Commissioned photography or stock images – which is better?

Photography brings things alive, it’s a very powerful tool. You can get your message across and engage with an audience immediately with strong imagery. A poster campaign, a company website, food and drink packaging, the cover of an annual report, the photography you use on these may well dictate whether your marketing communications are successful or ineffective.

You now have two options, you can get some stock photography from a photo library or you can commission your own tailor-made, original photography from the photographer of your choice. Which way to go?

Photographers’ agent Lisa Pritchard makes the case for commissioned photography, while former Getty Images creative director Zoe Whishaw presents the arguments for using stock images.

10 Good Reasons to Commission Photography – by Lisa Pritchard

1. If the final image needs to include something unique to the brand or advertiser, stock won’t do. Often it’s necessary to portray something specific. This could be a product or a device, actual customers or employees, a company logo or location. You’d be hard-pushed to find examples of these in a stock library.

Image by Iain Crockart in a Grey Advertising Campaign for Allianz
Image by Iain Crockart in a Grey Advertising Campaign for Allianz

2. You can guarantee no-one else will use the same image. While you are looking through a gazillion images don’t forgot that it’s likely that your competitors are too. Literally hundreds of companies can use the same images in their advertising messages and do. When you commission you buy a licence to use your photography exclusively for the period, media and territory negotiated. If you think the answer is rights-managed stock, think again, by the time you’ve paid for an exclusive usage licence you might as well commission a photographer!

3. Commissioned photography gives consistency to the overall look of your communications. A website, brochure or set of marketing materials has more appeal and will give a stronger impression when the imagery is by the same photographer and therefore consistent. A mish-mash of styles, which is inevitable with stock shots by different photographers, will be jarring and weaken the overall look.

Bank of Scotland credit cards, with photography by Julian Calverley, commissioned by Rufus Leonard
Bank of Scotland credit cards, with photography by Julian Calverley, commissioned by Rufus Leonard

4. Commissioned photography bestows a unique ‘personality’ to a brand and, harnesses the brand values and thus defines it against the competition. Whether those values are warmth and authenticity for a high street bank wanting to regain trust (for example) or energy, vibrancy and connectivity for a mobile phone network, when a particular style of photography is associated consistently with a brand, it gives it an identity by capturing the particular spirit and ethos.

5. You can tailor-make an image with absolutely no compromises. Say you need an image of someone playing basketball sitting on a sofa, try and find that in a stock library! Aside from specific subject matter, you can have full control of every element, from the casting to the wardrobe, the location to the hair styling. The end result will be exactly as you envisioned it, with all boxes ticked.  

Photo by Olly Burn as part of a Believe Eye campaign for Natuzzi
Photo by Olly Burn as part of a Believe Eye campaign for Natuzzi

6. You protect yourself from issues with model or property release. You may come across your ideal shot but it doesn’t have a release for commercial purposes, you don’t really want to risk any legal repercussions down the line. When a shoot is produced by an experienced producer (such as LPA Production!) you don’t need to worry about this.

7. It can be cheaper, yes cheaper. Let’s say you require a bank of 100 rights-managed images and all media, worldwide buyout, this would be extortionate from a photo library. It’s not actually possible to do a price calculator check on the library sites for such a large usage (I just tried) but given that a billboard for five years, UK only, is in excess of £8K, I think we can safely say you might be looking at around £20K an image- now you do the math!  A four-day shoot, possibly less depending on brief, can achieve this many images. Cheaper than the previous option and lots more value for money.

8. Moving imagery for digital content can be achieved at the same time, in the same style, with minimal additional production costs. Many photographers shoot moving image as well as stills these days, and once you have paid for production elements such as casting, styling and location scouting it’s a comparatively small additional cost to commission some moving images at the same time. Your client can then use this across the same digital platforms as the stills imagery.

9. Commissioned photography can win you awards. When did anyone ever win a design award with their application of stock photography?

10. Photoshoot are fun and creatively fulfilling. The whole process from writing the brief through to choosing the models, the location, the props, not to mention the actual day of the shoot, is often an immensely enjoyable experience. Collaboration with like-minded creatives and a team of professionals is far more rewarding that selecting an image from a website.  

Image by Iain Crockart in a Grey Advertising Campaign for Allianz
Olly Burn on a photo shoot on a luxury yacht in Greece

10 Good Reasons to Choose Stock – by Zoe Whishaw

1. Convenience. Images and footage are available, ready-to-use and released with most websites enabling immediate download once registration process has been set up. Perfect for tight timescales and the demands of fast turnarounds on projects.

2. Image choice. There is huge choice of imagery available in terms of visual style and treatment, not to mention the range of photographers’ vision in representing a particular theme or concept: from simple, clear visual messaging to more challenging, atypical and artful metaphorical representations. You can find styles reflecting current trends, those that are more traditional and indeed those that stretch the boundaries of the stills medium.


Source: Roy Gumpel/Getty Images

3. Budget. Pre-shot content is available across a wide range of agencies – from microstock where you can purchase imagery very cheaply through to the more traditional or niche agencies where content is less commoditised and the price can depend more on the end use of the image. Any budget can be accommodated within this range despite often containing elements which would be costly if putting a shoot together from scratch (think of location, models, styling and art direction costs not to mention the photographer’s fees).

4. Specialist content. It is often impossible to commission a photographer within the timescale and budget of a project where there’s a requirement to cover a range of subjects that may rely on specialist knowledge/equipment or that require complex access arrangements. Examples may include aerial photography, wildlife, science and medicine…all the way through to daredevil photographers braving volcanoes and savage storms. Stock agencies can provide imagery that has been sourced from specialist image-makers who wouldn’t necessarily be widely known to those commissioning content or that can’t be predictably shot however organised the pre-production arrangements have been.


Source: Jim Naughten/Getty Images

5. Photographer calibre. It may be surprising to know that some of the world’s leading photographers from all genres make their content available through stock agencies, often including award-winning shots themselves. From the very highest produced fashion and beauty work through to celebrated fine artists, image users are able to license the work of recognised, world-leading and award winning photographers without the fantastical costs that would accompany them on a bespoke shoot.

6. Be inspired. Browsing through imagery from the more creative agencies can be truly inspiring and can lead to unexpected visual solutions.  Agencies worth their salt will ensure they are always innovating in the ways they encourage their photographers to seek novel ways to represent age-old concepts and oft-requested themes. At the higher end, much of the work available will be the key imagery from high-calibre photographers’ portfolio.

7. Crafted. Some agencies will provide the very best shoot production, art direction and editing using their highly creative art directors and post production facilities, leading to crafted, released and superbly considered imagery that is worthy of the highest end advertising. You may not have shot the image yourself but so long as you have spotted its value amongst the mass of other content, you will be providing your creative director with a fabulous shot that nails the concept…and you’ll still be the star. Not everyone is a proficient art director or feels comfortable directing a shoot with all the complex logistics that can accompany it.


Source: Andrea Buso/Gallery Stock

8. Multi-themed. Campaigns that require a diverse range of content, perhaps covering landscape, lifestyle and still life, would be hard pushed to find a photographer who could cover all genres. The cost of hiring different photographers to shoot the range of content becomes prohibitively expensive and logistically challenging.

9. Search and ease of use. Ease of purchase, choice of content and searchability are the three most important factors driving agencies today, so that they are efficient for the customer to use. To keep costs in check and maximise value from paying for the license of an image there is the choice of a licence model: Rights Managed (RM, where cost depends on use) and Royalty Free (RF where cost depends on file size) with some agencies blending elements of these together to create options that suit today’s usage requirements. Some agencies will provide attractive subscription offers for those who are frequent image users. At the other end of the spectrum you an also pay for an exclusive licence to an image guaranteeing it won’t be used by others in specified territories and sectors…as though the shot was commissioned for your purpose only.

10. Choose your photographer. Some agencies will openly give you the option to search their content by photographer, hinting that they represent work from high-calibre names. Syndication is seen as an important additional revenue opportunity for photographers of all capabilities, yet the content is available at a fraction of the cost of shooting it yourself.


Source: Sean Murphy/Getty Images

Lisa Pritchard runs the Lisa Pritchard Agency, and also publishes the Ask An Agent blog. Zoe Whishaw is a commercial photography consultant.

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