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When To Use Stock Photography

By Camille Leonard

When To Use Stock Photography

Keeping your visual content authentic is very important. Nothing sells your destination better than modern, unexpected, fresh, original photography. But, does that mean there's never a time to purchase an image that has already been created? We'll explain the benefits and pit-falls of stock photography and when it's the most appropriate choice for your project.

Dear stock photography, you have been a good friend to me over the years. However, when it comes to marketing places, I need a little more space. It’s not that you are unattractive. It’s just that you can be inappropriate and say the wrong thing at times and potential visitors (consumers) can increasingly spot and are subsequently drawn to authenticity.

My breakup with stock photography may be a bit over-the-top but there’s a lot of passion connected to this topic. We’ve written several articles about the importance of authentic imagery, leveraging user generated content and some how-tos on creating better photos. It's simple; nothing sells your destination better than modern, unexpected, fresh, original photography. But, does that mean there is never a time to purchase an image that has already been created? Let’s talk about why and when you might find stock photography to be the most appropriate choice for your project.

Not safe for you or any photographer you care about to capture an image.

All kidding aside, someone else may have created an image that illustrates your needs perfectly.

Dragonfly On Alligator

Shutterstock, M.E. Parker, photographer, Halloween Pennant dragonfly riding on an alligator's head in turquoise green algae water during drought in Fakahatchee Strand, Florida

Yes, the alligator shown in the image above is a pretty extreme example of why choosing stock photography might be the best option. But sometimes the effort required to create something original outweighs the value of originality. Consider a small community in South Florida seeking wildlife imagery to promote ecotourism? If the wetlands adjacent to this destination are frequented by nature lovers, they are probably also widely photographed. Use long-tail keyword searches for local and regional photographers that are willing to grant permission or to sell. Or, scour stock photography sites for images that are generic in nature—think close-ups on wildlife typical to your region. Stock photography of this ilk offers variety and is rarely detrimental to your marketing efforts. The real danger here lies in seeing images you are considering making signature to your destination used to promote something else. Carefully consider the rights you purchase or buy an exclusive.

There are no professional photographers working in your area. Zero.

Please forgive the hyperbole.  It could be you don’t have any budget allocated to hire a photographer. Or you’re up against a hard deadline—simply out of time for a photo shoot. Stock sites have improved their image selections of lesser-known places across the country. Using an application process, they accept contributions from photographers all around the world. More populated or popular places are photographed more often so naturally, great images from these places are easier to find. I’ve searched for images for some of our wonderful, but smaller, destination clients. There are often not many images out there, but what is available is usually good quality. For example, I would happily use this image found on Shutterstock searching "Dauphin Island, Alabama", in marketing that we worked with that destination to create.

Civil War Fortress (Stock Photo)

Shutterstock, Paul Briden, photographer, The Powder Storage Room of an American fortress from the Civil war

Recently, stock photography services have begun to offer options to create custom images that support your brand. I can’t imagine this is a more affordable option than hiring a photographer and working with them to capture authentic images that reveal the character of your community, but it’s certainly an option. In this age of Instagram, almost everyone is a photographer. And the quality of images generated by even most mobile devices is high enough for many uses. Search the name of your community or destination on social media. When you see an image you like, reach out to the person who posted it—from there, negotiate use. I firmly believe even the gifted hobbyist should be paid some fee for use of their creation. And whether you pay for use or not, images belong to the creator so they must grant their permission for your entity to use the image back in writing (an email exchange with a usage request printed out and filed for future reference will suffice for this permission). Try to work with locals first. Then a little stock (generic) photography could be used where absolutely necessary to supplement the imagery you've already curated.

You don’t want to be accused of playing favorites by featuring photos of your local attractions, restaurants and shops.

Let's keep those images generic.

Plate of Sushi (Stock Photo)

Shutterstock, White 78, photographer, Sushi

A beautifully photographed plate of food, from stock, will let potential visitors know you have nice restaurants. I get this concept. I’ve actually employed this strategy. A golf ball on a green. Women walking with shopping bags. Craft beer. White sand beach, no trees, kids playing. So what’s wrong with using stock in this way? Nothing, especially if it fills a need in your marketing efforts that can’t be filled another way or if the stock you find is actually shot in your destination. Remember: images rich in detail that deliver a sense of place are often the most compelling and charming. The danger in generic imagery is that it could represent anywhere—if I could have a nice dinner or play golf anywhere, why would I travel to your town? Here are a few things to remember related to licensing options and restrictions for when you do choose to use stock imagery:

  1. Royalty Free Imagery is the more affordable option by far. You "buy" that image but, what you are really paying for is the right to use that image and use it for most marketing applications for an unspecified length of time. Buy these images knowing that unless the site gives you a chance to buy exclusivity, others can use the same image you’ve selected. Many sites offer options that give the user greater protection and other usage rights not offered by a standard purchase. Think through how you’ll be using the image when you buy it. Read the terms on the site you use so you are informed.
  2. Rights Managed Imagery allows the user to purchase high-quality imagery for specific uses and time frames. With Rights Managed, think of the financial terms of use as paying rent - you can only use that image during the term of the "rental". You’ll need to know how you’ll be using an image in very specific terms—number of insertions, circulation or size of the audience, time frame of use. When any of the parameters change, the amount of money owed to the stock entity changes. And trust me, image usage is monitored, especially if that image (or any portion of that original image) shows up online.
  3. Stock photography search tips. Searching, refining keywords and selecting parameters can help to eliminate images that just don’t meet your marketing needs. When you locate an image you like, carefully review the keywords found on the image details page to confirm the image was indeed taken in the place you searched. I’m not certain how this case of mistaken identity occurred, but it made national news. I can only assume that the individuals purchasing the stock photo weren’t as attentive as they should have been. This leads me to my final point...
  4. Pay attention to details in the photograph. Details are a dead give away that an image is stock, or worse, definitely not your destination. Your potential visitor could feel misled, become disengaged and quickly lose your trust if they can clearly see that one or two of the images they see are generic or know they are not authentic to your place.

Your goal still should be to build a library of images curated to tell YOUR story. So, DMO team, proceed to market with gusto. But armed with the above advice—do everything you can to keep it real, as they say.