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Bland, tired, clichéd. Welcome to the world of stock photography

Everyone is complaining that it’s more and more difficult to make money on photography and that the stock photography market has become too competitive. Stock libraries spring up every five minutes and they all overflow with images. Yes, that might be true. But when you really need a good picture, micro stock libraries disappoint.

In my job I often need to browse for images to illustrate various stories. The subjects vary wildly, but in many cases the requirements are not too taxing: a picture of a child using a laptop; or an image of nice garden; or a messy room. You know the score – no latest Reuters shots from Afghanistan or galleries of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Just some interesting, clean, fairly generic, but hopefully inventive images. The last bit – inventive – is however the source of my frustration.

Photographers submitting their images to stock galleries seem to have a problem with thinking outside the box. They either repeat the same bland – and often detached from reality – clichés which over the years have become a norm, or go for very artistic images, which, although technically perfect, are hardly usable.

This morning I was looking for an image of a car with a few rust spots. Had I known I would need one, I would’ve snapped my own rusty car as it combines the two things I was after: it’s relatively modern and working, and it has a few rusty spots. But try searching for a such a car on a certain well-known stock image website and all you get is numerous images of old rusty Dodge trucks, abandoned somewhere picturesque and artfully photographed in HDR. It ticks all stock library boxes, so it gets accepted, yet from an editorial perspective it’s mostly useless.

Next one: knitting. Here’s where all those predictable clichés come out in force. Because if you were to believe in what stock libraries have to offer, you’d have to conclude that knitting is for old frumpy pensioners in rocking armchairs. Therefore, a story on young trendy mums meeting in gastropubs to knit and chat simply cannot be illustrated by a stock image.

And don’t even get me started on corporate photography. Or rather, don’t get me started on images with keywords ‘meeting’ and ‘office’. Seriously, have you ever been to a meeting, mr stock photography? Do you really think that all meetings involve extremely good-looking people in blue shirts, pointing at a laptop screen or shaking hands or gazing at a whiteboard graph?

I recently needed an image to illustrate a story about tackling challenging meetings. The choice was between a group of happy suits gazing at a graph/laptop/whatever else or a room full of snoring office workers. All looked very corporate because yes, in real life meetings only involve airbrushed 30-somethings in Armani suits, sitting in sterile air-conditioned office towers.

Stock photography now appeals to a much wider audience, the rules have changed a bit. It is no longer just a repository of clinical images for brochures and PowerPoint presentations, or at least it shouldn’t be.  Media outlets use stock images to illustrate their content because it’s cheaper. This creates more demand for more original imagery. Stock photographers must start thinking like journalists to differentiate. There is no point reproducing the same old crap – find out who your audience is and do some research on what works for them.

I know there are people who probably make a fortune on those clinical corporate images – and I agree there is and probably will always be a market for those. But budget cuts and/or smarter thinking have forced many newsrooms to rely on cheaper alternatives. Therefore standing out in a sea of blandness is the only way forward.

Maybe the new Flickr-Getty deal will provide editors with more ‘real’ images? But I should deal with that can of worms in a separate post perhaps…

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