Stock photography has its place. When the budget is tight, or the image is perfunctory, there’s bound to be a perfectly acceptable stock shot to fill the hole. But when the visual has the potential to work harder, commissioned photographs are the heavy lifters. Here’s why.
Keep it local.
Many years ago I heard a Caxton talk from Indian advertising legend Piyush Pandey. He spoke about how local context makes an idea exponentially more powerful. In his words: “I think cultural relevance is a wonderful weapon that advertising has. Culture is closer to people’s hearts than minds, and if you are able to use culture in the backdrop of a good idea, chances that you will succeed are much better.”1 Braincells’ recent “6am” campaign for Dôme is an example of this power in action. The photography (by Allan Myles) is unmistakably Perth in location and in character, and makes us feel intrinsically linked to the brand in a way that no stock photo ever could.
Pandey’s TVC for Fevicol adhesive.
Stock photos all look the same. Maybe an overstatement – but you know the look, demonstrated so perfectly by Vince Vaughn in the mock-stock images created to promote his movie “Unfinished Business.” The problem with this is that it results in less effective communication. If a viewer sees an image unlike any they have seen before, it will lay down new neural pathways and cement the message in the their memory. If an image is reminiscent of another, its neural effect is greatly reduced. Then there’s also the danger that an image might have negative associations for the viewer through their experience with another brand.
Vince Vaughn’s mock-stock for “Unfinished Business”
Bring the human to the digital.
With so much of our lives as consumers migrating online, the digital face of a brand is often the only one we encounter. As designers, we need to make that face as human as possible. There is an enormous difference in the connection consumers feel to a website that uses real images of the people, places and products connected to the brand, versus one which uses stock. Eye-tracking tests show that real images hold attention while less unique, filler images are largely ignored.2
Eye-tracking test showing indifference to filler image.
While I know that I’ll be trawling through stock photo sites for many years to come, I’d like to think that we might reach saturation point soon. Hopefully the value of investing in commissioned photography will once again be recognised. We are privileged to have some amazingly talented photographers in Perth. I’d love to see them more often.