Stock Photography vs. Original Photography

Stock Photography vs. Original Photography

I’ve been working as a professional photographer for the past 30 years. I’ve seen things shift from film and darkrooms to DSLRs and Photoshop. Though I personally prefer the latter, the digital age has certainly changed the business and added some pretty huge obstacles for today’s professional photographers to navigate. It used to be that we, the photographers, possessed the only original copy of the image. We owned not only the copyright, we also owned and held onto the film. Without the film, negative or slide you simply couldn’t get your hands on our images. This gave us a certain degree of control.

Once everything went digital, things changed. All of a sudden the client had as much control of the image as we did. This is because digital files replaced film, and thus placed the ability to reproduce any image in the hand of the client. Professional photographers worldwide had to adapt to this new industry standard or face extinction. Some learned to adapt their pricing structure, and bill more for creating the image knowing that they were no longer going to be able to maintain complete control of their images. Others looked for new ways to supplement their dwindling income by turning to stock photography.

I remember being approached by stock photo companies many years back and being asked to provide them with all of my outtakes or rejected images. The idea was that as a professional photographer I would supply them (the stock houses) with photos for free. They would in turn make these photos available for agencies and marketing firms to view and offer these images for sale for a fee much below the fees a professional photographer would charge. If someone bought a copy of my photo, the stock company would send me a check. It might not be as much as I would have charged to create the image, but it would be something. Though many photographers jumped on this bandwagon, it just didn’t sit well with me. For one thing, I didn’t like the idea of selling something I was hired to create for one client to someone else who had nothing to do with it in the first place. I also didn’t like the fact that this new business was so very impersonal. I liked working with my clients. I am a creative person. I wanted to work hand-in-hand with a client to bring their dreams to fruition. I wanted to remain a professional photographer, not a wholesaler selling photos to a stock house. I held fast.

Over the past 10 years, I have seen many clients (ad agencies and marketing firms) fall into the stock photography abyss, and some have spiraled down into great defeat because of it. The reasons why they turned to stock photography have varied, but cost and profit have almost always been the deciding factors. Instead of hiring a professional photographer and creating your own original art for an ad, you simply grab a stock photo that is either free or down right cheap, then sell that image to your client for the same fee you used to, only now you owe nothing to the photographer. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal. After all, today you can search the Net for any imaginable photograph, and chances are that you will be able to find something to suit your needs. It doesn’t get much easier than that, but when it comes to agencies there is a real underlying danger in making the decision to use and sell a stock photo to a client.

When you or anyone else does a search for stock photography you usually start by looking for a subject. Let’s say you decide to search for a photo of an auto mechanic. You put the appropriate words into the search engine, hit enter and voila, you have hundreds of images of mechanics working on cars. All you have to do is pick one, and fortunately for you all these great shots show up right away. Here is where the problem begins. These same wonderful images that came up when you searched for photos of mechanics, also come up when anyone else does a search for photos of mechanics.

This is how it works. Stock houses give priority to photos that sell. The way they determine the ones that sell is by simply counting the amount of times they have already sold an image. This means that you are most likely to see and select a photo of a mechanic that perhaps hundreds or even thousands of others have already selected.

So how does this become a problem? Well, let’s say that you pick a great shot of a guy working on a car, and you convince your client, Joe’s Auto Shop, that this is the photo that you will place on their billboard or in their newspaper ad. Then a week down the road Joe, the owner of Joe’s Auto Shop, sees that his competitor, Larry, of Larry’s Auto Shop has used the exact photo for his billboard and for his newspaper ad. Suddenly it wasn’t such a good deal.

Now for you skeptics out there who think I’m just making this up, let me tell you that I have seen it happen right here in this Ohio Valley market a number of times. I have seen it happen with big clients and with small clients. In every case it has ended badly. I have seen agencies lose long-term clients over such foolish mistakes. Mistakes that would never have happened had they hired a professional photographer and created original art. The client usually ends up paying the same fee for stock photography, as they would have for original work. It is the agency who pockets the profit. All is well until you get caught using the same photo as your client’s competitor.

If your business is important enough to you that you are willing to market it or advertise it in any public way, even if only on social media, you should care enough and be careful enough to only use original art. Insist that your agency or marketing firm only use original photography. It will cost you the same and you will have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your competitor won’t be able to use the same photo just to spite you. And as an added bonus, by hiring a professional photographer you can also showcase your own shop or employees or location.

As a long time local professional photographer, I am very pleased to know that Wheelhouse Creative is determined to use original professional photography whenever possible. We all know that sometimes stock photography is fine. Sometimes you might need a photo of a baseball, and since all baseballs sort of look alike, it is OK to use a stock photo of a baseball. But when it comes to showcasing your business, please do yourself a favor and use original art.

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