Photography: Yuri Arcurs/iStockPhoto
Amateurs have invaded the photography world. They have limited skills, little talent and wouldn’t know a great photo if it were pasted on a billboard next to a headline saying “Great photo!” They’re responsible for bringing down the price of photography for everyone and it’s their fault that the same dull images of grinning models and headset-wearing women appear on page after page and ad after ad. And that’s just the buyers.
There are no figures that indicate the percentage of stock photography bought by part-time business builders rather than professional image editors but the corollary of the decline of editorial photography has been the rise of online image use. It’s that demand that underlies the rise of microstock: low-cost images for businesses, particularly websites, with little income, no budget and often one person who does everything from planning the website to answering the phones, including buying the pictures. Professional photographers might complain about the growth of enthusiasts with folders full of cheap images of variable quality but the same complaint applies to the people who buy those images. Stock buyers are now as likely to be part-time enthusiasts rather than full-time professionals as the contributors themselves.
The effects of part-time buyers buying from part-time sellers though are clear too. When a microstock image sells several thousand times, it becomes both ubiquitous and copied. When producing images is always a gamble, being able to see that an image is popular provides useful insight into the thinking of customers and the kinds of images they consider worth purchasing. Stock sites’ own willingness to reveal the number of downloads an image has generated — an important consideration for those buyers who don’t want overused photos — helps contributors to understand market preferences. When sites reveal trends, they’re going out of their way to push contributors towards producing images that are commercial but not original.
Some Customers Do Care
Sometimes though buyers will push back. Corey O’Laughlin, a content marketing specialist at MarketingProfs, a membership site that teaches marketing techniques to small business owners — exactly the type who are most likely to buy microstock images — recently offered her readers a warning list of the top twelve overused stock images. The list included a generic handshake, happy, leaping business people, a United Nations of multicultural office workers, and, of course, an attractive young woman wearing a headset and thrilled to take your call. As one commenter wrote in response:
“Any editor that would even think of using these has displayed a total lack of imagination.”
But if that commenter is right there do seem to be lots of editors with a total lack of imagination. The image of the customer service rep in O’Laughlin’s list is a Yuri Arcurs photo called “Cute business customer service woman smiling,” a title guaranteed to hit the right buttons in stock site search engine results. If it’s clichéd, it’s because — according to iStockPhoto alone — it’s been downloaded more than 4,300 times in the sixteen months since it was uploaded.
Don’t Blame the Photographers
Photographers then can hardly be blamed for offering the same dull images again and again. If an accusation of producing a clichéd image comes with a four- or five-figure check, there are few photographers who would turn it down — especially not a professional photographer. As long as buyers keep buying clichéd images, photographers who care about the bottom line will keep producing them.
And the buyers will keep buying them in part as long as they lack the budget to buy something better. Writing on BloggerTone, a business blog, Web developer Beatrice Whelan, described what happened when she chose some stock food images for a restaurant with a specialist menu. The client, she said, was appalled at her choice of generic images that failed to reflect the uniqueness of her food.
“This restaurant hand-made their pasta from scratch every day and apparently people who know their pasta can tell the difference from fresh and processed pasta in a photo,” Whelan said. “There were similar problems with other photos I had chosen of pizzas and even the salads….The stock photos were not genuine and since the restaurant was genuine about the food that they served, these stock photos could not be used on the site.”
But the restaurant had a small marketing budget that didn’t stretch to commissioning a photographer, the best solution for a company with a unique product. Whelan’s own recommendation that buyers should use images of themselves and their own employees instead of turning to generic images of models is fine for companies with employees and an income that can pay for a photographer, but it’s not an option for many tiny businesses.
It might not be fair to blame a buyer for not being wealthy enough to commission a photographer, but perhaps it’s still possible to blame them for not being discerning enough when they make their purchases. Although the popularity of some stock images will prompt copycats to produce alternative versions, the sheer number of images available means that there should be plenty of options for buyers looking for something original.
Those kinds of images though aren’t easy to find. Microstock sites tweak their search engine results to show not just images that that contain the right keywords in their titles and tag lists but to show first those images that are new and selling. The more popular — and clichéd — an image becomes, the more likely it is to be offered and to become even more popular. Stock sites allow users to sort results by filters that include Downloads, Best Match, File Age, and Contributor. They don’t offer filters for originality or creativity.
Perhaps blame for clichéd stock images need to be shared equally then. Stock sites play their role by promoting popular images rather than creative ones. Photographers play a part by (understandably) chasing buyers’ tastes rather than original imagery. And buyers lack the time, the taste and the resources to choose images that are different and unique as well as well-made. That’s not just true of amateur buyers though. Corey O’Laughlin’s list included two images of someone writing on a clear board. Her own professional company used one of those images on a Web page.