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Stock or Not: Picking The Right Photo For Your Project


Written by Heather Golbienko, Linda Raynsford, Claire Corpus & Ernest Kuo

Getting Focused

You’re working on a project and starting to realize that there is a need for some visual intrigue. People are visual beings, and using engaging photography not only helps capture the attention quicker, it can also help reinforce your message, making it more likely to be remembered. In today’s world, we are continuously inundated with information. Using the right imagery to get noticed has become more critical.

But Photography Is Expensive

We get it – the odds are that your project doesn’t have an open-ended budget. Whether it’s large or small, you want to maximize it in order to achieve the highest impact possible. You’re probably asking yourself questions like: What are my options? How do I make the right decision that best fits the budget and project needs? Well, the first step is to put your cell phone camera down. There’s a better way.

It all comes down to two main options: sourcing an image through one of many stock photography sites or hiring a professional photographer for a custom photoshoot. Analyzing and understanding the specific needs of your project is key to making the right decision. Both options have their place. Let’s take a closer look at understanding them.

Stock Photography

Stock photography can be cost-efficient and is also readily accessible, as there are a number of sites that provide you with a variety of images to choose from. If you need to access a vast library of imagery quickly to meet your needs (and you have a limited budget), stock photography might be your best option. You just need to make sure you understand the licensing options depending on the imagery type you select.


Royalty-free (RF) and rights managed (RM) are the two most commonly used licensing models in the stock photography industry.

A royalty-free license provides purchasers of the image nonexclusive, unlimited use within all permitted ways outlined, all through a one-time purchase fee. That means you can use the image for things like your website, corporate materials, or even advertising. Remember, though, these images are made available to anyone who pays for them. That means you may see the exact same photo you selected being used in someone else’s brochure, or even worse, find out that one of your competitors decided to use it as well.

A rights managed license provides very specific limitations. These can include restrictions on length of time the image can be used, geographic locations it can be used in, and often a specific per-use limitation, which means if you want to use the image more than once or in any other way than the intended use, you are required to purchase additional licenses per use. As a result, certain images can become very expensive to not only use initially but also for continual use. With a RM image, it’s less likely you will see that same image being used by another company or competitor, but that possibility still exists.

Royalty-free or rights managed – you decide. But remember, just because it’s a stock photo doesn’t mean you have to publish the photo exactly as you purchased it. Having rights to an image means you can visually customize it using programs like Photoshop to create your own unique image.

Professional Photoshoot

Capturing the nuances of your brand using stock photos is difficult, because those photos aren’t unique. Your people, your product or services, and your culture are not things that are easily represented in stock photography. In this case, you may want to consider setting up a professional photoshoot to capture the exact photo(s) that convey who you are.

A professional photoshoot is the right answer for you if you’ve decided you want something completely original and authentic to your brand and don’t want to see someone else using the same photo you selected from stock. With good art direction, a custom photoshoot allows you to team up with a photographer to create and capture what you want to see to ensure it correctly represents who your company is – imagine your company is an actual person.

But isn’t this option expensive? Customization/control over custom photography with an experienced, well-vetted photographer can come at a price, so you need to set your expectations and budget accordingly. With that said, though, hiring a photographer can actually be less expensive than stock photography in some instances if you take into consideration factors such as the cost of high-quality rights managed images and the cost of your time spent searching just for images. Finding the right stock image can take hours of scouring multiple sites, sifting through endless libraries, only to end up with a few viable options depending on your search criteria. With a professional photoshoot, you can capture exactly what you need and get extended longevity from your custom photos as long as you negotiate your contract correctly.

Staying Focused

We’ve discussed both stock photography and a professional photoshoot. But which should you use? It’s always good to have options, but sometimes having too many options can become overwhelming. Whether you realize it or not, you have all the answers. Evaluate your project and your goals. Set realistic expectations when evaluating your timeline and budget. At the end of the day, your brand is yours to represent, so do it the way you best see fit.