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Why Stock Photos Suck…Sometimes

If you’re reading this, you’ve already clicked on a link with an exceptionally bad stock photo, so you’re probably already teed up to laugh at some truly awful, cheesy and a little-bit-soul-destroying, stock photos. And you will. But before we go down that road it’s important to set the scene with a little bit of history.

How did stock photos even become a thing!?

Well, for that I visited that trusty research companion – Wikipedia. According to the entry on stock photography, “Newspapers and magazines were first able to reproduce photographs instead of line art in the mid-1880s with the invention of the half-tone and its use on a printing press.[16] Initially starting with staff photographers, independent free-lance photographers eventually took over.[16] One of the first examples of a stock photo was circa 1920 when American photographer H. Armstrong Roberts ensured that the people photographed in “Group in Front of Tri-Motor Airplane” all signed model releases. This allowed the photograph and others like it to be commercially viable.[1] In an effort to save the cost of hiring photographers for commission-based photo shoots, publishers and advertisers began to consider stock photos as a less risky alternative.”

This makes a LOT of sense. The origins of stock photography are in journalism; focused on documenting a moment in time and meant to accompany a story. The more general yet relatable the image, the higher likelihood it’ll be purchased. Almost all stock images are general to the point of blah. Others reach new heights in their pursuit of the absurd.

So, what exactly, makes stock photography suck so bad? In an ode to David Letterman, here is my Top Ten List of bad stock photography traits:

    1. They’re visual clichés. We’ve all seen the Grip & Grin™ photos of people in an office setting. How many times do you celebrate in an office by shaking hands, and looking in the same direction? Stock photos need to be generic and yet somehow also stand for something familiar, so clichés help to get that point across. Too bad that visual clichés rarely, if ever, work for a client.
    2. They lack style. I’m not talking about the models lacking style. I’m talking about the lack of an aesthetic or point of view from the photographer. This adds greatly to the very bland and generic look and feel of most stock imagery you see.
    3. Awkward poses. How awkward do you feel when someone asks you to pose for a picture? Exactly. That’s because posing isn’t natural and that shines through via a camera lens. When photos are posed, they look fake, because they are.
    4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Most of the time that is a mantra that serves us all well. But not in the case of stock models. I have spent hours sorting through stock imagery and have found the same models come up in shoot, after shoot, after shoot. That’s a sure-fire way to ruin a campaign or piece of collateral – when the main person in your image pops up all over the place in, say, an ad for gonorrhea or on a QAnon website.
    5. Unrealistic set-ups. You might think this is the same as awkward poses, but I assure you it is not. No – unrealistic set-ups are the ones where you look at a family dinner stock image and it looks like a recreation of The Last Supper. No family sits all scrunched together on one side of a table for Thanksgiving. There’s no better way to make a photo suck than to make the set-up strange and unrealistic.
    6. Bad lighting. I think we’ve all taken selfies in bad lighting enough to realize that poor lighting can really, really produce poor results for your photos. Often times, stock photographers may not have put enough thought and effort into the proper lighting for the photos, and it shows.
    7. Over styling. We’ve all seen these photos. A group is sitting around a table with candles, wine bottles, wine glasses, a cheese board, and then a bowl of fruit perched on the corner of the table. Really – a bowl of fruit in the midst of hipster paradise? No. Just no. It was probably placed because the photo needed “something,” but we can all agree when we see it – a random bowl of fruit isn’t it. Over styling a table can make items stand put like a sore thumb and draw your attention to the wrong things.
    8. No narrative. How does a photo of a group of people at a party look flat? It lacks soul and narrative. You can only assume that the only direction was “act like you’re having fun.” But that doesn’t always cut it. We’re able to select a great stock image for our clients when it’s clear the photographer has done the work to set-up a scene and direct it with a narrative for the models. The images are candid, believable, and inviting.
    9. An abundance of content. As we said above, stock photography has been around for over 100 years. The proliferation of content creators has created a glut of stock photography, not all of it horrible. But, with 70 million images on Shutterstock, and Getty and iStock boasting over 400 million images, videos and illustrations to choose from, that’s an awful lot of content to wade through to get to the good stuff.
    10. Lack of real diversity/tokenism. Wow – we’ve really been on a journey, haven’t we? But here it is: stock photography lacks the type of diversity that we see in everyday life. And we’re talking about diversity across the board. People with varied ethnicity, those who are differently abled, and those across the gender spectrum are not represented enough or in a natural way.

So – what have we learned here? Well – we’ve learned why stock photography sucks, but I think we’ve also narrowed in on the things you can look for in order to choose quality stock photos, even if you have to dig for them.

Gillian Goldie

Gillian Goldie is Bonfire's Creative Director.