken souvlaki salad and the other a photo from a local Greek restaurant. In this instance, the better of the two photos is clearly the stock photo. The composition, lighting, overall presentation and care that went into the stock photo are all missing from the restaurant’s photo. If your menu has a chicken souvlaki salad, it might seem like an obvious choice to choose the superior stock photo. At the same time, it’s not just the photo that makes this the better option. The food simply looks more appetizing. It’s been plated with some real thought, and there’s color and life to it.
Regardless, there’s still the important factor of truth in advertising. If you choose stock photography that is markedly different from the experience your patrons will receive, the imagery has become outright deceitful instead of slightly misleading like in our first Case Study. If the restaurant owner or their social media manager chose to post the stock photo, they would be doing a disservice to their clients and the restaurant itself. If the photo shows ingredients or preparations not available in the real menu item, you have lied to your customer and opened the door to negative reviews and loss of trust.
If stock photography exists, but there’s a stark contrast between what it highlights and what is actually available, avoid using stock imagery. The negative impact of deceiving customers can send shockwaves that ripple for far longer than any one, visual misstep is worth.
Case study #3 – Surrounding smiles
Stock vs Local care facility
Here, we have an instance of the proper usage of stock photography. Often times in situations dealing with patient services, it can be difficult to obtain situational photography. Legislation like HIPAA protects a patient’s right to privacy and without waivers or release forms, the use of an individual’s identity is often off limits.
Stock photography is handy in these cases because it can serve as an accurate substitute of services available at a facility that provides elder care or assisted living. It’s difficult to tell personal stories through stock imagery, which makes harder to connect with your audience.
If you have the ability to share photos of events, patients, activities or anything that helps to humanize your story and your brand, it will always connect on a deeper level with your intended audience.
In cases where it might be difficult – or simply not an option – to take photography or video of client services, stock photography is an acceptable substitute, so long as they provide an accurate depiction.
Choosing the right stock image
Okay, so you’ve decided a stock photo is the right choice for you. You’ve even landed on the perfect image for your needs and you’re ready to publish. Not so fast. The Internet moves at lightning speed and meme culture does not care about your looming campaign or website relaunch. One day a harmless stock photo is minding its own business and the next it’s the viral meme du jour. Take for instance the “distracted boyfriend” stock photo. It’s a fairly standard, albeit silly, photo. One of likely hundreds from a library of random poses and faces from the same shoot involving these particular models. Still, something about the composition of the photo and the reactions on each model’s face made it ripe for meme-ification.
It’s impossible to know every meme and instance of stock photography being used in a humorous manner. But, it’s a good rule of thumb to get in the habit of vetting your images. Reverse-image searches on Google and sites like knowyourmeme.com can be helpful in preventing yourself from stepping in a mess. Let’s say the last photo in the above collage was inadvertently used in an advertisement for marriage counseling or domestic violence services. The couple featured are now synonymous with the “distracted boyfriend” meme – they’re even wearing the same clothes from that infamous photo, too. The use of a separate photo featuring those models could be viewed as a joke and your message could be lost. At best, it becomes a joke for the Internet to skewer; at worst it could come off as distasteful, depending on the intended subject matter.
Know the W’s
At the end of the day, custom photography will almost always be a bigger benefit to your business and your brand. It’s important to remember that putting content up for the sake of putting content up is not reason enough to do it. Think about your visual identity. These images are an extension of your brand and if you place a large emphasis on presentation, the imagery you create or choose to represent should receive the same level of care.
If you’re unable to create custom photography or if limitations and restrictions prevent you from doing so, there are stock photography resources that provide high quality, professional photography at reasonable rates that are still able to tell the story you need them to – for you.
No matter what, choose images that are an accurate representation of what you do. Capture your space and the smiles within as authentically as possible, and when stock is the way to go, make sure to do your due diligence so no one looks at your website and says, “what do you meme”?