Clients are particular these days, maybe more so than in the past. So, let’s shake it up and give them what they want—something unique.
Creating compelling and salable stock photos is an art. You can’t just sit a woman in a white studio with a bowl of undressed salad, take a few pics of her laughing, and call it a day. Not anymore. Good stock photos require vision and creativity, fully-realized sets, diverse casts in front of and behind the camera, and a keen interest in real people, their lives, and the stories they have to tell.
“People always think of stock as the poor cousin of fashion or advertising,” says Christina Vaughan, founder and CEO of Image Source. “But, because you don’t have a fixed client or a particular product you have to feature, you can actually be more creative with stock—coming up with your own concepts and then finding your client afterwards.”
Image via Alys Tomlinson / Image Source on Offset.
Of course, finding that client in today’s world can be a real challenge. The market is saturated and companies have an ever-growing collection of resources to choose from. And, even if you do manage to find a customer for your images, the days of selling one stock photo a thousand times are long gone.
“In the old days, a campaign might run for six months, but today, it might only run for a week or an hour,” Vaughan says. “Images have become so ephemeral. Although people are using more of them, they are using them for shorter periods of time.”
Image via Bonfanti Diego / Image Source on Offset.
Making money in this environment means being efficient on (and before you get to) set and resisting the urge to just recreate things that worked in the past.
“The biggest mistake a photographer can make is just looking at what has sold well in the past and trying to repeat it,” Vaughan says. “Those pictures already exist. We don’t need more of them. Then you just end up with a bunch of copies of copies. The whole thing becomes really bland and they just don’t sell.”
“Consumers and clients are savvier these days,” Vaughan says. “They don’t want something generic. They want something specific. Something they can connect with.”
Image via Alys Tomlinson / Image Source on Offset.
Here’s how you give it to them.
1. Choose Unique and Distinctive Locations
“Because of the trust we’ve built up with people over the years, we have access to locations that may not be available to other production companies or photographers,” Vaughan says. “We’ve shot at nuclear bases, in airport control towers, and in some of the most amazing homes.”
This might seem obvious, but there’s a big difference between shooting in an actual nuclear base and shooting in a lab in an office building that looks like it could maybe be on a nuclear base. And, even if people can’t quite put their finger on what that difference is, they’ll feel it and they’ll be less connected to and engaged with the second image as a result.
Choose authentic locations. Images via Monty Rakusen / Image Source on Offset, Monty Rakusen / Image Source on Offset, Monty Rakusen / Image Source on Offset, and Okapics / Image Source on Offset.
“There’s a lot of talk these days about ’authenticity’ in stock, but it really does matter,” Vaughan says. “To me, that means shooting in a house that is actually lived in and loved by the people who own it. Or hated! It all depends on the story you’re trying to tell.”
Make your image feel lived in. Images via Emely / Image Source on Offset, Eugenio Marongiu / Image Source on Offset, and Steve Prezant / Image Source on Offset.
“The important thing is to realize that it’s not just a house,” Vaughan continues. “The people who live there have feelings about it and when they welcome you in, they are sharing those feelings with you and it is from there that you are really able to build out a strong story.”
2. Cast Models Comfortable in Their Role
“Imagery that sells really well tends to have an emotional connection, so you really want your models to know what they are doing and love it,” says Vaughan. “A good example is cooking. If you shoot someone who genuinely loves food and cooking, it will show in the way they pick up a piece of fruit or cut a vegetable. They will know all those little things that make the shot truly authentic, like knowing which knife to use to cut which type of meat.”
In order for the image to sell its authenticity, the model should be comfortable in their role. Images via Ashley Corbin-Teich / Image Source on Offset, Zero Creatives / Image Source on Offset, and Matt Lincoln / Image Source on Offset.
“We recently did a cooking shoot with my sister-in-law, who is an amazing chef, and she went to the Asian grocery store and picked up all these oddly shaped vegetables and things I still don’t know the names of,” Vaughan continues. “By the end of the shoot, she’d made this beautiful meal and the entire crew was drooling with hunger. That’s what you want. It comes through in the images and that’s what gets people excited about them.”
3. Eschew Minimalism and White Walls
“White walls have their place, but not in any of my shoots!” Vaughan says.
Post-pandemic, people want comfort, warmth, and togetherness. Images via Sara Monika / Image Source on Offset, Alys Tomlinson / Image Source on Offset, Studio CP / Image Source, and Alys Tomlinson / Image Source on Offset.
“I mean, look, there was a time when you’d shoot in a white space with lots of glass and it was cool and minimalist, but that was twenty years ago. I just don’t think that’s appealing now. Especially after the pandemic. People want things to feel a bit more cozy. They want that sense of warmth and togetherness. They want to feel like we are coming back together.”
4. Embrace a Broader Definition of Diversity
“So much stock photography has always been and is still shot by white men, but we need to represent other voices,” Vaughan says. That means prioritizing diversity in front of and behind the camera and empowering people to tell the stories that are relevant and authentic to them.”
Understand and implement diversity. Images via Kevin Kozicki / Image Source on Offset and Matt Dutile / Image Source on Offset.
At the same time, it’s important for photographers to understand that diversity is about more than race—it’s also about gender expression, sexual orientation, age, physical size and shape, and disability.
Diversity in stock is underrepresented. You can fix that. Images via Eugenio Marongiu / Image Source on Offset, Sigrid Gombert / Image Source on Offset, and Eugenio Marongiu / Image Source on Offset.
“So many people live with a disability and that simply is not represented enough in stock,” Vaughan says. “And, you can’t just take a shot of someone sitting in a wheelchair.” Representing disabled people (representing any traditionally underrepresented person) means showing them living their lives, not just plopped down, sad, in the middle of a room.
Connect with your clients by capturing relevant imagery. Image via Sigrid Gombert / Image Source on Offset.
This can be hard for some photographers to wrap their heads around, especially when they’re trying to make their photos as salable as possible. However, the world is changing, and it’s important that stock photography change with it in order to stay relevant and legitimately connect with clients and consumers.
It’s also the duty and privilege of photographers to show the world as they’d like to see it, knowing that the clients for those images will come.
Representing actual people in actual scenarios has an impact on the people you reach. Image via Daniel Allan / Image Source on Offset.
“In certain parts of the world, people really don’t want to see, say, someone with a facial disfigurement or a harelip or someone living with cerebral palsy, but I think we have a duty [to show those people in stock],” Vaughan says. “Because what we do as stock photographers does have an impact on culture and society. And, that might sound like a really big claim, but I’ve seen it happen.”
5. Create a Collaborative and Considerate Work Environment
“Making money in the current market is all about how you structure the day,” Vaughan says. “A lot of planning needs to go into every shoot, so you know exactly how many changes of wardrobe need to happen and how many shots you need to get done, but you also need to make sure everyone in the crew is on the same page.”
Make sure everyone on set—models and creware comfortable. Image via Eugenio Marongiu / Image Source on Offset.
In this kind of situation, it’s all too easy to forget that the people on your crew are people, not machines. “It’s so important to have good relationships with your models and your crews,” Vaughan says. “Making sure that everybody has access to drinks and food, keeping the flow going, but also making it fun, so people actually enjoy being on set.
“You don’t want it to feel like you’re just thrashing them to get every ounce of energy out of them that you can,” Vaughan continues. “I’ve worked with photographers and production companies that were really aggressive and money-minded and you just don’t want to help them because you feel like they’re just trying to get as many pictures out of you as possible.”
And, remember to have fun with it! Image via Jfcreatives / Image Source on Offset.
Yes, shoot days are busy, but be transparent and kind and your team will rise to the occasion. “We always make sure to talk to everyone about what we’re doing—the numbers, how much they sell for, where they’re going to appear, how often they will be used,” Vaughan says. “That way everybody really understands that whole process and it never feels exploitative.”
Appreciate the beauty of your trade. Image via Tim MacPherson / Image Source on Offset.
Because as challenging as this industry might be at times, it really is a gift to do this kind of work. “I come from a very working class background,” Vaughan says. “A lot of people I went to school with went down the mines or worked in steel or worked the checkout at supermarkets. It’s such a blessing and a luxury what we have, what we do, and there’s no reason people shouldn’t enjoy themselves while they do it.”
A few more stock photography articles for you:
How One Woman Is Making Stock Photography More DiverseVoice of the Artist: How One Brazilian Photographer Approaches InclusivityHow to Approach Stock Photography as AnthropologyThe Ultimate Stock Photography Business Tips from the ProsWhat is Stock? A Guide to Creating with Stock Photography
Cover image via Studio CP / Image Source.
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