Still images, still powerful.

Photography is everywhere, but nowhere is it more prolific than on the internet, where it is sprayed over web sites like candy from a smashed piñata, often with no thought to quality, relevance or placement. It’s just a way to break up text, and the general approach is that the cheaper this can be done, the better.

Of course the internet is a visual medium; nobody relishes reading acres of dense text, and the interspersion of text with pictures is more pleasing to the eye, but the over-use of low-cost stock imagery means that the images have become almost invisible, and their impact is lost.

Dark Light

Even a stock-style photo can be exclusive to one client.

The easy availability of this low-cost imagery on the web has caused another problem. Businesses, usually unknowingly, are using the same imagery as their competitors. This often happens because web designers will resort to using micro-stock sites such as istockphoto to source images, using the same search terms for similar clients. The result is a kind of Stepford Wives look to sites across the web and businesses look indistinguishable from their competitors.

If the imagery a business uses doesn’t set it apart from its competitors, what is the value of that imagery? What power will the images have to entice the prospective client to spend money with one business over another?

This ubiquity of imagery has diluted the power of photography on the web, but this isn’t photography’s fault, nor the fault of photographers. It’s just a stage internet design is going through. A bit like stages children go through on their way to becoming adults. Internet design is at the spotty teenager stage. It’s not pretty, not always useful around the house, and doesn’t know what it wants to be. However, this apparently ugly scenario can be made to work in favour of businesses who want to retake the initiative.

What businesses can do, and from my recent experiences are starting to do, is commission more bespoke photography and use less non-exclusive stock imagery. They’re presenting themselves as real businesses with real people, not the West Coast American-looking androids favoured by stock libraries for their blandness and interchangeability. Putting a genuine face to the public instead of hiding behind a sterilized façade means photography can be powerful again.

Designers I speak to are also starting to realise that their wonderful designs tend to lose impact once the generic stock images are plonked in, or they’re having to build the design message around whichever cheap pictures they have to hand. Designers are having to learn how to sell real photography to their clients again or face their designs simply costing their clients money, instead of bringing in sales.

So as the internet emerges from its teenage years, will business once again discover the power of genuine, bespoke photography? In the days of the printed brochure, you rarely had to suffer seeing photos taken by the boss’s nephew, and businesses paid good money to keep their identity unique from their competitors. As the internet goes from teenage to adulthood, so business web sites must mature into truly professional platforms for marketing, not just concentrating on site structure, graphics and text but the imagery too. Those that embrace exclusive imagery will find the extra investment creates a greater return.

It isn’t easy to shoehorn all these concepts into a blog, but if you would like to know more about how genuinely unique photography could help your business, drop me a line. Maybe I can help get your business through puberty relatively unscarred by acne.

Article and photos © Tim Gander. All rights reserved 2009

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  • J H Peterson November 7, 2009   Reply →

    I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one that believes in the future of stock photography. You are so right in stating that the last decade or so has been difficult for those who have produced quantities of stock imagery; it has largely become priced as a commodity where the lowest cost provider (whether brother-in-law, partner, family friend or fishing buddy) usually prevailed .
    It wasn’t that long ago (say, less than twenty years back) when a sizeable portion of my business was in stock sales. I would most welcome seeing those “good old days” return.
    This leaves me with one question, for those of us who have invested in the high-end equipment (I’m currently using Canon 1DS bodies and L glass lenses exclusively), is it not really overkill to use these products capable of delivering such high resolution when the market is moving from print to web usage?

    • Glass Eye November 7, 2009   Reply →

      Thanks for your comment J.

      I have something of a love-hate relationship with stock because I work mostly on commissions, which stock has always had the ability to eat into. However, I believe if clients must use stock they should at least consider agencies like alamy.com where the model is at least less exploitative. They make an effort to get better rates for stock, and pass higher percentages onto the photographer, allowing them to continue shooting and innovating. Micro-stock is slowly throttling innovation.

      At some point I will write more about what micro-payment stock has done to the industry and the pitfalls it exposes businesses to (apart from the bland ubiquity of it mentioned in this article).

      You have a point about the kit levels, except you can never tell in advance when that super-fast lens and the larger image file will save the client’s trousers when they need to use something big and at top quality. I always believe in shooting at the top end, with the understanding it might only be used small in electronic form.

  • Tina Pascal November 7, 2009   Reply →

    Take a gander at this updated bespoke website Tim!

    We are really pleased with the more personal photographs you took of our business premises and therapists at Positive Living.
    Thank you so much for your input and ideas, I will be in touch soon as more therapists would like to have their photographs on our therapists pages.

    • Glass Eye November 7, 2009   Reply →

      Hi Tina!

      You’re too kind, but I appreciate your comment and I look forward to working with you again very soon.

      And oh my! that site is so much better now. Well done, you must be really pleased.

      Hope to see you again soon.

  • Pete Marshall November 7, 2009   Reply →

    Good article! As a designer I hate to see other sites using a stock image that I’ve had to use in a design.

    Interesting point too on how designers need to start to sell real photography to clients for a unique feel. I’ve always tried to do this however it’s a very tough sell for smaller companies.

    • Glass Eye November 7, 2009   Reply →

      Hi Pete

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. As a new blogger, it’s quite heartening.

      I feel your pain and I understand the problem too. Many designers tell me their clients don’t have a budget for photography, but I believe there are ways around this and I’m determined to help designers and clients in any way I can – through advice, joint promotion, even attending client meetings with them so I can advise at the earliest stages of projects. This is something not many photographers are willing to do, but I see it as part of my service.

      I hope you keep reading, because I’ll be looking at all these issues in future articles.

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