Smarter Stock Imagery

Perhaps you’re in the creative industry, and have been noticing a disturbing trend. Maybe your ads or promotional materials don’t look as unique as you’d like them to. Then last week, you saw the image from your “hot” new campaign—on the side of a bus. A lot of buses. With someone else’s logo.

Which means that maybe it’s time to start thinking “out of the lightbox” when it comes to finding imagery to use for your promotional, sales or ad materials.

So following are just a few commandments to get you through—so you don’t end up with the same picture everyone else has got.

Commandment #1: Thou shalt identify your need.
What will you be using your chosen images for? Print or screen? Will you be looking for high-end conceptual or low-end, speciality stuff? Food or sports photography? Take the time to write down what you need, and why—it’ll take hours off your search and ensure that you get the results you really need.

Commandment #2: Thou shalt shop around.
While big stock providers have their disadvantages, the small ones can be invaluable, offering imagery that is more creative and often more exciting and ‘unique’ than what you’ll find with the giants. Small agencies are often especially good at meeting needs within highly specific categories. Try contacting at least 10 agencies—you might be surprised at the diversity and richness of what you find.

Commandment #3: Thou Shalt Use the Net.
Most stock agencies nowadays are just a click away—and thanks to ever-improving image compression technologies, you can view images online that are astounding in their color, variation, diversity, and clarity. So go surfing—see what’s out there.

Commandment #4: Thou shalt use better keywords and descriptive verbiage.
The biggest complaint you’ll hear inside almost any stock photography agency is that people wish prospects and clients would come to them with a little more description on what they want. Instead of asking for “some guy doing something,” try to put a little forethought into what you want—not necessarily the look (I need a 5’3″ guy reading the paper), but the emotion.Are you going for joy? Sadness? Confusion? These are the kinds of adjectives stock industry pros salivate for.

Commandment #5: Thou Shalt Take Your Time.
Whether you’re viewing images online or in print, take a deep breath before you view your candidates. Clear your desk a little so that no outside images interfere. Then pour a great cup of coffee and surf through images—besides, images are fun. Enjoy what you’re looking at. Take note of what moves you. It’s always healthy to take a break, and take some time to be a “mental traveler.”

Commandment #6: Thou Shalt Use Web Catalogs.
One of the shortcomings of the keyword search is that you can’t really find images to browse or consider unless you know the absolute best keywords. Which means that even with great keyword use, you can miss out on those “happy accidents” that so often happen with print catalogs, when you’re browsing through and some wonderful image happens to strike your fancy. The good news is that many stock companies offer Web catalogs and galleries to browse as a substitute for keyword searches. As with the old paper catalogs, web catalogs are usually sorted by category, so that you start your browsing with a general idea of which pages to flip through first. And it’s worth the browse—you’ll be amazed by the images you can find, and which may never have turned up when searching only by keyword.

Commandment #7: Thou Shalt Discover Your Favorite Photographers.
If you’re conducting a search for images and you happen to find several particular images which are close to your vision for a project, jot down the name of the artist or photographer for those pictures you like, then search again using that photographer’s name. When working this way, you’ll have a much better chance of finding a picture subject to match the style you like, and will (even better) get to know a particular photographer’s body of work, to keep in mind for future projects. Each photographer has a particular way of expressing his or her idea that’s unique to them alone, and if you like one picture, you may find a wealth of additional visuals to fall in love with. Again, it’s a way of thinking creatively while still refining your searches, and allowing for that creative lightning to strike while you browse.

See? It’s easy. Just follow these steps and you may end up with the kind of stunning, eye-catching, individual and creative materials that make campaigns, raise billing, and win awards. Either way (best of all), you probably won’t see your picture of choice plastered on the side of a bus.

(C) 2003 Kinya Horikoshi. All Rights Reserved.

Kinya Horikoshi is the executive vice president for worldwide stock photography company Photonica, as well as its newest resource,