The 5 biggest myths about stock imagery in design

The words ‘stock imagery’ bring to mind cliches such as 'Woman on telephone in call centre,' 'People shaking hands' and 'Man with furrowed brow in front of laptop.' But is that all that stock libraries have to offer?

It’s certainly the case that there are some poor stock images out there, not to mention poor uses of otherwise good quality photography. But that doesn’t mean that you should discount the very real strides stock libraries have made in recent years in creating high-quality imagery that can help bring your designs to life.

Here we examine some of the biggest myths surrounding stock imagery, and why they’re just plain wrong...

Myth 01: Stock photography lacks authenticity

'Exercising with kettlebells gym' by Ryan J Lane

'Exercising with kettlebells gym' by Ryan J Lane

The overly polished, glossy and unrealistic stereotype of stock imagery is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Search for stock images today and you’ll find a range of realistic representations of how people today really live and interact.

Freelance graphic designer and illustrator Gavin Campbell believes that this change has been driven in part by demand from creatives. “I’ve been using stock libraries for about 16 years,” he says. 

“There’s always the issue of having 'stock that looks like stock’, and I think that over the last 10 years there’s been a great need for me to get hold of stock that doesn’t look like stock; that looks more creative. So I think it’s getting better.”

Myth 02: Stock imagery is unprofessional

Sophie Ebrard is a commercial photographer who’s been approached by stock image libraries

Sophie Ebrard is a commercial photographer who’s been approached by stock image libraries

You’ll often hear from designers and agency heads that they never use stock, because their clients wouldn’t accept it. But ask yourself: has a client really ever complained about the use of a stock image – or even had any clue about where an image came from? Or are you just putting your own preconceptions into their mouths?

Because the idea that stock imagery is of necessity low quality is probably more in your head than anything else. “I think there’s a shift, so photographers now really care about the images that they put on stock libraries, as if they are images they would use for their own portfolio,” says Adobe’s Richard Curtis

“Photography is a very challenged market right now,” he points out. Everyone’s got a camera, everyone thinks they are a professional photographer. So I think the opportunity for photographers is to take stock seriously. The difference is quality.”

Photographer Sophie Ebrard is living proof of this. “I am a commercial photographer who makes money by doing advertising campaigns,” she explains. 

“I’ll also shoot my personal work and on the side I’ve been approached by a stock company that wanted some of my pictures. When advertising agencies present work to clients, let’s say Corona, they haven’t shot the pictures yet, but they want to show the work in order to present it to the client – so they need to have that image ready.”

Myth 03: Stock imagery is homogeneous

'Mixed race lesbian family portrait' by funky-data Advertisement

'Mixed race lesbian family portrait' by funky-data Advertisement

It’s easy to associate stock imagery with smiling, airbrushed models and happy, 'perfect' nuclear families. But that’s very much not the case any more. In today’s stock libraries you’ll find representations of humanity in all its diversity, including single parents, gay parents, stay-at-home dads, mixed race families and blended families.

This is partly a reaction to changing social trends, but it’s also about stock providers driving change themselves.

For example, iStock by Getty Images has been been actively collaborating with LeanIn.Org, the women's empowerment nonprofit founded by Sheryl Sandberg, to eradicate stereotypes in stock images and present positive role models of today’s women.

Myth 04: Stock imagery is a cheap knock-off

These days, photographers are taking stock seriously, says Paul Sanders

These days, photographers are taking stock seriously, says Paul Sanders

Using a stock image in your designs is certainly cheaper than going out and organising a bespoke shoot for yourself. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything cheap about the product itself. In fact, pro photographers are making good money out of stock these days – more so than other areas – and so are keen to put the effort in and do the best job they can.

By way of example, photographer Paul Sanders notes in Professional Photography issue 17 that when he was picture editor of The Times, “There was a chap who came in and said, ‘I want to make money in news photography.’ I said, ‘There is no money in news photography. You get paid £160 a shift and some expenses and that’s it. 

'If you want to make money, go to London, photograph all the street furniture, all the signs, all the road signs, all the stuff on the pavements that say, Cycle, Give Way and everything. Put it with a stock library and you’ll make money from being in newspapers. Your name will never appear next to any pictures in a newspaper, but you’ll make money from it.’ And he phoned me up about 18 months later and said he’s making £65,000 a year – this was 10 years ago.”

Photographers wouldn’t be making this much money if they weren’t providing the kind of images that people are looking for, so why not check out stock libraries and see what all the fuss is about?

Myth 05: Stock is just about photography

Stock image libraries now often offer illustrations, video and icons

Stock image libraries now often offer illustrations, video and icons

If you assumed that all you could get from stock libraries was stock photography, then think again. Stock video footage, including 4K videos, stock illustrations, stock icons, stock textures and more are all on offer. In fact, some libraries are now even providing 360-degree stock video for your virtual reality projects.

In short, If there’s a design asset you’re looking for, you’ll probably be able to find it in a stock library. Take a look at some of the cool visuals on offer in our 7 sources of free design inspiration from stock libraries post.

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Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.