Commissioned photography – is it worth the investment?

By January 21, 2016Design
commissioned photography vs stock

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but when writing up your marketing budget they can also cost thousands of dollars – particularly if you are talking about commissioning professional photography.

Including great photos in your marketing is a no-brainer: they help support your brand story, show rather than tell for people who scan rather than read your website or brochure, and reflect the quality of your brand or service.

Most businesses have two realistic choices when looking for high quality images for your marketing: use stock photography, or hire a professional photographer to take photos especially for you.

Given that hiring a pro photographer and setting up a shoot can be a much more expensive option and time consuming option than using stock images, how do you know when it is worth the investment?

About Stock Photography

Stock photography is a blanket phrase covering library photography that can be licensed for specific uses. Today, millions of stock images are available via searchable online databases, and can be downloaded immediately.

Some well-known stock libraries include:

There are difference kinds of licenses for using stock photos. With rights-managed images, the licensing fee is based on usage. Factors include where the photo will be used (e.g. website, magazine, territory) and the length of time over which it will be used. All of these options can all influence the price. Sometimes exclusive rights on an image can be purchased to stop others from using it.

Royalty-free images are the most popular type of stock images among consumers. The image can be sold multiple times to different buyers and pricing levels are often set based on the image resolution. The purchaser of the image doesn’t get to use it exclusively, however they can use it in a much less restrictive manner than rights-managed images.

Free stock images are also available from a number of sources on the internet. They vary greatly in quality. The best free image libraries are often created as a marketing tool for photographers or design studios to show off their skills. Usage of free stock photos is fairly unrestricted, although some libraries will ask for the photographer or library to be credited and/or linked to from your website.

Not all stock photography is of the same standard.  Some photography can be recognised from miles away as generic stock featuring unrealistic situations and clichéd images (this is known in design circles as the ‘laughing at salad’ syndrome).   However there are also some great stock images on the market if you know where to look.

Pros of using stock photography

The number one advantage of stock photography is price. When you only need a few images and can get hold of them for under $20 each (compared to the hourly cost of professional photography averaging around $200 in Australia) it seems like a no-brainer. It is definitely the cheapest way to get professional standard photos for your website.

The second advantage is availability.  Stock imagery covering hundreds of different subjects or themes is available online at your fingertips.  You can access photos of people without having to organise models and releases, get images of snowcapped mountain without the airfare (or the Sherpa) or find images of fields of poppies out of season to celebrate Anzac Day.

The third factor is time. If you need your website live or your brochure printed NOW, there may not be any time to be lost in sourcing photography quotes, working around the availability of your chosen professional and encountering potential last minute delays caused by weather or other factors.

Stock Photo Cons

The biggest downfall of stock photography is that sometimes you just can’t find the perfect photo to suit your needs. And making do can reduce the quality of the message you are trying to get across.

One problem that we often have is trying to source realistic images of people or places that look Australian in context.  Many stock photos come from the US or Europe, although there is some movement towards local libraries like this one and this one starting up.  Finding good quality authentic images of people, settings or landscapes that look Australian can be quite challenging. And don’t even think about finding warm climate Christmas or New Year images!

Lack of exclusive images is another downfall of stock photos – and one that could potentially harm your brand. There are a lot of other companies, some of them your competitors, who have access to the same libraries and will be looking for similar themes to you. Because the price barrier of some stock images is so low, business with a lower marketing budget (and potentially a less ‘quality’ image than you are going after) may be using exactly the same photo as you on their website or in their brochure.  As a result, the uniqueness of your message or brand image could suffer.

Finding a set of images that fit together nicely in one document or website is another challenge when using stock photos. The best images you find to illustrate your business may all be taken by different photographers in difference conditions. They may not fit together in a cohesive set, and you’ll require some wizardry from your graphic designer to make them work well together.

Benefits of Commissioned Photography

Hiring a professional photographer gives you far greater control over your images. You can specify in your brief exactly what kind of mood or tone you want to set and an experienced photographer will try to create this for you.

Original images can really stand out on a website or in a brochure.  Viewers are much more likely to pay attention if your images provide a natural fit with your brand. Because stock photos are designed to appeal to as many people as possible (more money can be made if more people purchase them), many are very generic.  Having your own images created by your photographer can really set your business apart.

If the core of your business offer is a very unique product, service or location, professional photography is really the only way to showcase exactly what you do.  For example, if you build high end homes or run a luxury resort, people want to see the finishes and special touches before they trust you enough to get in touch about such a high value purchase.  If you are selling your own line of clothing online, customers want to be able to view each piece from every angle, to work out if it will suit them.

Consistency of images can also be achieved far more easily when investing in your own photography.  Instead of a disparate collection of photos from all kinds of sources, your photographer can create a set that fits together perfectly.

Cons of Commissioned Photography

The obvious con of hiring a professional photographer is cost.  You can buy stock photos for a few dollars from some websites, so it can be hard to justify the budget you need to hire an experienced professional. A photographer not only has to fund their time, but be able to reinvest in their equipment, account for time spent in post-production and travel to locations, and in some cases pay the wages of an assistant and rent a studio. So they may not come cheaply.

There is also a time lag involved in getting your final photos from a professional.  Compared to the immediate gratification of a download, your best case scenario for getting your photos after a professional shoot is 1-2 days, allowing for post-production time. It can be longer if your photographer is booked solid (well, you want someone who is good at their job!) and doesn’t have an assistant to help them.

Professional photography also takes time to coordinate, especially if it involves ‘talent’ or specific locations. The extra level of organisation needed compared to downloading ready-made stock could count as a negative, particularly if you are on a tight timeline.

A final drawback of commissioned photography is that it can miss the mark if you don’t write a good brief (or if your photographer misinterprets it).  Like most marketing outputs, the final quality of the outcome will depend in part on how well your provider understands exactly what you want to achieve. So don’t rush the brief!

The final balance

When choosing between commissioned and stock photography, consider the end result you need, as well as your budget.

If you are in ‘lean start up’ mode, you might simply not have the budget to hire a professional photographer. In this situation, you are better off using quality stock images than doing without.

But if you find yourself in the following situations, commissioned photography is the obvious choice:

  1. You have a tangible product that you are selling in an online store. In this situation you really do need to budget for professional photos of these items. Online, photos take the place of all the other senses that come into play in a ‘bricks and mortar’ store.  67% of ecommerce consumers say the quality of a product image is “very important” in selecting and purchasing a product (MDG Advertising).
  2. If your marketing goal is establishing or reinforcing your brand, consider stumping up for unique photography rather than skimping on this area. If you must have unique images that meet a lot of specific criteria, it will be challenging to find a solution in a stock library.
  3. If you are showcasing the quality of your business through your people, DO invest in professional photography. It will be obvious if you use stock photos instead of the real people who work in your business!

Remember that when a picture is worth a thousand words, you don’t want it to be saying all the wrong things about your business.

Professional Perth photographers

Have you decided to commission some photography? These are some local Perth professional photographers whose work we are familiar with and recommend, and some of their specialty areas:

Want to brush up your own photography skills?

Need some help putting your pictures and words together?

Speak to the content and design specialists at Hook and Loop today - call 08 9228 8063

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Anthony Pillinger
Prior to our approaching Hook and Loop, our web site was a drab affair, almost 70’s in clunkyness, and our turnover was $1.7m per annum. One and a half years from then, and we are pushing toward $10m turnover. The site swellhomes.com.au was edited and written by Hook & Loop. They provided the web design to back up the content, and have maintained the site on a monthly basis since. This has kept it fresh, and reflected the events that we want to celebrate with our potential clients. Captions and titles used on the site are potent, and relevant. I would not hesitate to give a verbal reference to any who are considering utilising the services of H&L.
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