It’s a stock photo world: we just live in it


Nick de Sherbinin

Part 1: How we got here – The use of stock photography has profoundly affected the field of creative communications over the past decades. I thought it might be interesting to explore the factors that led to its adoption, the challenges its use presents to designers, and ways in which marketers and communicators can avoid the more obvious stock photo pitfalls and best integrate it their work.As I was driving out of the Philadelphia airport recently and passed billboard after billboard, I noticed a visual pattern – large stock photo images of attractive, smiling men, women or children. The products and services being advertised were…what? A healthcare plan? A bank? A junk removal service? A nonprofit’s fun-run? And what do all those shiny, happy people reveal about the brands and ad agencies that employ them in their communications?

To better understand why we live in a stock photo world, let’s first start at the beginning.

Stock as last resort

For years, stock photography agencies supplied either topical or historical news photos that were difficult or expensive to go out and shoot – a monkey in a jungle, a mountain climber atop a peak, FDR smiling confidently. Art buyers at ad agencies put out an image request to a few stock photo shops – there were several in Boston and many more nationally – and a few days later several FedEx packages stuffed with plastic sleeves of 35 mm slides arrived. The art buyer or art director pored over the tiny images on a light table with a handheld magnifying ‘lupe’ – now there are two quaint anachronisms some may remember – and made several selections for client consideration.

Once an image was settled on, the stock shop calculated fees for a license based on specific media criteria – number of publications, total circulation of the pubs, number of insertions and usage period, for instance. Usage fees could run into the high 4-figures for larger campaigns.

Usage fees spread

Commissioned photography was the norm for ad agencies for many years. A creative team developed a concept, and the art director hired a photographer to take a specific image that brought the idea to life. While licensing fees were sometimes negotiated with top commercial photographers, usage was seldom discussed with the vast majority of commercial  ‘shooters’. In many cases the client paid for location fees, model fees, a makeup artist, a stylist, wardrobe options, photo assistants, Polariods and film, the processing and, yes, lunch. Most photographers made a living on their professional fee.

The Copyright Act of 1976 legislated that creative work was the sole property of the creator. Suddenly many commercial photographers saw a way to increase revenues and photo licensing terms entered the conversation. The same questions that asked by stock photo agencies were now asked by photographers. Where will the photo appear? How long will it be used? How many times will it be used?

Understandably, conversations about incremental usage costs with clients were uncomfortable for agencies. Going back to the client constantly for additional photo usage fees as ad campaigns were renewed wasn’t something an account executive enjoyed. Clients ended up paying more than they anticipated for photography that they had funded in its entirety to begin with. There was ample room for resentment.

Tighter budgets, more scrutiny

The 80s and 90s were a period of consolidation and efficiency in all lines of business, Bottom-liners who counted beans carefully took the reins of companies on the agency and client side.

One of the many marketing line items that received close scrutiny was photography costs, and it, along with a host of other costs, were subject to downward pressure.

The search for relief

With concerns rising over photo costs by both agencies and clients, the commercial photography business was about to be rocked by a force that disrupted the commercial image market.

It came in the form of a thick, printed catalog that arrived in ad agency mailrooms and a small compact disc that designers slipped into their Mac’s CD player.

Next: It’s a stock photo world: Part 2: Disruption