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Stock images – do you want cheese with that?

Posted by: Al Fox on 16 May 2017

With the proliferation of social media, stock images are being shoved in our faces more than ever before.  Spend any time on Twitter these days and you’ll see hundreds.  “Oh, let me reinforce this point with a nice illustrative image.” It’s effective to use a photo or illustration in this way, but the images used are so cliched and cheesy, it’s enough to force us all to an internet-free island in the Outer Hebrides.

And then there are the company websites with the business meetings photos. They’re all good quality, well-lit shots, but oh boy; the subjects are so perfect, so politically correct – all new suits and bright white teeth. Come on get real, it’s obvious that the happy, flawless and attractive ensemble are not from your organisation. We all know it’s bloody stock.

So, what’s the alternative? Original photography is always the best option, but that needs to be left to the professionals, which takes time, planning and investment – ruling it out for many.  Google images? Most credible organisations thankfully realise that they can’t just grab anything they fancy and that they need to use licensed or free from copyright images. So that usually leaves the stock library option. The problem with that is that the libraries all seem to be competing against each other for the cheesiest, most obvious, and staged shots in existence.

If you’ve ever watched ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ (who hasn’t?), you’ll not only be curious as to why the chirpy presenting duo of Lucy and Martin were joined by ex-footballer Dion Dublin, but you’ll be aware of the incidental music used throughout the show. If the featured property had a green entrance door, you could bet your ass they’d play “Green Door” by Shakey; or perhaps Martin would mention that the property owner worked in a cycle shop and you’d be subjected to a few bars of Queen’s “Bicycle”.

Well, most stock imagery is like that.  It’s obvious, it’s corny, it’s trite, it’s annoying, it’s worse than the songs played in Homes Under the Hammer.

Let’s also remember the other scourge of websites, brochures and social sites – the stock illustration. Sometimes it’s a drawing, often with arrows and question marks, sometimes a combination of image and illustration. You’ll have no doubt seen the one with a light bulb coming out of someone’s head, usually used to denote that article is about producing good ideas. Good God, spare us.

Better pause for a confession here, because we use stock shots all the time too, in fact, I think one of us even used the lightbulb one (hopefully ironically). But unless you have a bank of images that you’ve taken yourself, or pay through the nose for image rights on non-stock imagery, you pretty much have to.

When there’s budget, we’ll always hire a photographer – a website or brochure that uses its own people in the shots are head and shoulders (geddit?) above the alternative. When we do need to use stock, we trawl through twenty-nine pages of images to find that gem in the rough.  It’s also best not to search for the obvious keywords, thinking outside the box helps definitely helps.

Most of all, we’d love to see image banks up their game. The main problem is that they’re not interested in more niche shots, they are (if you’ll pardon the pun), what the Stock, Aitken and Waterman used to be of the music world. Never mind what’s artistic and tasteful, does it sell?

There are thousands of great photographers out there, in fact, we know some that often get knocked back when submitting shots to the image libraries; probably because they aren’t bog standard enough. So please libraries, start accepting images that are a little bit different from the norm. It doesn’t have to be super-arty or abstract, just less bloody cheese, please.

Maybe image banks and libraries could also look at how they categorise their images. With results so literal and obvious, there’s never a suggestion of something out of the ordinary. Search for “business meeting” in Shutterstock, sit back and laugh.

However, the blame for the tasteless use of stock imagery has to lay at the user’s door. Let us all think twice before we choose the obvious. Look elsewhere, be more discerning, find some originals, press the client (or themselves) for more budget.

This doesn’t exonerate the image libraries, of course, so come on guys, mix it up, get some realism in there, give us something alternative, throw in some wildcards. Be different sometimes.

Here’s to a less stock future – but we won’t hold our breaths.

PS. If anyone knows the rationale behind Dion Dublin joining ‘Homes Under the Hammer’, please write in.

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