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Our Take: Stock Photo or Photo Shoot?

Stock photos aren’t as bad as they used to be, but sometimes a custom photo shoot makes sense. Learn when you should choose one over the other — and how to use both.

A woman sitting and posing during a photo shoot.

By Marc Oxborrow

It’s the age-old dilemma, whether you’re launching a new digital marketing campaign or gearing up for the next issue of your printed publication: Do I need to do a photo shoot or can I use stock imagery? The great news: With the explosion of stock photography over the last 10 years, it’s easier and more affordable than ever to find images that can successfully (and stylishly!) communicate your message. That said, there are definitely times when a custom photo shoot makes sense. Here, Marc Oxborrow, creative director at Casual Astronaut, offers his advice for choosing stock over custom — and how to use both.

When should you use stock?

It may not be a great use of time to re-create the wheel when so many talented photographers and stylists may have already tackled the subject matter you’re interested in. Food, interiors, landscapes — these are the kinds of images that are readily available and are usually shot to a standard that might be difficult to re-create if you’re on a budget. The same thing applies to lifestyle shots where the cost of hiring a model, makeup artist, etc., may be prohibitive. This is particularly true when the image may play a supportive role in your messaging.

What about a photo shoot?

A custom photo shoot is the perfect way to illustrate features, benefits or physical attributes that are unique to your organization: a new building, a new person, a new product. When there’s news involved, then a custom shoot is always preferable. Depending on where you’re located, it may be a challenge to find stock that reflects your community’s geography or diversity. Nothing says stock photography like using a picture of palm trees in a cold-weather climate.

Can you mix stock with custom photos? How can you do it well?

Yes, and it’s often a good way to stretch your budget. Use custom photos for the heavy lifting, and fill in the gaps with stock. Just be sure to select stock images that use similar lighting techniques and have a shared color palette so that the custom and stock shots feel connected. If you’re a skilled Photoshop user, you may be able to do some light retouching to help unify dissimilar images. In a pinch, you can convert images to black and white or duo-tones to get a cohesive look.

Any good tips for doing a photo shoot on a budget?

Maximize your investment by trying to get multiple subjects, angles and environments in a single shoot. Be clear with the photographer about what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re shooting people, explain the process to them. Folks who haven’t been involved in a professional shoot before might be surprised by the number of people involved or the time it takes. If possible, ask the photographer to visit the location ahead of time so they have an idea of potential backgrounds, the lighting equipment they may need and the best time of day to shoot.

I’d also add that developing a good relationship with a photographer — treating them fairly, respecting their usage rights, giving them proper credit — means that you’ll have a trusted resource that understands your goals and may be accommodating to challenging requests in the future.

What’s the magic formula when searching for stock?

Try using keywords that are either ultra-specific or very general. So you could search for “red apple outdoors” or “fresh, nutrition, sunshine.” Keywording is still part art and part science. Depending on who’s doing the keywording and the specificity of your request, it might help to go both ways. Part of the challenge but also the usefulness of stock is that you can find images that you didn’t know you were looking for. Sometimes it’s the serendipity of broad search terms that can get you to an image you wouldn’t have found if your terms were super specific. And of course, you should familiarize yourself with the site’s filters and search options. Depending on the service, you can specify things like portrait or landscape, number of people, color, age and the list goes on.

Marc Oxborrow
Marc Oxborrow Creative Director

Marc is a designer, strategic thinker and typography nerd who delights in clear and engaging communication. He has launched and redesigned dozens of magazines and websites for such clients as The Ritz-Carlton, CNET, Charles Schwab, CBS Television and Johns Hopkins.

Comfortable in front of groups large and small, Marc persuasively articulates the value of great design as a regular presenter at conferences and events. His work has been recognized by AIGA, Print and Folio magazines. When he isn’t choosing just the right typeface, Marc plays upright bass and sings in several celebrated Phoenix bands.

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