We asked the experts behind two dozen innovative marketing and branding agencies to discuss what they’re looking for when browsing for stock photos.
According to a survey released earlier this year by Venngage, seventy-four percent of marketers reported that more than seventy percent of their content contained visuals — a 10.5 percent increase from the previous year alone. Forty-nine percent said visual content was very important to their marketing strategy, and many (another forty percent) relied more frequently on stock photos than any other kind of visuals, including original graphics, videos, and presentations.
But, what kinds of stock photos, specifically, do marketers want to buy in 2021? We went right to the source and asked the experts behind two dozen innovative marketing and branding agencies to tell us about what they’re looking for when browsing for stock photos — and what they want to avoid. With their help, we compiled this quick list of takeaways and tips for planning your upcoming shoots.
Takeaway: Commercial Photos Need More Diversity
Diversity and inclusion were — by far! — the biggest requests among the marketers we interviewed. That means representing people of different backgrounds, genders, races, abilities, sizes, ages, religions, and more, with an eye toward empathy and honesty.
“We need more diversity in stock photography,” Rachael Kay Albers of RKA ink in Chicago, Illinois, tells us. “The lack of imagery portraying real people as they actually live contributes to racism, sexism, ageism, etc.’
“When the only images we have available to us center on white, thin, wealthy, heteronormative people, and that’s what we use to illustrate content, we create an internet of imagery that reinforces inequality and further ingrains prejudices.’
“More than anything, I think this means photographers need to treat their subjects with humanity. For example, I want to see photos portraying people of different sizes doing life — going to work, playing with kids, traveling the world, falling in love, etc. I don’t want to see a litany of sad, overweight people mournfully looking down at scales, gleefully eating plates full of hamburgers and donuts, and crying over oversized salads.’
“The future of marketing, in general, will require us to acknowledge and honor the humanity of the people we are marketing to. If commercial photographers want to survive in this new world, they must embrace diversity and approach their photography with compassion.”
Tip: Make Inclusion a Priority, Not an Afterthought
“Accurate portrayals of women over forty are few and far between, so it would be great to see more photos showing this group that does not fall into the ‘young’ millennial crowd and is not a bunch of blue-haired women in senior situations,” Erica Fite of Fancy, LLC in New York City says.
“We also want to see more footage featuring black people. We need increased representation here if we are going to make any progress toward eradicating racism in this country. Finally, I’ve found it difficult to find accurate portrayals of motherhood that are not saccharine, perfect, or comical. Let’s get some real photos out there of postpartum and nursing moms.”
Tip: Defy Stereotypes
“It would be great to see more diversity and inclusion of different cultures and backgrounds in stock photography,” Franceska Soanes of Polar Creative in Essex and London confirms. “The typical choice for such photos tends to be of people of the same category or stereotypical groups, and that needs to change.’
“For example, plumbing-related images usually only show male plumbers at work, rather than including any female workers of the trade. One of our clients is a plumbing company founded by a female plumber with both male and female engineers, and we’d love to find something more inclusive of their unique selling point!’
“What resonates with us as a marketing and brand agency is stock photography that feels personal and relates to our clients’ target audiences. Overused concepts and stereotypes lack a sense of relatability. On the other hand, photos of people with natural-looking expressions, and professional photos with good lighting, are always a good choice for us.”
Tip: Showcase Families in all Their Forms
“Part of making sure your subject matter is diverse is ensuring that your photos truly and accurately represent unique and non-traditional family dynamics,” the team at Ashworth Creative in New York tells us. “Remember to capture true emotions and interactions, not just staged smiles of people looking straight at the camera. Finally, warm photos — whether it be the lighting, color, or emotion — are important, especially when we’re buying photos for customer service-related topics.”
Tip: Embrace Real Bodies
This tip comes to us from Angela Jacquin of Hundred Rubys Digital Marketing in Seattle, Washington. “Show real skin!” she urges. “We look for skin texture, tone, clarity, freckles, facial peach fuzz, and slight imperfections that make us look like real people. Get close. And please use great lighting.’
“Also, photograph the entire body. Our clients love to see the model close-up, but there is a need to have photos of the same model posed in different ways — such as just the head, head and shoulders, above the waist, the entire body, and also specific areas of the body. Shooting multiple angles of the same model, and with different expressions, ultimately gives us that variety to pick that perfect shot for our clients’ needs.’
“A diversity of skin color and skin type is also important, especially since we focus on medical/beauty marketing. Patients want to know if they are going to a practice with experience treating their skin type. Yes, we can have a writer create content that focuses on a diverse practice, but we also want to illustrate that concept through imagery.”
Takeaway: Authentic Photos Still Resonate the Most
“‘Authentic’ is one of those words that’s easy to say and hard to quantify. Yet, it is exactly what I look for in my imagery,” Greg Goodman of Goodman Creatives in Santa Cruz, California, says. “Powerful and effective stock photography should feel like something you shot last weekend with your friends, yet, it needs to be powerful enough to stand on its own in a marketing campaign. I look for photos that do not feel staged and do not appear to have been taken in a studio.”
Tip: Highlight “Micro-moments”
One way to get those authentic photos is to focus on ordinary, everyday moments that everyone can relate to.
“We look for images that tell a unique story in the form of micro-moments,” Shannon Riordan of Global Brand Works in San Francisco, California, says. “For example, the image above by fizkes shows a person authentically in thought. Similarly, the image below by Jacob Lund, tells a story — you can sense the movement and anticipation of this woman, who is about to step out of her car and into something important.’
“We avoid stock imagery that shows people overly happy, blissfully joyful, and which excludes diversity. Images that capture authentic stories, that show diverse humans, and that capture micro-moments are the ones that we select to best represent the brands and clients we serve.”
Tip: Embrace Subtlety
“We look for unique images that lack the kind of clichéd aesthetic of ‘smiling faces around the conference table’ that many associate with stock photography. Instead, opting for cool confidence and simple beauty,” Dylan Seeger of Lovably in New York City tells us. “We prefer work that’s more subtle and aligns with our principles of aesthetic clarity and restraint.”
Takeaway: Timeliness Can Make all the Difference
“For marketers, it’s important to stay on-trend and relevant, so commercial photographers need to pay attention to the trends in the various industries they are creating content for,” Stephanie Rubio of SoVerve Marketing Group in Orlando, Florida, explains.
“A great example would be the food industry. With the changes brought on by COVID-19, we saw a missed opportunity by commercial photographers to create imagery involving take-out/carry-out content. It’s always important to ask yourself, ‘What will agencies need during this time?’ and create accordingly.”
“My number one tip for new commercial photographers would be to keep an eye on trending social media topics that can affect large mainstream brands,” Danielle Erwin of Robyn & Robyn in Laguna Beach, California, tells us. “For example, when COVID-19 first hit, the photographers who quickly produced mask images and representations of CDC compliance were a lifesaver for my team.’
“On top of this, pay attention to the types of photos large brands are using. Lifestyle, business, and industry-specific images are the bread and butter of the stock photography world. Pay attention to what types of photos large brands are using, and look for patterns. It is not uncommon to see very similar photos used by businesses in the same industry. If you can make a photo that matches the trend but adds a unique feature that could elevate a brand, you’ll go far in commercial photography.”
Takeaway: “Docu-style” Images Feel Fresh and Modern
This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the push for authenticity and relatability in commercial images, especially when it comes to lifestyle and family photography. “We gravitate towards images that feel modern, not sterile,” Kim Cortese, Head of Production at Huge, explains.
“The right lighting sets photos apart from each other. That feeling of starkness that makes up a lot of stock libraries isn’t what we’re looking for. Instead, we’ve been leaning into images that feel soft, more intimate, and more docu-style.’
“Figure out ways to incorporate motion. The idea of photographers capturing stills and motion is appealing in this world, where content is in high-demand and brands are more open to docu-style content.’
“Also, we’re finding a greater need for more diversity in our libraries, including BIPOC and LBGTQ people. At the same time, we’re looking for photos that subtly depict the times — e.g. more intimate settings of families than gathering as groups.”
Tip: Capture Genuine Emotion
“I look for humanness,” Lilah Higgins of The Higgins Creative in Cody, Wyoming, tells us. “I try to find photos that feel like the real conversations and experiences that our clients are having. The clients we work with like to see natural poses that spark emotions of professionalism, but also relatability. Photographs can express so much emotion, so try to capture the real emotions found in everyday life.’
“There is still a huge lack of both diversity and humanness in commercial stock photography. It’s important to find images that a client can see themselves in, and for our agency, we strive to represent all people in all the brands we create. If stock photos lack a realistic, ‘I can see myself in that picture’ kind of vibe, I won’t use them. Instead, I look for shots that capture the genuine emotions of a moment rather than trying to force a subject or a concept.”
Tip: Work in Series or Sets
“I like being able to use multiple stock images from a single shoot or single photographer when I’m able to,” Blair Hannah of Concentric Design in Chicago, Illinois, explains. “This gives a more unified look to whatever I’m working on. Similar to how there are libraries of icons that go together, I’d like to see more collections of images that go together. At the same time, I want the images to be natural, so I don’t want any filters applied. And, I almost never want a stock photo where the subject is looking directly into the camera.”
Takeaway: Images Relating to Health and Wellness Will Continue to be In-Demand
“I think there needs to be an emphasis on more health and wellness trends that reflect modern thinking,” Endrea Kosven of EDK and Company, in the Los Angeles area, explains.
“This was already taking off before the pandemic, but I think now, with a refocus on being healthy and staying well, this trend should be explored more fully with commercial photography. Photos should incorporate both physical and mental wellness themes, as this is really resonating with a wide variety of audiences.’
“At the same time, these images — and all stock images — need to have a natural feel to them and be very ‘Instagrammable.’ Instagram has become a destination for many consumers to browse and ‘window shop,’ so creating images that work well in this platform is necessary. Keep things authentic and real — a slice of life. Show daily life experiences that people can relate to. That’s what sells.”
Takeaway: A Customizable Photo Is a Marketable Photo
“We make use of stock photography to create composite images in which we seamlessly render the client’s product into a scene,” Dylan Rhodes, Principal at The Parker-Lambert Agency in San Jose, California, tells us. “You can easily accommodate for this when staging a scene by leaving an unobstructed flat surface here and there, or shooting a variant with fewer props.’
“Similarly, that electronic device or container of skin cream might add to the richness and realism of the scene, but it can also conflict with the client’s product. The ability to save an hour of cleanup work is one of the best ways to get a creative director to hit that ‘Add to Cart’ button next to your photo.’
“If you’re adding color in post-processing, consider a range of variants from wild to traditional, including neutrals that your customers can adopt to their own palettes. And, if your scene features a model using technology, shoot in ways that the product isn’t easily identifiable.”
Tip: Include Some Copy Space
“We often superimpose text and/or a logo onto an image,” Erika Taylor Montgomery, CEO of Three Girls Media Inc., in Yelm, Washington, explains. “It’s terrific if a photographer has kept this in mind in the framing of the shot, so we don’t have to do additional manipulation to make a logo or text work — or choose another image altogether. Leaving some ‘blank’ space where we can easily superimpose any necessary text is always appreciated.”
Tip: Make It Croppable
“Never crop your shot too tightly,” Fabian Geyrhalter of FINIEN in Long Beach, California warns. “It makes lives for creatives really difficult, especially in web design, where layouts need to work on extra horizontal formats accommodating large screens. Designers spend a lot of time creating fake blurred backgrounds to extend the canvas. Keep that in mind so your photo’s integrity won’t suffer while making designers happy.”
Tip: Upload as Many Variations as Possible
“Branding is a major factor in advertising and changes from company to company,” Jordan Matlovsky of Hudson Creative in New York City admits. “If you have the time and resources, try to create as many different environments (with different colors and tones) while displaying the same subject matter.’
“A person who runs an upscale restaurant might want their chef using stainless steel kitchen appliances cooking steak, whereas a trendy and fun restaurant might want to show the same chef cutting colorful fruit on a light wood cutting board. The only thing that changes there is the colors you’re using in your environment.’
“Setting also plays a big role. For example, I always love to see people represented in their city environments. So, if I have my choice between representing a company inside their office space or having a photo of the team hanging out at their favorite nearby park, I would rather show them enjoying their city, rather than in their office.’
“Similarly, instead of business people in suits sitting at a table in a conference room, maybe they could be outside at a coffee shop looking over a deal. Think outside the box, and, if you can, provide different variations on the same theme.”
Takeaway: Technology Is Changing Our Daily Lives, and That’s Important to Illustrate
“Technology is rapidly changing, and how we use that technology is changing just as quickly,” Damon Yerian of SmartBug Media explains. “Stock photography has always had to rise to the challenge of featuring the latest technology, but it’s now critical to feature people using that technology in authentic ways.’
“Traditional workplace environments are adapting. More people are working remotely, and that doesn’t necessarily mean working from home. We’ve been using more shots where technology is being used, and the screen is partially or wholly visible, allowing us to superimpose appropriate content onto the screen. Rather than showing a software product on a standalone laptop, it’s engaging to see the product in use in an authentic setting.”
Takeaway: Color Is In
“When you’re scrolling through a social media feed, which photo is going to stand out more: a sepia-toned shot or a vibrant image full of colors and life?” Annie Smith of Golden Tusk Marketing in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, asks. “Full disclosure: I do have a soft spot for those incredibly artistic sepia and B&W shots, but when you’re trying to grab someone’s attention from a stream of never-ending content, you have to stand out. Bright pinks, neon greens, vibrant oranges, yellows, blues — those make people stop scrolling.”
Tip: Add a Human Touch (Literally)
“I love the feel of flat lay photography with people’s hands included in the images,” Kaitlyn Study of South Street & Co. in Orlando, Florida, tells us. “I’ve seen flat lay photography come so far in the last couple of years, and I love the clean and minimalistic aesthetic that’s trending now.’
“Fun and eclectic colors and patterns are also something I’ve seen more of, and I’m loving all of the different ways and areas that we can integrate them for social media and blog feature images. At the same time, an image that has a more realistic feel stands out for us. I look for images that are more ‘real-life’ than traditional stock images you’d think of.’
“A lot of clients don’t have the budget to hire a photographer each time we produce content, so finding images that are realistic and in-line with their brand’s look and feel is a must. We love to use those ‘hands-in-frame’ shots for our website images because they feel relatable and trendy at the same time.”
Takeaway: A Properly Tagged Photo is a Visible Photo
“If a photo is tagged correctly, it’s easier to locate when searching stock sites,” Cody Cash of LimeLight Marketing in Pittsburg, Kansas, tells us. “When tagging, it’s also better to be specific. We work with clients across a variety of industries, some of which require very specific images — such as medical scenarios or warehouse robotics.’
“For example, it’s very rare that we would search for ‘happy,’ but highly likely that we might search for ‘happy; patient; IV; nurse.’ Essentially, it’s like taking an SEO approach to composing each photo. Framing up potential images/compositions in terms of SEO logic can be incredibly helpful. Start with a specific target market/scenario in mind. Think about customers’ needs/wants, build out with those in mind, and then ensure it is tagged correctly when uploaded.”
To learn more about tagging, check out our article Keywording for Stock: The Tips You Need to Know.
Takeaway: Creativity Always Counts
“Find a new angle,” Ike Elimsa of twelve12 in Orange County, California, urges. He means that figuratively — as in, find new subjects and themes — but he also means it literally. Move around, and capture something you don’t see every day.’
“Push the boundaries,” he advises. “Don’t take photos like everyone else does. Turn it upside down, and find the shots no one else can find. Take your time to study the subject — really study the subject (whatever it may be) — just like portrait photographers would study their subjects before a photo shoot. When a subject is studied and the photo is taken properly, anything can look amazing.’
“I look for quality in composition and creativity in the shots I buy. Also when shooting, remember to think of the crop factor for all media uses, especially social media and web. When you visualize the shot in a variety of crop factors while taking it, the photo will go much further!”
Tip: Trust Your Vision
“I believe photographers should shoot with their own vision in mind,” Quinn Gravier, Head of Photography at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, tells us. “Too many photographers think exclusively about having a versatile image and end up creating images that are so generic that they don’t fit our briefs. Focus on creating something that is unique to your vision, and you can find clients that share that vision.’
“When we look for stock photography, we look for things that feel natural and unique. We don’t want to use the same stock photograph everyone is using. Images that have dramatic angles, lighting, and color are more likely to break through the mass and get noticed.’
“Finally, photograph the things that interest you. I saw many photographers who documented the COVID-19 situation in New York City at its peak because they were interested in it and saw how much importance it would play in our lives in the coming months. A lot of these same photographers were able to get gigs or license their work because they were out doing their thing, photographing — not necessarily photographing with a client in mind but following what interested them.”
Cover image by Cavan Images.
Get more inspiration for creating diverse and high-quality stock images here: