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Should you use Stock Photos or Custom Photography?

Photo from Motherboard blog

When I first began working as a designer, I’d often work with photographers to create a specific image or photograph a product or display for use in advertising or packaging. I would sketch out my concept, and the photographer would create an image to meet my specifications, often improving my original concept with his or her own artistry. Occasionally I would purchase stock photos, usually for something not easily accessible, such as the flag waving over the Capitol. Stock images were selected by looking through print catalogs of images, or viewed on cd. Priced according to usage, the price of these rights-managed photos could be quite expensive.

These days, it’s easy to browse stock photography online, and there are many inexpensive stock photography websites. Professional and amateur photographers sell their photos online and at an affordable cost. is one of the most well known sites, selling royalty free images. Royalty free means you pay for rights to use the image, not the distribution of the image.
Getty Images recently made 35 million of their images available at no charge for web use, providing  an embed code is used that will link the image to Getty’s website. It’s now easy and common practice to purchase inexpensive stock photos and add visual interest to your website or print collateral.

(Click here to read a blog post I wrote about rights-managed, royalty free, and free images)

There are some disadvantages to using stock photos. Many stock images look clichéd or dated. These often laughable images have become fodder for blog content, such as “Stock Photo Cliches To Make You Laugh Alone With Salad.  There has even been a song created. “The Clichéd Stock Photo Song.”

photo from OnPoint blog

Another pitfall is since the photos are not rights-managed, your competitors may be using the same photo.
Even if the same photo is not being used, you might recognize the model from other photos. Try to choose images similar in photographic style. Conflicting styles and image techniques will give your website or print materials an unprofessional appearance.

Image created for the cover of MIdwestHeart from the three stock photos shown.

Stock photography is convenient, and often a good resource. I am not saying to never use stock, but use it judiciously. Consider budgeting for original professional photography in your marketing. Custom photography will convey your brand’s unique selling proposition. Using a generic stock photo may not convey your message to the reader effectively. If you use stock, and work with a designer, it can be manipulated into a custom visual to communicate with your audience. In this cover for MidwestHeart, I used three different stock photos. Through color adjustments, simulating shadows and lighting, I was able to create a custom image that was a visual expression of the editor’s goal.

If you’d like to discuss what type of images might be needed by your business, and how to use them, contact Resolution Creative.