Creating More Effective Stock Photography Images

Photography: ckaroli

Photographers hoping to sell usage licenses are always shooting in the dark. They have to produce images first, investing in time, effort, model hire and equipment, then hope that they’ve generated pictures for which there is a demand. Their compositions may be based in part on experience, on a browse of a site’s most popular images, or on a review of their own sales statistics, but there are also a number of other factors that a photographer can consider as he or she starts thinking about images that are more likely to attract a buyer’s eye.

The easiest option is to produce pictures which include ethnic minorities. This is a demand that comes up again and again from buyers, especially those whose clients are selling outside the United States. Customers want to see people in ads that look like them, so if your portfolio is dominated by shots of one particular ethnic group, one easy way to raise sales might be to expand your model base and create some pictures that can sell further afield.

More challenging is to create images that are effective rather than decorative. Buyers prefer images that don’t just draw attention to the page but also communicate a message. That’s always what commercial photographers are trying to do. They won’t just take a picture that shows what an object looks like; they’ll attempt to communicate the product’s main sales point visually. This shot on the home page of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, for example, is accompanied by a tagline that contains a clear dig at the product’s main rival.

The message that the Galaxy Tab can do things that the iPad can’t do is underlined in the image which shows the tablet displaying active widgets, a feature that Apple doesn’t offer. The image used on Apple’s own website prefers to focus on its tablet’s slim size. The first picture shows the device held between finger and thumb.

Commercial photographers are hired for their ability to bring out a message from a picture of an object and art directors are assigned to tell them which brand characteristics to focus on. For stock photographers, that’s a little harder. Brands can’t be shown in stock images and the images have to be more generic. Sports cars though should look fast; athletes should communicate athleticism; telescopes should suggest that they reveal things that can’t be seen otherwise. The message might be general but it should also be clear.

The Eyes Tell Viewers to Read the Copy

That might sound obvious but it’s something that many buyers ignore and smart designers pay attention to when they choose their pictures. Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert, used eye-tracking technology to reveal what happened when the Yale School of Management placed on its application page a generic image of students. The image added no new information to the page and did nothing more than fill space. The eye-tracking data showed that the picture was entirely ignored. Photo buyers want the images they buy to have a greater effect. A stock image might not be able to do that by communicating a product’s main sales point, but it can point to the text around the image, especially when it includes the smart use of a face.

James Breeze, an Australian usability specialist, found that even children as young as eleven months are more likely to look at a face on a page than at any other element, and will spend more time looking at that face than the rest of the page. That might suggest that photographers should be producing plenty of images with clear, attractive and happy faces. But buyers don’t just want people to look at the pictures; they also want them to read the copy and absorb the advertising message, especially when the nature of a stock image limits the message the picture itself can contain to generalities.

When Breeze compared eye-tracking data drawn from a picture showing a baby looking at the camera to one of a baby shown in profile, he found that while eyes landed on both baby pictures, the profile shot was more likely to guide viewers from the face to the advertising copy. From the point of  view of the photographer, the direct headshot was more effective. For the advertiser — and the buyer — the profile was better. It’s a finding that’s been repeated in other usability studies of the effectiveness of images. Even a slight adjustment in the position of the eye can be enough to have a real effect on where viewers look.

Photographers then should be trying to create images in which the eyes of the models direct the viewer to the ad copy. There’s no shortage of pictures like that on stock sites. This Yuri Arcurs picture, for example, is even titled “Group of University Students Looking at Copy Space.” Including tags like “copy space” and “looking” will help to make clear that the image will leave room for text and help the buyer to push his message. Yuri Arcurs’s photo is picking up a sale every seven views or so.

Not all buyers though may be aware of the advantage of an image that shows a model looking towards an empty space. Yuri Arcurs’s title indicated the value of his composition but stock sites leave little room for photographers to pitch the benefits of their products. That can happen on the photographer’s own website. A blog post, for example, can explain why you’ve chosen to arrange the models so that they’re not looking directly at the viewer. Help buyers to understand why the picture they’re looking at is a great buy and there’s a greater chance that they’ll hit the Buy button. At the very least, it will show your own professionalism and the thought that went into creating your images.

Creating images that fill a known need, such as the demand for more pictures of ethnic groups, or which are clearly effective rather than decorative, should increase your chances of making sales but for stock sellers the dynamic will always remain the same: you’re still left taking the risk first, and hoping that the buyer recognizes the benefits of your image.

One comment for this post.

  1. Steve Heap Said:

    Great article. It is often easy (as you mention) to think in terms of what would make the best photograph, rather than what would sell a product or cause people to focus on the message. When I think of my own images, the model is so often facing the camera! This has given me some new ideas and it is time to get behind the camera and turn them into reality!

    One other comment - I do sometimes take images just for the sake of the image, and not with its sale in mind. At the end of the day, many of us "semi-professional" stock photographers are also looking for enjoyment and artistic satisfaction, and if you can make an image that sells as well, that is a bonus!

    I tend to focus more on travel and objects in my stock photography (and living near Washington DC gives me the opportunity to photograph locations that are often in the news), but even with those, I really need to think about how it could be used as well as whether it is a "good" photo!


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