As a quick & dirty solution for brochures, websites and other marketing publications, stock photography can be cheap and effective. There are times, however, when stock photography’s “that’s close enough” nature can mess up a perfectly sound message.

Nothing really to do with logos I suppose, except as it relates to our other design services, or when a client wants us to design a brochure or presentation folder. Too, and as a harbinger of spec work, I suppose the advent of online stock photography made it much harder for photographers to earn a living. At least much more difficult that it was in one of my previous lives as a professional shutterbug, when we earned per diems and expenses for everything, hotels and plane tickets when on location. Not that stock photography is new. It isn’t, but back in the day it was prohibitively expensive. Sometimes ridiculously so with agencies and publishers paying for various aspects of any stock photo use. The size of the company using it, the size the image was being used, the way it was being used (covers, posters, advertising all had premium up charges), the size of the print run and the length of time the material would be in circulation where all calculated into the price, often resulting in a bill that was in the thousands. For a single use of a single image. As odd as it may seem today, It sometimes made more sense to hire a photographer to shoot stuff from scratch.

No longer.

Cheap images. Big companies.

While custom photography is still the optimum way to go, you can obtain professional quality stock photography for a couple of bucks though ‘royalty free’ online services like iStock Photo and Photos.com. It’s not only small businesses that are using time-cover-on-stock-photosstock agencies either. Last summer, the cover of Time featured an image, purchased from iStock Photo for $30.00 (though, to be fair, not everyone was thrilled with this corporate frugality, even though the image dovetailed thematically with the cover article, namely corporate frugality.) The typical photographer’s fee for the cover of such a large magazine would be in the thousands. For this cover, somebody got a portion of $30. Bragging rights notwithstanding, guess I’m glad I got out of the professional photography game when I did.

Major players.

Licensing and selling stock photography is no longer the bailiwick of minor players either, with image giants like Getty getting into the game. As online stock agencies have grown, so has their photo libraries, and a simple key word search will turn up almost every subject matter imaginable. Sports. Business. Guy walking dog. Guy walking dog with girlfriend. Guy walking dog with girlfriend, in the rain, with umbrella and laptop case. There are, however, some little details that aren’t covered in available stock photos, regardless of how far you drill down in the keyword searches, and sometimes, absence of those little details can bite you in the ass. Just ask Health Canada.

It’s all in the details.

Here’s the story. Health Canada has an online gallery that’s just chock full of images that are supposed to promote healthy, active lifestyles (main photo above.) Fair enough. Health Canada also publishes a series of safety tips, supposed to keep the kiddies from harm as they pursue those healthy, active lifestyles. Nothing terribly earth shattering. Wear a helmet when skiing, tobogganing, skating, cycling, roller blading and skateboarding. Wouldn’t want little Johnny or Jannie cracking their noggin when participating in their favorite activity. When it comes to skiing and tobogganing, best tuck the scarf inside the jacket, lest little Jonny get’s his melon ripped off by the ski lift, or little Jannie gets strangled to death when sliding down her favorite hill. In order to help media organizations publish Health Canada’s wonderful tips and suggestions they’ve assembled a boat load of free stock photos that can be added to safety articles. Very sporting that. Trouble is, most of the stock photos don’t illustrate the safety tips at all. In fact, a good chunk of the library features all sorts of helmetless, scarf bedecked, protective gear impaired, non-padded and non-protected skiers, tobogganers, roller bladers and bikers. In fact, many of the photographs contravene Health Canada’s own advice to parents on how to keep their kids safe. When approached about the mixed messages, Health Canada (no doubt with some red faces) said some of the archival photos:

“..date back a number of years. The department will be reviewing its photo gallery to ensure that the images are up to date..”

Fixing stock photography “in post.”

When I used to shoot ads (usually for sports and fitness companies), the art director (or owner) was often present at the session. We could do all sorts or “tweaks” and variations, in front of the lens, and when it came to selecting the final photograph, we usually had several from which to choose. Many shots were set up working from rough layouts, typography and text already in place. With the advent of stock photography, text and copy is worked into existing images, and many ‘tweaks’ take place in post production, using photo editing software like Photoshop. While Photoshop may appear ‘magical’ (and some of it’s functions do seem to verge on mystical) it’s not really, and there’s only so much it can do. It’s a digital photography variation of the old maxim:

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.”

Though Photoshop can come awfully close to rendering that statement moot, sometimes, trying to crowbar “that’s almost right” stock images into “that’s completely right” pictures in post can lead to some pretty disastrous results.
stock-photo-altered-badlyThere was this case from last summer, when the City of Toronto digitally altered (badly) a stock photograph (above left) on the cover of their Fun Guide (above right), inserting a face from another stock photo in order to make the image more “racially diverse.” Wasn’t long before the Photoshop fakery was discovered by a national paper, and then hit the internet with predictable results.

The cost of the ‘quick fix’?

Almost simultaneously, software giant Microsoft were taking monumental flak when it was discovered that a Polish version of their website featured an altered stock image in which the head of a dark skinned business man had been digitally replaced with the head of someone who was noticeably whiter.

I’m talking a lot whiter.
stock-photo-altered-badly-for-raceNaturally, the internet erupted with cries that Microsoft was “racist” while ironically, the original stock photograph was probably selected because it featured a diverse group of people. When it came time to ‘localize’ the image for the Polish site, rather than shoot a new image (or pick another stock photo), a little bit of Photoshop surgery was performed on the original. In any case, it probably would have been cheaper, and less hurtful in the PR department, if the photograph had have been shot from scratch (as an aside, for more of these ‘photoshop disasters’, you should probably check out one of my fave blogs, called, strangely enough, Photoshop Disasters. It’s were I nicked the Microsoft image from.) As to the intentions, or position, of some web developer in Poland, we can only guess, but this is a classic example of penny wise, pound foolish. Took Microsoft weeks to tamp down the internet rageathon. As Read Write Web put it so succinctly in their piece about the fracas:

“While the decision to change the image may have simply been due to someone trying to save a few hundred dollars on stock photography, the marketing blunder has extremely negative public implications.”

Something to keep in mind I guess, the next time we’re thinking about plastering a $10 stock image that’s “almost good enough” on our brochures and websites. To save a few bucks. Or a couple of hours. And while there’s some things we can fix in ‘post’, there are somethings that should be left to a re-shoot. Or at least a new trip to the stock photography library. There’s other examples of stock photography gumming up the works too. How about this story from a few years ago, when the British city of Birmingham sent out 720,000 leaflets to citizens with a photograph of the wrong city skyline. Designed as a campaign to thank “Brummies” for their recycling efforts, Birmingham City Council spent £15,000 to distribute fliers that featured a stock photo of Birmingham, Alabama. An online stock library keyword search gone wrong? Would make sense if it were. Just like what happened to the John McCain Presidential Campaign when a stock image search for Walter Reed (Hospital) turned up photographs of Walter Reed (Middle School). That erroneous picture served as the backdrop for a large chunk of McCain’s televised speech.

Era of mediocrity?

Overall, I’m not terribly opposed to stock photography (the pint of beer pic in our recent snippets feature was a stock image I paid five bucks for), though I suppose as a creative professional, I should be. I sometimes feel that I’m betraying my old brethren if I utilize stock too liberally. Too, can’t really expect photographers to get on side with any  design contests and spec work issue, when many of us ignored photographer’s pleas for help a few years back, when cheap stock photography started to become their norm. In my defense, I still shoot some of our own stuff, though not with as much care as I used to, often using the camera in my iPhone (one of the worst cameras I’ve ever used) for a quick ‘grab shot’ to illustrate a blog piece. The quality is often so bad that I spend longer monkeying around with the image in Photoshop or Fireworks than it would have taken me to shoot it with my true camera, and maybe even my old Norman studio lighting. While I’m a perfectionist in many things, I can be as guilty of “that’ll do” thinking as the next guy when it comes to illustrative photography. Especially on our blog. If we’re going to avoid an “era of mediocrity” throughout all the creative professions, probably time to rethink that. Like the other famous maxim goes:

“You can have fast, cheap or good. Pick two.”

Often we pick the wrong two.


Looks like somebody at Health Canada put in for some overtime this weekend, as most of the ‘unsafe’ images have been scrubbed from the online gallery, just a few days after the story hit the wires and safety advocate groups started squawking.