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How to choose between stock images and custom photography.

Today, thanks to subscription and pay-as-you-go micro stock collections, prices for stock photography have brought decent quality stock photos to the masses. So why ever go back to commissioned photography? Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering your photographic needs to determine the best option for your marketing:

Schuler Shoes product photography. Photographer: Rod Wilson of Andrews Photography

1) How common is the subject? These days, if you need a picture of a common person, place, or thing, you're likely to find it on a stock site. Stock is a good option for common subjects if you're flexible about the lighting, camera angle, background and other variables. On the other hand, if you're looking for a woman, age 40, with blonde hair and freckles, wearing a striped sweater and looking up as if she's thinking about something really great. . . well, the time (and therefore the money in labor!) to search for such a specific image may be well worth having a photographer to shoot it.

(Photography by Rod Wilson for Schuler Shoes. Art Direction: Mix Creative) 

2) Is it part of a campaign? In designing a concept for a new campaign for a client, I came across the perfect stock photo to convey the idea I imagined. The client loved the concept and we decided to expand the idea into a campaign. Unfortunately, the original photograph, artfully styled and shot and with just the right model expressions, was nearly impossible to match with subsequent stock photos, all taken by different photographers. Since then I've learned my lesson: if you're using a photo as part of a campaign, make sure the photographer has more in the series that fit the campaign, or plan to use commissioned photography from the get-go.

3) Is the image part of the core brand? A frequent shopper at istockphoto.com, I've become familiar with the various stock models for traditional searches--say, "friendly phone operator". Given the common subject matter and the popularity of istockphoto.com, I guess it's no surprise that I keep spotting the same "friendly phone operator" model on "contact us" web pages across the internet. While there may not be much harm in repeating an image on a contact page, imagine this "friendly phone operator" were your company's main marketing image. In this case, each time a customer saw the image on a competitor's site, your brand would become diluted and generic in the viewer's eyes. To absolutely ensure that your core brand images are used by your company alone, it's best to commission photography. Your company will benefit from repeated use of this distinct image in all your marketing materials, strengthening your brand message and giving you more bang for your buck.

4) How will the image be used? My favorite use of stock images is as source material. In other words, I'll take pieces of photography, cut them out and manipulate them to work with my layout or as part of a larger image. In this way, the art is re-purposed in a fresh and original way. Inexpensive stock is also a great way to try out ideas in original concepts, before you spend a lot of money on the final images. I also use stock images as source and inspiration for creating illustrations. All good!

Photoshoot for Saint Paul Classic Cookie

5) Are you showing your company's product? This one is a hard one to get around with stock photography. Sure, you could rely on manufacturer's photographs of items if you're a distributor, but you have very little control over how the product is photographed from vendor to vendor, or the quality of the image. Investing in custom photography will give you ultimate control over the styling, set, model, and lighting, and will help you to bring very different items into one cohesive image.

(photography by Craig McNitt for Saint Paul Classic Cookie. Art Direction: Mix Creative)



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Friends of the St Paul Public Library. Received a grant  from the Minnesota Sesquicentennial Commission to create an online Minnesota Writers Hall of Fame.


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