A ‘short’ discussion on stock photography

A ‘short’ discussion on stock photography

Stock has its advantages and disadvantages – but often these are not recognised and stock is simply seen as a way out. A quick fix. Enjoy some of my ‘relevant stock photos’ throughout.

Why do people use stock photography?

Put starkly – because it’s better than nothing. And to be honest, in many cases this may be true. Photos add visual interest to text, and can drive engagement through a website, as well as on social media channels. Purchasing stock photography for your church publicity is also better than copying and pasting from Google images (as long as you adhere to the licenses you’ve purchased). Copyright is a serious issue, and Christians should be at the forefront of honesty and integrity in using the intellectual property of others. For more on this, read Church Marketing Sucks’ series on copyright and fair use.

But is something always better than nothing? Is it possible that the benefits of including a picture could be outweighed by the negative effect caused by choosing the wrong photo?

I know. Why.

I know. Why.

To put my cards on the table, my feeling is yes, there certainly can be drawbacks to poorly chosen imagery – whether stock or otherwise. If a photo has been put there ‘for the sake of it’, without adding quality, or displaying any relevance to the content it sits within, it’s probably not hard for users to see straight through this. And the content would probably be just as well off without it.

Now I don’t mean to pick on stock photography here (maybe a little). But it seems that the aforementioned attitude of an easy way out – when no other relevant photo can be found – has resulted in many, many church websites using images that don’t accurately reflect the church they represent. This is far more prevalent in business marketing, of course, where image is everything and could mean making-or-breaking deals which bring in big bucks. But ringing in my head once again is the need for integrity in church communications. After all, if it can’t be found in churches, where can it be found?

Let's stamp out stock misuse!

Let’s stamp out stock misuse!

To take a break from stock-bashing, let’s look at its advantages:

What’s good about stock photography?

  • Colour – photos can certainly add visual interest and variety to an otherwise boring block of text
  • Storytelling – well-chosen images can enhance the content, driving the emotional connection felt by readers and helping the story to hit home
  • Quality – I use this word carefully here, as not all that glitters is gold, but stock photos are generally high resolution (although you may have to pay more to get resolutions suitable for larger scale print publicity). These photos will have been taken by professional, or at least amateur photographers, often meaning expensive equipment. What I’m saying is these will probably look better than photos taken on an iPhone (not always).
  • Availability – when it gets late in the day, when that deadline is looming, stock photo websites will look that much more alluring – they have what you want (more or less) when you need it. Obviously this speaks in to project management and the personal organisation of the designer, but, understandably, stock can be a lifesaver.
I know, I can't believe it either.

I know, I can’t believe it either.

Now, the negatives (there’s a pun in there somewhere). I’ll start where any church treasurer would:

What’s not so good about stock photography?

  • Price – stock photos aren’t cheap! These professionally produced photos are going to have a higher price tag, and this doesn’t necessarily equal quality. I’ve used free images before that were of infinitely higher quality – both technically and aesthetically – than expensive options.
  • Quality – not to contradict my earlier point, because a good visual quality doesn’t matter half as much as a well taken photo, or indeed a relevant photo for the content you’re producing
  • Relevance – poorly chosen images can have the opposite effect on storytelling and distract from the content. Images on stock sites have been taken to fit as many scenarios as possible, in order to increase sales and get a bigger return. This may come at the expense of being the perfect fit for your scenario.
  • Choice – you’d think this would be a good thing. Perhaps it fits under the last positive point of availability. However, too much choice means not only a larger range of the ‘right’ photos, but far too many opportunities to pick the ‘wrong’ photo. Much of the enmity between designers and stock photography has been caused by the simple matter of choosing the wrong images.
No one believes this is your youth group.

No one believes this is your youth group.

Perhaps the biggest negative in my eyes is this – stock is easily recognisable – easily. If a stock photo is easily-recognised as such, this can run the risk of diminishing the reliability of the content, and your church as a source. I’m not being overdramatic here. I’m not envisioning users throwing their laptop out of the window, declaring they will never again have anything to do with your church organisation. So much of church communications is about the subtle interactions that users may not even be aware of. Perhaps the result of this is next time they don’t click on a blog post, decreasing your interaction with these individuals.

Too happy.

Too happy.

So, a few tips.

What to avoid?

  • People – The subjects chosen by photographers capturing images to sell on inevitably seem too ‘perfect’, and way, way too smiley. You have plenty of people at your church – use them!
  • Clichés – we’re talking pie charts, whiteboards, false smiles… Anything that resembles a question mark over someone’s head to illustrate their ‘questioning nature’. *Shudder*
All the potential misuses

All the potential misuses

What to look for?

  • Originality – eye catching, visually interesting photos and images with a lack of awkwardness! This is to say search out photos which don’t look or seem ‘posed’.
  • Relevance!! This is key. Even lovely images look ‘stocky’ when used in wrong context – including those that you or other church volunteers have taken. And the easiest way to do this? Take lots of photos! Read on…

What to do now?

  • Organise your attendees and members to take photos (click for my post on this).
  • Got a camera? Get out there and use it. Take lots of photos – you might surprise yourself
  • Get ahead of yourself. It’s always harder to find the perfect photo when you’re up against deadlines so is build up a collection, ideally one that your team can access. This can be your starting place. I’ll write more on this in the future, but a simple solution is to have a shared Flickr account, with all photos set to ‘private’.
  • Finally, identify sites with quality images. This will mean you are prepared for those times where stock is unavoidable. Use the ‘favourites’ or ‘add to collection’ features of these sites to store photos you like, and don’t forget about keeping images relevant!

Here are a few of my go-to stock sites:
Unsplash and Pexels are great for free images. Creative Market (I love Creative Market for many reasons. In terms of photos they have lots of stylish, hipster images – probably a better site for ‘things’ rather than people), Dollar Photo Club (can’t beat the price and there’s some quality amongst the masses) [Edit: Dollar Photo Club is now part of Adobe Stock], Death to Stock (free monthly packs, as well as a subscription option), and lastly, 500px (A mixed bunch, but some nice stuff here – can be pricey, see also 500px Prime for royalty free, premium photos).

Here’s a handy final note – it’s very easy to search the Web for similar images, especially in Chrome (right click and select search the web for this image). Chances are that the stock images you’re looking at will have been used somewhere else (especially if it’s a really nice one!). But try to avoid those that have been used many, many times, especially if they’ve been used by sites similar to yours e.g. by other churches.
Edit: ChurchMag have published a post with lots of good, free sources for stock photography, go check it out!

Erm... yes.

Erm… yes. Eye-catching… perhaps?

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