Why stock photography is killing advertising

When I started in advertising over 20 years ago using photography was the expensive option. It meant hand retouching, scanning and colour separations and clients would always suck their teeth at the costs. We would spend days looking at photographers’ books, selecting models and props. The client would come on the shoot and after a good lunch and the afternoon drinking in the studio would totter home feeling that their money was well spent.

Fast forward two decades and the combination of a recession and royalty-free photo libraries mean that the art and craft of photography is becoming seriously undervalued.  Don’t get me wrong, the big ad agency shoots are not dead.  If you want to do a poster for the BMW launch or Kate Moss modelling the new H&M collection, you’ll still need a shoot. What I’m talking about are the second level images, the brochure shots, the direct mail photography, the images in emails. These have been rendered effectively worthless by the rise of royalty-free image libraries like iStockPhoto and their ilk.

In the past photo libraries charged on the basis of readership.  How many people saw the image, so for a global use of an image you could pay more than a shoot.  This was fine as often it was cheaper to re-shoot something and then retain the rights and use it as the client needed.  But then came along the royalty-free libraries and the price of stock started falling to the sub $30 region and clients seized on this as a way of saving money. The result is that photography in advertising is increasingly under valued.  I recently had a bizarre conversation with a client who asked me to prove why spending $100 on an image for an email to their entire customer base was better value than a free shot. I informed her that short of showing her every free image on the internet that would be difficult and that, by the way, this conversation would probably cost more than the $100 image.

The result of this trend is that in many cases photography has become a graphic element as trivial to visually illiterate clients as typography and design. It’s a space filler.  This problem is not going away anytime soon because as professional photographers get less work they have to charge more for each shoot they do get just to stay alive and so the gulf between the free images and the professional work grows.

Now that everyone has a camera and the barriers to becoming a casual stock photographer get lower every day, the number of people who can make a decent living in photography will fall.  In the US, wedding photographers who could command $3,000 a wedding are now fighting amateurs who will charge $500. 

I’m not sure there is a solution and that depresses me.  We need to avoid the decent into the bland pap that characterises so much stock photography and start a campaign for real photography.  The brands that care will support us and after all those are the ones we want to work for.

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2 thoughts on “Why stock photography is killing advertising”

  1. Allow us to disagree to some of your comments. You are right about the issue, until a certain point. It’s not the stock photography website that generates this, nor the photographer who shoots it. Not even the designer that picks up the image. It’s the decision maker, the client or maybe not even him, but his customers.The first ones are part of the whole problem and we do our best to avoid this cliches (we’re one of those 😉 ). The client is in the end the one who decides. We have 6 million images and add almost 20,000 new images daily. Some of them are astonishing, fresh and contemporary. Check these examples, some are flawless, some are not:http://www.dreamstime.com/best-stock-photosUnlike in the past, having so many images allows a better representation of any subject. Allows us to bring any kind of images you want. But would you pick up the real apple or the perfect one?You are right, if you choose the less cheesy image you will solve the problem. The question is, will your client want that? If he does, will his customers pay for an authentic model or for the photoshopped unreal one?Very good article nevertheless, food for the mind.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree in part. All I am seeing at the moment is the same tired images turning up in every brochure. If I see another pair of shaking hands or archery board I’ll scream. It could be recession budgets chosing the cheapest option or clients bringing work in house to save a few bucks. I’m on the side of agencies to generate fresh ideas (naturally) and photographers to bring these to life. I was probably just having a bad day after being ground down yet again.

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