How to find stock images for your business that don't suck
First and foremost, I'm a photographer and I very much expect a tongue-lashing from my contemporaries for writing a blog article on stock photography that isn't totally negative. For those of you who take this view towards stock photography, I hear your cries and I don't disagree with you. However, like the hundreds of thousands of optimists who took to the streets in the late 90's to stop globalisation only to realise you weren't stopping anything, we can't deny the gigantic market for stock imagery.
A few years ago in the pre-content marketing era, and before video brought a renaissance to the stock industry, there was a valid argument that stock photography was dead. However a new era has arrived. Content is king and the demand for quality and quantity has increased so much that most brands struggle to keep up without a partial reliance on stock content.
Here's the thing. If you're going to use stock photos, don't use the ones that suck - and that's most of them. Over-exploited, unauthentic, overly-styled, and over-staged images will hurt your brand - just like a limp hand-shake or a bad first-impression. Avoid them. At all costs. Please.
What stock agencies are worth considering?
Before getting into cost, usage-rights, royalties, and all the other muddled terms and conditions that provide confusion for image-buyers, let's start with some of the places that you can get good stock imagery.
keepin' it real
Eyeem is my favourite digital-offspring of the smartphone revolution. They started out as a simple image blog in 2010 with pop-up exhibitions in New York and Berlin and today they are an image community of over 18 Million. How's that for growth?! What I love about Eyeem's image library is that the platform favours smartphone images ( Duh, that is what most of the world is shooting with these days) and the images are, if nothing else, authentic. Forget overly-posed, stark white background shots of staged scenarios. These guys have real images with real people and that makes their content convincing.
Pricing: Images start at 20USD for "social licenses" which basically means web-resolution and usage. If you want exclusive rights, images start at $250USD.
the best free stock photography site on the internet
When I hear the words "free stock photography" I general feel a bout of nausea coming on. Most free stock photography sites are the digital left-overs of big stock agencies that didn't sell or weren't accepted in the first place. They totally suck and I'd encourage businesses to steer away from 99% of them. Pexels, however, is just the opposite. Their library, although not gigantic (keep your search terms simple) is filled with Instagram-chic images taken with D-SLR's and they curate their library well. What I like is they particularly stay on on target with the latest image trends, so you can be sure to find image content that is hot in 2017.
Pricing: Free! Images are available free of charge for personal and commercial use.
They generally range from 1500px - 3000px, so in many cases worthy of print as well.
Perks: Pexels now has a video library as well. Not huge but there are some good finds in there.
Downside: This is a very popular site so don't expect to win any points for originality when you use their images. You're guaranteed to see them being used elsewhere and everwhere. Proceed with caution.
Alternative: Unsplash. Their rival/sister site is Unsplash. Much of the same image content but in my opinion less user-friendly to find what you're looking for.
quirky collections and well-priced
If you're a blogger or agency that needs on-going lifestyle content, PicJumbo Premium is a great resource. They sell monthly subscriptions to designers, bloggers, and creatives with unlimited downloads so you're not restricted if you're needs are small or large. The photo content and quality is similiar to that of Unsplash and Pexels, however the price tag means that not everyone and their dog will be using your images. They also have curated image collections centered around trending content like "sunday doughnuts" and "outdoor office". Something to get your imagination going.
Pricing: Monthly subscriptions from $10-$39 monthly with discounts if you pay annually.
Perks: If you're a designer looking for mock-up images you'll find loads of what you're looking for here:)
Downsides: Im not convinced they have a wide breadth of content beyond lifestyle images.
Fine Art Stock images
Say What?! Fine Art Stock Images....is that not a total oxymoron?! You'd think so but I've been a fan of Farm Boy for over 10 years (They're also Canadian-based so I can't help it) and I think they're doing some great things that extend far beyond traditional stock photography. These guys are pioneers and art-dealers. If you think stock photography is just for content marketing you'd be wrong. If your managing the brand for a hotel, have an office where you need to impress clients, or place of business that needs art on the walls get in touch with these guys. My boutique hotel clients over the years have had lots of success with Farm Boy. They have curated collections of beautiful fine art photography from abstract to urban to simple poetic photo-essays that are good enough to be hung in a museum. You won't have to deal with the logistics of commissioning an artist and their process of selecting a piece to choosing a medium (frames, canvas, size, etc) is tailor-made from the start.
Pricing: Bespoke. You'll have to submit a budget to get started.
Perks: Art consultant-style customer service. Top Notch
Downfalls: You won't see a large library on their public-facing site. Its better to get in touch so they can send you an more extensive library.
5. Vintage Stock Photos
we all love a little nostalgia
As a content creator and brand manager, there's time when you need to introduce a little light-heartedness into a social media strategy. The odd selfie or a bit of nostalgic humour integrated into a serious business post can reveal personality and help shape the tone of your brand. Retro images are a fantastic way to do that. Paired with the right caption they almost always generate some interaction and at the very least they are memorable. If you're looking for a good archive of free vintage photos to use online, this is the place. From 1960's MadMen-style scenes to awkward family vacation photos and mid-century cityscapes, Vintage Stock will be a good friend and resource.
Also, if you fancy wasting some time the way most people do on Instagram, Vintage Stock is an ideal place to do so. Who knows! You might even come across a photo of that crazy great-aunt you never met.
Pricing: Free for personal and commercial use. Images can be downloaded at 1000px wide. Suitable for social media but perhaps not the banner image across your website.
Perks: If nothing else, these images will make you smile
Downfalls: There isn't a huge library here and the site is old so specific searches are difficult. Spend time here when you aren't under deadline.
Stock vs. Commissioned Images
In summary, I can't say that stock photography is the best solution for your brand's on-going image needs. In fact, as the rate of content published online exponentially increases, the need for authenticity becomes greater and greater. It's always best to create exclusive content for your brand that doesn't belong to anyone else. However, when the quantity of images you need out-numbers the hours in any given work week, blending stock images with professionally commissioned images can be a good solution. Just make sure you take into account some of the tips and resources above so that you don't end up with a reputation for crappy, unoriginal photos. With a bit of research and time stock photography can be a successful part of any brand.
For more information on all things branding and photography, spend some time on my site.