Here are three great reasons to ditch the cheesy stock photography the next time you share online content with the world. Whether you’re building a website, writing a blog, or creating memorable social media graphics, do all you can to avoid using stock photography. Here’s why.
The Dangers of Stock Photography: You’re Un-Original
I’m feeling rather crabby today (that’s my crabby face, above.) (Actually, it’s a photo I took of my office orchid, Audrey II, updated a wee bit by good friend and artist Nan Wagner.) I was browsing Twitter yesterday when a photo popped up of an author’s new book cover. He wrote a vampire-slasher-thriller. I’m not a fan of vampire-slasher-thrillers. I am, however, a great fan of his cover…because it’s the EXACT same cover photo as on my forthcoming novel, I Believe You.
Oops. My cover designer is the magnificent Melissa Alvarez at BookCovers.us, and she chose the same stock photo, only changing the angle a bit. Oh, yeah, and she made this cover AT LEAST A YEAR AGO. But my book isn’t out yet, and the other guy’s book IS out first. It’s a pickle, I tell you. It’s great minds thinking alike…but he got to market first.
Vampire slayer writer seems to have pulled the same stock image from Deposit Photos and used it “as is”. I like my cover better, but no matter: now we have two covers with the same image, and his book is out first, so I’m probably going to end up having a second cover done at some point to keep from being accused of copying HIM. Even though my cover was created first, I’m just so damned slow at shaping up my novel for publication that he managed to get to market faster. Kudos to him, rotten tomatoes to me.
This only proves what I’ve been saying all along; there are dangers to using stock photography. I have seen many such dangers since my days as a marketing manager at The College Board. During my tenure as the K-12 Marketing Manager, we had a running joke about seeing the same kids in caps and gowns EVERYWHERE in advertising in the education space. The reason was simple enough – good stock photography of teens was difficult to find in those days. My answer was to work with our Creative Services Director to stage a custom photo shoot. We hired models, scouted locations, and had a huge bank of original images from which to choose from for all of our design needs.
Not everyone can afford to do something as drastic, but everyone today does own a digital camera, cell phone camera, or some other camera. Most of us can take reasonably interesting photos, albeit probably not professional quality. For most of our blogging and online content publishing needs, however, simple, clean, well-lit photos are usually adequate.
The Dangers of Stock Photography: Extortion Letters
Ever hear of the Extortion Letters? I didn’t until a client I was working with several years ago – a well-known, big name client – sent me a strange clause in my work contract. They insisted I do not use any stock photography in my work for them. They named several stock companies I could NOT use. When I called my contact at the company to ask why, she said, “We’ve heard that these stock photo companies sent out letters demanding huge settlements and claiming copyright infringement.”
I laughed out loud at this. I mean, c’mon, how many times had we used stock photography during my marketing manager days and never thought twice about licensing it? But today it’s a different ballgame. Because the market for stock photography is dwindling, many of the stock companies are more aggressively pursing copyright infringement. Some of that infringement is real, to be sure. Google Images is one of the most confusing search engines in the world, especially since so many clueless newbie bloggers just grab images willy-nilly from it without understanding the right way to license images. Many of the stock photo companies take advantage of the ignorance of others and send out scary legal letters demanding hundreds or thousands of dollars for an infringement whether you take the picture off of your website immediately or not.
The stock photo companies also make mistakes and send letters out to INNOCENT people, too. And they don’t want to hear your explanation: “Hey, I took that photo of clouds! That’s my picture!” No, if THEY think it’s their image, they act like you are guilty. A friend of mine who designs websites for a living legally licensed an image from a stock company. He paid the licensing fee and used the image appropriately according to the license terms. He got one of those letters, and despite showing the license agreement to the firm, STILL received demands for payment. That’s why many of these “letter campaigns” are now dubbed “extortion letter programs.”
Stock photography does come in handy. When you need a special image to convey an emotion or feeling, sometimes there’s no way around licensing the right image. If you pay your fee and use the image properly, according to the license terms, you should be fine, but retain your agreement, emails and receipt just in case. In the meantime, this is one of my top reasons to avoid using stock photography and to being especially careful when I do. It’s unethical to use photos without permission, but it’s also hard to deal with these big companies when they make mistakes or even to negotiate a settlement when you’ve accidentally made a mistake and used a photo without permission.
For more information on stock photography Extortion Letters, see Extortion Letter Info.
The Dangers of Stock Photography: It’s Not YOUR Unique Vision
Stock photography reflects the artistic vision of the original creator, whether it’s a professional photographer in Iceland or a graphic designer in Poland. Either way, it’s THEIR vision, not yours. It pays to develop your own unique vision and artistic expression, especially when it comes to photography.
If you’re a blogger, sharing your own artistic vision through your photography is essential. If you need additional photos, license them properly (see above) but make sure that they depict the heart of what your blog is about.
Most of the time, you can create your own photos. I have learned to become a better photographer thanks to the tips I’ve read on many of the online blogging sites. I use free tools such as Canva and PicMonkey to add effects, crop and edit my images. I’m not as skilled as Nan, who added the blue googly eyes to my orchid picture to create Audrey II, but I can at least make a passage image.
Consider taking an online photography course. Udemy offers many affordable courses. You may also be able to take a course at your local community college or an evening adult education program at your local high school.
For companies, consider doing what we did many years ago: hire a professional photographer, hire a few models, get releases in writing from them, and stage your own photo session. If you are a retailer, a few professional photos of your products will do wonders to help sell them. I worked with a startup retail firm as a consultant a few years ago and we saw tremendous revenue jumps when she hired a professional to photograph the statues she was selling. The lighting, props and angles were just so much better than my client could take on her own. Her original photos were clean and clear, but the professional ones were magical. She hired the photographer and paid for the copyrights to all the images of her products, but the money spent was well worth it and easily earned back in increased sales.
Stock photography has its place, but there are many reasons to wean yourself away from it. Consider your options, save all your records if you DO license photos (free or paid), and try your best to give your photos your own unique stamp.
Jeanne Grunert, president of Seven Oaks Consulting, is an award-winning direct and digital marketer with over 20 years of senior marketing leadership experience. She’s passionate about mentoring marketing managers and providing exceptional content marketing programs and services to Seven Oaks clients. Jeanne holds an M.S. (awarded with distinction) in Direct and Interactive Marketing from New York University and frequently lectures on content marketing, search engine optimization, and project management techniques.J