Stock or shot?

Photolibrary or photographer? Your answer may depend on all sorts of factors, but there is more choice than ever before. Photographers’ agent Lisa Pritchard and commercial photography consultant Zoe Whishaw debate the merits of using stock photography versus commissioning original images. Can you tell the difference? Try our quiz (answers at the end)

LP: So Zoe, I know you’ve held many prominent positions in the stock industry over the years but you must agree that most of the time commissioned photography is the preferred choice? I mean why would a client want to use an image that has been used lots of times before when you can have your own unique, tailor-made photography?

ZW: You’re right, there are certainly times when commissioning a photographer is the right option, especially when a product needs placement or a very particular message needs addressing, but I must say that it’s by no means always the case. Your point about using pictures that have been used many times before could be a bit of a red herring.

There are literally millions of images out there to choose from and at the higher end of the market, many may have had very limited exposure in terms of prominent use. There are two licence types –  rights managed (where the cost to the customer depends on the usage of the image and is for a one-off use only) and royalty free (where the cost to the client is dependent on the size of the file downloaded, and where the image can then be used any number of times thereafter). For the latter, sure, the client can’t assume the image hasn’t been used before and there’s no real way of checking. These pictures are perfect for those campaigns where time is of the essence, an image is needed that communicates successfully and immediately and perhaps the level of prominence in a campaign isn’t that important. For RM, though, it is often possible to trace the history of the use of an image and indeed limit how it can be used by others. This effectively gives the customer varying degrees of exclusive rights over that image – all the way through to buying it outright – without having to go through the time and logistics of putting a bespoke shoot together.

LP: Yes, I appreciate there is the option of buying rights managed imagery but the costs can be astronomical, sometimes more than a commissioned shoot!

We sometimes use the photolibrary calculator facilities as a yardstick when estimating on shoots as we know our clients might also be considering using stock. The costs for the larger usages can be shocking.

People always assume stock is the cheaper option and are surprised that we can actually match it in price with a commissioned shoot. For example, we are doing a shoot at the moment for a ‘well known high street’ chain. The usage is all media in perpetuity and the client needs 20 images. The total quote comes to £8,000 including expenses, so that’s just £400 an image. Only royalty free imagery can match that price.

Likewise our photographers are often commissioned to shoot image banks for particular brands. The client usually wants a comprehensive usage licence so the images can be used throughout their marketing communications by all the agencies on their roster. These shoots are often 5 –10 days long and budgets can be £100,000 – £200,000. However, when the client ends up with over a 100 images and they can use the images forever, worldwide and on everything, this is actually a really cost effective way of doing things if you work out the figures.

ZW: I think it’s always going to be difficult to unpick specific examples as every case is different. Remember that the guides on stock sites are just that – there’s always room for negotiation as with all sensible business when purchasing in multiples. Also, some clients may well have signed up to some sort of subscription model offered by many of the bigger agencies where the costs come down considerably.

But I think we may be going into a bit of a rabbit hole; most of the time the cost to buy the license to use an image will come out considerably cheaper than commissioning the shot(s) in question. For example, to set up a shoot to provide a single image (or two) with several models in a costly location will be outside the budget of most clients (just think of the costs: photographer, stylist, models, make-up, etc, etc). Also, many clients may want to buy several images across a range of themes – perhaps they want a landscape image as well as lifestyle/still life, etc. Commissioning a photographer whose talents cover this range is likely to be much harder (if not impossible).

Also, let’s not forget that stock is there to satisfy the very broad range of needs where any budget can be accommodated. This helps to cater for the vast range of different image users. Increasingly the more boutique agencies are offering outstanding work from celebrated, award-winning photographers who would be next to impossible to commission for some.

LP: Well there will obviously be situations where it is more expensive to commission a shoot than to buy a stock shot but I guess the point I’m making is that there are lots and lots of times when a commissioned shoot actually works out as the same or even cheaper than buying stock, and this is something I don’t think people realise.

Just one last comment on the cost issue and your last point about affording award winning photographers, I’ve represented many award winning photographers over the years and I’ve found that clients will pay what is appropriate for the job in question regardless of how many awards a photographer has won. The end usage of the image is the major overriding factor when deciding day rates – that and how much a client is willing to pay.

Moving on from the subject of price though it’s interesting what you say about clients wanting images across a range of themes and stock being more appropriate here. I appreciate this but, by the same token,  one of the very problems when buying multiple images from a library is the fact that they are likely to be by different photographers and so the overall imagery associated with a brand ends up being really inconsistent. Imagery is such a powerful tool in marketing communications and if it’s all a bit of a mish-mash of styles and tones this really weakens the message.

The great thing about original photography shot to a brief is that not only can the subject matter be tailor made, but there is also the assurance that the feel and tone will be consistent and in line with the ‘personality’ of a brand. We’ve just received a brief for example from a building society client. They want all the imagery to have a real, authentic feel to it – captured moments and warm gestures. By using just one photographer, and with each shot being styled on brief, we will be able to supply a tight set of images that will be recognisably ‘owned’ by the client in question. Potential customers will then more easily understand and recognise the values of the building society when they see the images used in its advertising. This is pretty tricky to achieve with a bunch of disparate stock images.

ZW: You’re absolutely right – when a client wants a range of pictures with a similar treatment/style for a whole campaign, perhaps with the same models featuring across a range of scenarios, it clearly makes more sense to commission a photographer. But you’d be surprised how varied the requests for image themes can be for a major brand’s campaign, remembering that they are often looking to satisfy ideas that relate to corporate responsibility, financial aspects not to mention consumer trends, country-specific themes, etc. It can often prove more cost effective to get the imagery all at one go.

Perhaps the last word from me on the budget side of things is that it is always worth checking out with the agency about what the costs for usage might be for the job in question, and nothing beats having a relationship with an account manager who gets to know their client and with whom you can discuss the project and fee in question. While most stock sites are e-commerce enabled, many of them have dedicated sales agents whose job it is to work closely with their clients on the price.

Back to my original point about award-winning photographers: I guess what I was alluding to here is that as the stock industry continues to innovate around how it offers original content to an increasingly sophisticated range of image buyers, opportunities now exist to use content from world-leading photographers, ie seriously outstanding talent whose content, not long ago, would have been out of reach. I’m talking about the likes of Nadav Kander, Stephen Shore, Massimo Vitali, Joel Meyerowitz and many, many others. I agree with your point about the fact that in the end the images have to speak for themselves, but when there is such incredible talent out there now offering their work for syndication with the range of extraordinary ideas and inventiveness that comes with it, it can be a real surprise to find out that it is possible to have access to them. And I am sure that it’s no secret that many photographers/ad agencies will seek their ideas for their shoots from photo agencies who offer this more challenging and inspirational work – we hear of this all the time!

LP: That’s encouring then that there is original, innovative content available in some photolibraries, I’m not convinced this is prevalent though. Isn’t a lot of stock actually commissioned according to consumer demand, and based around particular themes, ‘older generations’, ‘east London’ or ‘bromance’ for example, a bit like a factory? I know there are some niche libraries whose USP is that they have content from ‘named’ photographers and I can’t deny that this content is likely to be of an aesthetically high standard but I’m not sure how these types of libraries stack up ( and dare I say, survive) compared to the likes of Getty and Corbis. In terms of choice for a client, their offering is a bit limited.

Anyway, if we are talking about original content and inventiveness, let’s look at this from a creative’s point of view. It’s all well and good having access to ‘original’ ideas and images, but they are still someone else’s ideas at the end of the day. Surely the opportunity to collaborate with a photographer and see your own ideas realised is always going to be the more attractive option?

ZW: Some great points there. You’ve got a healthy scepticism about many of the agencies having the type of high-end content I’ve been talking about – certainly it’s not the norm and nor should it be in my opinion! But then that’s how stock has had to differentiate itself as digital technology has made content production and sharing so much easier…it’s diversified so that there’s microstock [eg iStockphoto or Shutterstock], supplying ever more highly produced imagery for very low costs and perfect for the high volume, quick turnaround that many users demand, all the way up through the giants of traditional stock, Getty and Corbis, then on to the top end of Gallery Stock and Trunk Archive where you will find truly extraordinary polished, artful and imaginative work, with many specialists in between.

Succeeding in these more niche areas is all about offering a choice of strong, differentiated content, ease of purchase and, crucially, ease of search. Many choose to be distributed via the big guys (Getty, Corbis, etc) though others are confident in their place in the market and have a dedicated sales force who know their customers intimately. Often it’s absolutely not about producing imagery on a ‘production line’ basis, (though I agree that some agencies do appear to push out the same-old stuff year after year, some would say there’s good reason for that, to keep that oft-used imagery fresh) and instead making imagery that innovates around concepts rather than basic themes. This is much more along the lines that ad agencies work, in terms of looking for more interesting ways to represent the often well-worn metaphors that are used to sell products and services.

And this brings me on to the notion that using imagery from a stock agency somehow emasculates the creative end-user. I’d say that at the end of a long day, for a creative to either come up with an idea for a shot/shoot or for them to find the ideal image amongst tens of thousands (if not more) images in an agency, the result is the same: you may not have shot the image yourself but so long as you’ve spotted its value amongst the mass of other content, you will be providing your creative director with a fabulous shot that nails the concept, and you’ll be the star. Let’s also remember that not everyone is a proficient art director or feels comfortable directing a shoot with all the complex logistics that can accompany it.

LP: I agree to a certain extent that there is still a creative process in choosing stock, but I don’t think this is ever going to top the creative satisfaction you get from the whole photoshoot experience. Writing the brief, choosing the models, styling, locations etc, then directing on the day of the shoot and seeing it all come to life. Some art directors take more of a back seat on shoots admittedly, but that’s where an experienced, professional photographer can step up to the mark. They’ll know how to interpret a commercial brief and deliver the goods. And, logistics wise, that’s where good agents and producers come in; it’s their job to make sure everything runs smoothly.

I think the final thing I just want to say is this: Who would honestly rather be sitting at their computer, looking at thousands of images on a photo library website, when they could be on set or on location having fun on a photoshoot!

ZW: I would agree completely. As a one-time art director myself, there is nothing quite like pulling everything together with the photographer and squeezing the metaphorical pips out of the day. But this simply isn’t always an option for so many reasons we’ve discussed. I guess my last words on this would be that given we live in such time-poor, budget-squeezed times there’s a way out for those who are constrained by one or both of these shackles that can satisfy those who are inspired to find the right image which can be both bang-on brief and ready to use.

Ironically, perhaps, during my 20 years of guiding photographers in their production of content for the advertising, design and corporate markets I have always encouraged them to shoot as much commissioned work as possible to maintain a healthy distance from stock. Combined with an energetic attitude to shooting personal work they are then able to get a much more rounded experience to help boost their portfolio which in the end helps both the agent and the photo agency.

Zoe Whishaw is a commercial photography consultant providing creative direction, strategic advice and mentoring services for photographers, photo agencies and businesses. She worked for 17 years in senior creative and strategic positions at Getty Images, latterly as European director of photography. Since then she has been Creative Director at Image Source and Creative and European VP of Content at Gallery Stock,

Lisa Pritchard has been representing photographers to the ad and design industries for more than two decades. Her first book Setting Up a Successful Photography Business was published in 2012 (A&C Black) and is available on Amazon.

Answers. Picture 1: Stock. Photographed by Simon Roberts, available from Gallery Stock  ( Picture 2: Stock. By Nadav Kander, available from Trunk Archive ( Picture 3: Shot. Part of a series for a limited edition John Lewis calendar 2013. Photographer: Rowan Fee. Agency: Kitcatt Nohr Digitas. Art Director: Jamie Tierney.  Picture 4: Stock. By Michael Thompson, available from Gallery Stock. Picture 5: Shot. From a recent campaign for the new Canon EOS M camera. Photographer: Patrick Harrison. Ad agency: Chaos.

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