Original Photography vs Stock Photography

By Katja Schindler, Creative Director

November 01, 2017

The technology of smart phones and digital photography has changed how we view the “craft” and skill of creating images. Filters and apps make it easy for anyone to create stunning and accessible results. The days of using chemicals to develop film in the darkroom are long, long gone. And I’m not going to lie, I love the quality of photos my iPhone produces, and all the filters that make it seem like I’m a seasoned pro!

But the truth is, when it comes to advertising, there is still more to an image than meets the eye.

At S&B we hold strong in our belief that in successful communication, content and design work together. Photography — especially good photography — plays an important role in this. A photo, illustration or unique graphic treatment is usually the first point of engagement that draws people in to connect with your message. But “a pretty face” only goes so far, and an image needs to work in conjunction with your message, both seamlessly and authentically. There is still a big difference between our selfies, the photos sold on stock sites and a crafted photo taken by a professional photographer that is art-directed with specific communication goals in mind.

Of course, we all know that budgets play into creative decisions, so the question often arises, “can’t we just use stock photography instead of original photography”? My initial answer to this is, “you get what you pay for”, but the reality is a little more nuanced, and there is a time and place for both. Let’s look at some best practices to keep in mind when you are faced with the question on your next project.


Taking stock of stock

Clichés, craftsmanship, consistency and cost. These are all things to consider when making decisions about photography.

Clichés and authenticity.

Stock photography choices have improved over the years, but stock still tends to rely on clichés. And while it might seem economical to use a generic photo that shows “happy employees,” your customers have a refined eye for authenticity. People know how to sniff out a fake. Several marketing experiments have shown that people notice original imagery more often than stock. The reason? Stock gets used everywhere and people see a lot of similar images. If you are using royalty free stock images, anyone can purchase the same image and use it how they choose, even your competitor. (Rights-managed stock images can be purchased at a higher cost, and do allow for more exclusive use).

A royalty free stock image can be used by anyone for any purpose


A professional photographer will be able to capture the true nature of your brand, be it the people who work for you or the product or service you provide. And you will own the rights to the images. This means that photos of your “happy employees” won’t show up in a billboard for a dentist’s “happy employees”.

When it comes to promoting your brand, why would you be anything but authentic?

Craftsmanship and detail.

Your product or service is unique, and it’s valuable. It should be shown in its best light, so that potential customers can see the value it will add. With stock imagery, what you see is what you get. And that might be amateurish or outdated work. The level of skill on stock sites varies greatly.

Some examples:

Selling dehumidifiers

Stock image (L) : generic, does not highlight the product, non-memorable
Professional photoshoot (R): Unique and creative lighting, branded, impactful and established, inspires trust in the brand


Recipe featuring mozzarella cheese in a unique pairing

Stock image (L) : generic, does not highlight the product, lacks appetite appeal, un-inspired
Professional photoshoot (R): Creative focus and lighting, strong appetite appeal, professional food and prop styling, inspires engagement


When you work with a photographer, you’ll establish the right composition and look from the beginning to get exactly what you need. Details matter. A photographer will work with your creative team to make sure no stone goes unturned, and that details such as lighting, focus, and composition all bring out the best in your product or service. Advertising campaigns, product and food photography in particular benefit from art direction and the skills of photographers and stylists.


If multiple images are needed for a project, it can be difficult to find stock images that look like they are part of the same family and were shot together. This can make for inconsistencies in the look and feel of your communication as well.

If you work with a photographer, a consistent tone will be established and carried throughout all of your images. This partnership can continue to benefit your product or service over time by maintaining a recognizable style and tone that is uniquely your own.

Cost. You get what you pay for.

For the most part, a single stock photo is less costly than a photoshoot. However, it can take a lot of time to mine the vast pool of stock photography to find high quality, relevant images. It can also take time to “fix” those images or adjust them to fit your needs. Despite our magical manipulation skills, an art director’s time spent in photoshop can end up costing more than a photoshoot might have.

When you hire a photographer, you will get exactly what you need, you will receive the rights to your images and, more often than not, you will get extra out-takes that you can use as well. Most importantly, the quality of photography will be a direct reflection on your brand.


A few final tips

We believe in the value of craft and using original photography to strengthen and support our clients’ brands and messages. We also understand that sometimes budgets can be restrictive. Your agency is your partner and can advise on when it makes the most sense to work with a professional photographer to get the best value, or when stock is suitable. A few additional guidelines:

When does it make sense to hire a photographer?

  • For materials that communicate your unique and authentic brand
  • For campaigns that convey an original concept, story or message
  • For product photography
  • For food photography
  • For editorial profiles

When does it make sense to use stock?

  • For projects that have a limited turn-around time and/or a limited budget
  • To supplement existing photography (provided you can find images that match in style and tone)
  • For simple images that don’t require a background/ where environment is not needed
  • For projects that are internal, or more playful

As for the selfies and weekend warrior shots? We still recommend that those stay in the social realm!


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Grate. Pair. Share.

Grate. Pair. Share.

This digital magazine combines recipes developed in-house with mouthwatering food photography.

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