Taking stock

article stockphotos

There is a lot of misunderstanding of what “stock photography” actually means and the phrase is often used to imply negative associations; in fact, whether we’re looking at digital or print design, we believe both custom images and stock photography have roles to play. 

We’ve recently come across a few clients who say they’ve heard that they shouldn’t use stock photography on their collateral, so they would like us to use their own images. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this, experience tells us that we may be about to run into problems, whether with image size, style, composition, message or content.

For some businesses, we would definitely recommend bespoke images for their collateral: visual artists, cake decorators and other creatives whose personal talent is their selling point; hotels and event centres who want to show off their unique facilities; companies with original products, or products that bear their logo or branding. But when a picture is needed for the website of an accountancy practice or an HR company, or for the brochure of an SEO firm or an independent solicitor, its principal function may simply be as a design element to break up text or provide a visual balance to the page; it is often not there to provide actual information, but to evoke a mood or tone, to inspire confidence and show professionalism.

Custom photography certainly has its place, but however good phone camera pix can be when taken by skilled photographers, it’s unlikely that a selfie is the best option for your LinkedIn profile, and a snapshot of your team posed awkwardly around a meeting table is probably not going to attract new clients to your business. A local photographer may be able to provide high quality headshots or images of your premises at affordable prices, but your staff may not be the best people to illustrate your company literature. Not all of them are likely to be happy to appear in the photos, and those who are willing are not trained models and may not be able to create the appropriate impression. Even if they can, what will you do if they leave? Imagine how awkward it would be if they joined a competitor. However inexpensive a photo shoot is, you probably won’t want to pay for another every time a member of staff moves on.

Even if you have had successful professional photos taken, unless you told the photographer in advance that the pictures were intended for print or for large format collateral, they may still not be suitable: if they are landscape (horizontal) when the design calls for a portrait (vertical) image, it will have to be cropped, a full-page picture to be printed on glossy A4 paper will need to be a far higher resolution than one that was designed for use on the web, and the original of a photograph to be used on a roller banner or exhibition stand needs to be enormous if the pixels are not to be visible when it comes back from the printer. In addition, any imperfections in the image will be more obvious when it is blown up and even if the camera’s highest resolution setting was used, if you are going to zoom in and use only a part of the picture, it simply may not work.

These are times when stock images can be the answer.

It’s important to be clear that a stock image is not the same as the little clip-art icons and motifs that come free with software packages; design studios have access to huge libraries of professional photographs, illustrations and other images all categorised and searchable by a range of criteria. These pictures are often “royalty-free” – meaning that only one payment is needed and they can then be used without limitations on purpose, medium or length of use.

A stock image is not the same as the little clip-art icons and motifs that come free with software packages.

While some images are available to download completely free – not even requiring a one-off payment – these are likely to be lower quality and are certainly non-exclusive. Other stock images can cost anything from a few dollars up, depending on how they are to be used. Exclusivity is possible, but comes at a price.

Your designer knows what is needed, both in technical terms and as far as the image content is concerned, and will choose the best option available, taking into account factors such as size, format and composition, as well as the message and mood to be conveyed.

Of course one of the objections to stock photography is that unless you pay the high figures associated with exclusivity, everyone else has access to the same images. And you certainly do occasionally see the same images used in different projects. But this is where the designer’s expertise comes into play: they don’t often just download an image and plonk it into a design “as is”. By cropping, re-shaping, silhouetting, using colour tools and combining images and text skilfully, they manage to create original works from stock images.

So if you are talking to your designer about new collateral, don’t dismiss the idea of stock photography out-of-hand: he almost certainly isn’t trying to fob you off with low quality clip-art. And if you are planning a custom photo shoot, you may want to have the photographer talk directly to your designer beforehand to make sure you get the most out of the session and end up with photos that will work for all your upcoming projects.

GEB portraitGwyneth Box is an award-winning poet, writer and translator, with business experience in IT, language consultancy, design and publishing. Gwyneth specialises in copy writing and transcreation, particularly in the fields of lifestyle, travel and technology. As owner of Tantamount and its companion organisation, authorbranding.co.uk, Gwyneth works with freelance creatives, businesses and educators on projects that draw together the threads of publishing, technology and training.

This post was originally posted on the Tantamount blog

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