It’s a stock photo world: disruption and adoption


Nick de Sherbinin

In a previous post, I explored the early uses of stock photography. Now let’s look at the factors that led to its widespread popularity today and the creative challenges that have arisen as a result.  In the mid-‘90s, agencies and studios moved en masse to digital design and production on Macs and PCs. Now-quaint magic marker sketches for creative presentations were tossed out the window – the digital design era had arrived, and stock photography was given a wide-open door to grow opportunistically.
Designers began to receive thick catalogs from Photodisc, the pioneer in rights-free images. Catalogs were filled with images categorized by subject. Specific image collections like ‘common objects’ and ‘families’ could be ordered on a $300 CD containing 50-100 images. Give designers easy access to thousands of high-resolution digital photos at a low fixed cost with an unlimited license for usage, and you can guess what happened next.

Creative work is streamlined and presentations are tightened up

With high-resolution photos integrated at the beginning of the design process, creative development and presentations tightened up considerably. Out went rough sketches on layout paper, in came full-color ‘comps’ of digital designs printed on the new color printers and copiers just becoming available. By combining high-quality color printing with ‘real’ photos and ‘real’ copy shown in ‘real’ type fonts, creative presentation work became virtually indistinguishable from the finished product.

For clients, stock photos provided reassurance – they no longer had to imagine what a rough layout sketch represented. At the same time, many agencies were happy to remove the uncertainty – not to mention the time and effort – associated with hiring a photographer, negotiating costs and editing images. Suddenly, a concept could move from presentation to production faster than ever before. And clients were quite happy that rights-free stock photos cost next to nothing. 

A short step to online ubiquity

Marketers of stock photography struck gold with the commercial adaption of the Internet. Today, creatives at digital, design and advertising shops first stop for imagery is stock photo sites. In addition to photography, many sites now sell music tracks, video clips and digital effects and illustrations as well. Pricing, always low, has shrunk to single digits, and today most stock photo firms like iStock and Shutterstock offer cheap monthly subscriptions.

Supply side is bottomless

The availability of affordable high-quality digital cameras has democratized image creation. Hundreds of new photos are added to stock site daily. And the market is constantly evolving. Image creators – both professionals and amateurs – are swamping the market with imagery of every description. Stock photography vendors range from multi-national behemoths like Getty Images and Alamy to cheap subscription websites like iStock and Shutterstock to small crowd-sourced endeavors like Unsplash and Negative Space.

Creativity takes a hit

The client side

There’s no question that clients influence the type of work that agencies produce, and, as cheap, rights-free stock photography became more readily available and the quality of imagery increased, clients took note. Line items in creative budgets for photo shoots got slashed altogether. “Why can’t you use a stock photo?” became not a question but a mandate.

On the agency side

There’s no arguing that creativity is at the heart of the advertising and design business. But something insidious happened with the confluence of digital design and rights-free stock availability. Designers took the easy route. It goes something like this: spend 15 minutes searching online, pick an image from thousands of options, buy it for $3 or $30 or $300, load it into Photoshop, optimize it for a specific use, drop it in an InDesign or Photoshop layout, and voila!

It’s no wonder that we all see so much look-alike creative work. While there are many principled creatives working today and some do work for clients with products or budgets that require and support commissioned photography, the vast majority of creative work is turned out with time and budget constraints. An entire generation of creatives have never picked up a sketchpad, developed a visual idea from their imagination and pondered the virtues of varying concepts, tossing out the bad and developing the promising ideas. To a certain extent, creative communications has moved from a craft-based process to a production line. Cheap stock photography has played some part in that lamentable trend.

What’s so bad about stock?

The pervasiveness of stock imagery has meant that many small businesses and design firms have access to high-quality images for web, print, advertising, you name it – and that’s a good thing.

But, I see a couple of problems here:

  1. Every brand needs to stand for something. To do that, its style and story should differentiate the brand from its competitors. That’s tough to achieve when the starting point for brand advertising and design is an iStock search. A look-alike brand is often the result. Marketing commoditization is the price paid.
  2. Once a market gets used to cheap-and-plentiful, costly-and-unique is a tough sell. Clients and designers have become so used to cheap imagery that fresh ideas dependent on commissioned photography face an uphill battle. It takes an enlightened marketer and a brave agency to go to the mat for budgets that let the best ideas take flight.

As with every game-changing disruptive force, the world soon adapts and we all move on. In the creative industry, cheap stock photography is now part of the furniture. It just might be time to rearrange it a little bit.