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Stock Photography Survival Guide

Sam Sullivan
Art Director

Navigating the world of stock photography doesn’t have to be like a mysterious treasure hunt. I like to think of it more as a cruise, and deciding which decadent dinner option you’d like tonight. To keep you on track and satisfied with your end product, here are a few tips to use stock photography in an effective, brand-oriented and strategic way.

1. Stay in tune

Imagine that you’ve just launched a new campaign, one that you spent weeks creating, with countless hours and conversations invested. Then, as you’re walking out of the store you notice an old sign. The face looking back at you is the leading girl of your new campaign. We’ve all seen her, the stock photo girl. She’s beautiful, bi-racial, young. She has a great smile and she’s in what feels like thousands of stock photos. Scenarios like these can be prevented if you:

  • Cross check these things against your campaign creative during development.
  • Know your campaign marketplace, in addition to your competitors’;
  • Do your research. Know what other advertisers are doing with their photography, graphics and messaging;

2. Smart sourcing

To combat the building monopoly on stock photography as company merges happen, competitors are changing the marketplace by offering unique styles, creative direction and strategically sourced contributors. Think of it like the clothing marketplace.  I can get what I need at Target; But, I’ve also used Gap, DSW, Old Navy, H&M, and LOFT, to name a few, to build my wardrobe.

When using stock, be sure you’re using the best source to meet your needs. A few of my frequented and favorites include;

  • Getty images move hearts, minds and opinions; they power commerce, ideas and perceptions. 
  • Stocksy is home to a highly curated collection of royalty-free stock and video footage that is beautiful, distinctive, and highly usable. 
  • Dissolve’s footage and image collections are hand-picked for technical quality, aesthetic style, and cultural relevance. 
  • Shutterstock is the largest and most vibrant marketplace for creative professionals to license content.
  • Erickson Stock is the premier source for high-quality, emotional lifestyle stock photos. 

3. Change it up

I cannot emphasize this enough! Don’t use the stock photo in the same format that you download it, instead:

  • Use an interesting crop to focus on the important part of the image;
  • Retouch clothing or items in the photo to be in your brand colors;
  • Recolor the image to match your campaign feel;
  • Remove, add, or relocate items into the photo;
  • Add branded elements to the image.

In their original state (left) these photos could easily be used by anyone. Giving them a dramatic crop creates visual style a unique image for The Community Colleges of Nebraska online campaign.

Stock Photography and Nebraska Community College Culinary Ad

Stock Photography and Nebraska Community College Lab Tech Ad

A ‘personal point-of-view’ style was defined for the University of Arkansas Online campaign and implemented using stock photography. Colors were altered to align with the University’s’ color palette as seen in the bike and clothing. The “Multi-taskers” image was rotated and cereal bowl moved to be inside the ad frame.

Stock Photography and University of Arkansas "Multi-Taskers" AdStock Photography and University of Arkansas "Go-getters" Ad

In both of these campaigns, many stock photos were used and this is a small representation of the alterations made. I recommend editing or altering every image you download to make it uniquely yours.

4. Be Agile

Over the course of your campaign, you may notice new ads that look similar or are a blatant copy of yours. Don’t panic. Though aggravating, the age old proverb that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, is so true in the advertising world. In this situation there are a couple questions to ask yourself to determine next steps.

  1. Is stock photography the culprit? Unless you’ve purchased rights-managed imagery, someone else can also use the same image. In this case, you have a few options:
    1. Change your image.  
    2. Consider buying rights-managed imagery
    3. Be aware of stock artists selling their photos on multiple stock sites, increasing the chance that someone else will use the image.
  2. Is this campaign of a direct competitor, and is it clearly a hijack of your campaign?
    For example, for example let’s look at Verizon:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ys8GsqwvO70

Verizon created the original “balls” commercial, with what appears to be a template or stock animation of the ramp the balls slide down. Which lead to their competitors, Sprint and T-Mobile, creating quick copycat commercials. If this happens, it is best to change your campaign completely.


Looking for more on photography? Check out other EMG stock photography insights at Bring in the Brand Photography and Making Stock Photos Work.

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