Blog Home Tips & Tutorials Creative Tips Why Documenting Complex Subjects is Important to Stock Photography

Photography is a powerful tool to document the world around us. Discover the importance of tackling tricky subjects for stock, and why photographic storytelling is so vital to show a representative world.

The extraordinary access we have to cameras is changing how we visually communicate. We are living at an unprecedented time in history in more than one way. 45.4% of the world have access to a smartphone with the ability to capture a still image, documenting a moment in time.

This gives us an incredible opportunity to capture the world around us as it’s happening. Stories have the power to effect change. Impactful photographic storytelling educates us about complex topics that may not be easy to understand without the context of a visual.

Representative Imagery in Stock Photography

In stock photography, global brands are using the visuals created by photographers to tell stories. That’s why tackling complex subjects and creating representative imagery is so important to consider when creating stock photographs. Photographs have the power to stop time and give the viewer a moment to react and soak in the details of complex subjects.

The imagery that we see every day on social media, digital advertising, and in print has a major impact on visualizing the real world. Shutterstock has more than 350 million images contributed by over one million contributing artists globally. If we aren’t creating representative imagery of complex topics, brands won’t have the opportunity to use them and change how we visualize realness in the world.

Representative Imagery in Stock
Now is more important than ever to tell the stories of the world around us through visuals. Image by Sabrina Bacher.

Real Storytelling Changes the Visual World 

Stories are fundamental to advancing human culture. There has never been a more prolific time to use creative expression to effect real change. Traditionally in popular culture and mass media, visuals target the majority audience. However, this leaves every minority audience and subculture with little visibility in the marketplace, showing a partial view of the world.

Consider the world around you when you are creating stock. What are the stories you’re seeing that aren’t being told? When brands have access to multi-dimensional imagery, they can have a powerful impact on how the world is visualized. In today’s article, we’re discussing a few complex subjects that we’d love to see tackled more in stock photography. 

Mental Health Images Without Stigma

A mental illness is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. Visualizing mental health is always evolving, normalizing the topic as we continue to have conversations about mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic, shined a spotlight not just on concern just for our physical health but our mental health as well. The more representative visuals we have for mental health, the more we de-stigmatize discussions about mental health. The complexities of mental health and its spectrum of impairments mean that visualizing mental health can have endless possibilities. 

For more ideas on photographing and considering mental health, check out these articles:

Fighting Mental Health Stigma with Imagery
We need to remove the stigma around mental health, and showcase representative imagery that depicts the signs and process of mental health. Image by Dragana Goridic.

Body Inclusivity 

Empowering visuals have the power to spark conversation and spread awareness. The rise of body positive imagery enables more people globally to embrace and accept themselves.

The acceptance of natural bodies continues to rise around the world. We are moving away from the misconception that skinny is the only acceptable body standard in marketing. Brands are rising to the challenge to redefine body realness in marketing, like in this open letter in the New York Times from ThirdLove’s CEO Heidi Zak to Victoria’s Secret. When it comes to body types, there is no one standard. The body positivity movement is eradicating body standards in advertising. Now is the time to celebrate visuals that embrace individuals of all backgrounds, body types, skin tones, ages, and identities. 

To continue your body inclusivity education, check out these articles:

Body Inclusivity
It’s time to redefine body realness in visual marketing. Image by

The Fullness of Identity 

As we continue to move away from one-dimensional visual storytelling, we continue to look for images that are representative of the world as a whole. How an individual identifies and the groups they identify within often frame that person’s story before observers consider the real life of that person, without the stereotypical characteristics they are photographed within. 

LGBTQA+ Storytelling

For example, within LGBTQA+ storytelling, LGBTQA+ advertising often follows a one-dimensional romantic path. Rarely do we visualize members of the LGBTQA+ outside their romantic or sexual interests. The possibilities of LGBTQA+ visuals are endless and should be reflected in media documenting rich and full lives. For more tips on creating representative LGBTQA+ stock photos, check out this article.

The Fullness of Identity
Representational imagery of the LGBTQA+ community is more than stereotypical romantic relationships and rainbow flags. Image by Jacob Lund.

Living With a Disability 

Another example of one-dimensional storytelling based on identity is stereotyping a person with disabilities. Often in ads, a person with disabilities is pictured as a hero “overcoming” their disability, or as outside the focal point of conversation.

Globally, this community represents 15% of the world’s population. And yet the media often completely overlooks or represents them in stereotypical situations. It’s time to move the visual language forward in how we can more accurately represent individual identities.

Living with a Disability
We need to better represent the individual identities of people living with a disability in images. Image by Dusan Petkovic.

The Spectrum of Skin

The absence of minority representation in advertising encourages viewers to mistake the “shown particular” as the “implied general.” A lack of visibility encourages people to view what they see as representative of the whole. When only caucasian people show up in ads, it can affect the audience’s perception of the world as a whole.

Brands are just scratching the surface when it comes to recognizing the full spectrum of skin tones and skin conditions in advertising. Visualizing diversity of people should be considered in all forms. This means addressing issues of colorism by reflecting all skin shades, instead of the shades of the perceived majority. It also means reflecting skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, rosacea, or vitiligo to reflect a more comprehensive view of reality in marketing.

For more on skin tones and conditions in visual marketing, check out these articles:

The Spectrum of Skin
Representative imagery of skin tones, skin conditions, and aging should be present in stock images in non-tokenistic ways. Image by Sabrina Bracher.

Modern Cannabis Culture

As cannabis usage becomes increasingly legal across the world and brands think of new ways to use it, the visualization of consumption is changing. We no longer visualize cliche imagery of stoners and hippies. Instead, consider visuals of modern day-to-day marijuana usage in new forms. We need to rethink how we visualize marijuana usage, from entrepreneurs using marijuana in their products, to how marijuana is farmed, and the health-conscious lifestyles associated with marijuana usages such as CBD oils, body balms, and tinctures. We need marijuana visuals that are representative of the wide spectrum of people using marijuana in new and innovative ways.

For more tips on documenting marijuana for stock, check out these articles:

A New Cannabis Culture
For areas where marijuana usage is legal, better imagery is needed to depict creative uses of marijuana and CBD. Image by BAZA Production.

Family Realness

When you imagine a stock image of a family, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is a photograph of a picture-perfect, nuclear caucasian family sitting around the dinner table passing a turkey around. Unfortunately, more often than not that is not a realistic perspective of a family.

Families are complex. At times, families have arguments and shed tears. Realistic visuals show messy kids with faces covered in jello, or rooms with piles of laundry. Blended families exist, as do LGBTQA+ families, and families around the world whose traditions and daily lives vary compared to the American perspective of family. We want to see more representative images of real families, and the moments in-between when everything is not quite so perfect. Visualizing diversity in family moments brings awareness to people that every family has problems. Every family has moments of imperfection that are relatable globally.

Family Realness
Capture the full spectrum of family emotions, including the less positive moments. Image by Glowonconcept.

These are just a few of the complex topics that photographers should consider documenting for stock. Some of the other topics worth exploring include: Climate Change, Gender Stereotypes, Sustainability, The Female Gaze, and Indigenous Storytelling.

Today, consumers are smarter than ever and are using their power to push brands to be more transparent, honest, and real in how they market their products. Documenting complex subjects through photography continues our work to accept the differences of humankind, and promote empathy for those around us. This is not a trend. It’s a movement for change. We can’t wait to see what you create next.  

Top image by Glowonconcept.

Looking for more ideas on what to shoot? Check these out: