Tag Archives: photography

A very brief history of stock photography: from fake studio models to authentic backyard scenes

When a brand chooses a stock photograph to represent their desired public image, they’re faced with a “style” problem. The brilliant artist Chuck Close summarized the problem of photographic style like this:

“Photography is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent. Almost anybody can be competent. It’s the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.”

Having a signature style is the essence of branding. When a marketing department develops creative ads for their brand, they want to distill their style into an image, while showing off the best qualities of their products or services.

Companies rely on stock photography to shape their image, because as Close pointed out, finding a signature style with photography is difficult. Creative stock photographs are shot by freelance artists and can be bought from online agencies like Getty, Alamy, Shutterstock and more.

In the early days of digital stock photography, the aesthetic of the pictures was quite different than it is today. Take a look at this historical capture of the Getty Creative Images website from July, 2004 (via archive.org)

An example of old stock photography - Getty Images homepage in 2004.

What stands out about this picture? It doesn’t seem very realistic, does it? The model is placed on a pure white background under studio lighting, she’s looking at the camera, holding a pose, her hair and makeup are professionally styled. Not exactly the kind of scene the average consumer comes across in their daily life.

This type of staged, made-up picture is all to familiar. From around the 1980’s until fairly recently, it was common for businesses to use terrible pictures of this style. They showed random people dressed up in suits and ties, pointing at laptops together or high-fiving. Occasionally they tried more conceptual ideas and fell flat, like this example:

a really terrible stock photograph of a guy holding a corndog

Today, stock photographs of people are quite different. Here’s a look at the modern Getty Creative Images website, as it is in February 2018:

The Getty Creative Images page in 2018.

The first difference you might notice is how much more natural the people appear. They are photographed outdoors, in daylight, with a real landscape behind them. They don’t look like professional models, they look like your friends & family. They’re doing things people do in their day-to-day lives: chewing gum, tossing a snowball, and gazing up at the sky.

Why has the style of creative stock imagery changed so much?

Between 2005 and 2007, two things had a major impact on photography: social websites like Flickr.com, and the Apple iPhone. The iPhone’s contribution was saturating the world with more pictures than had ever been taken before. Within a few years, the iPhone was the most popular camera on the planet. Flickr’s effect was to make photography more democratic. Everyone who could take a picture could also instantly share it with the whole world.

The result of these paradigm shifts was a move in the stock photography industry towards what editors, photographers, and buyers now recognize as conceptual realism.

In their 2018 Trends report, the editors of Getty Images highlighted this important idea:

“Attainability and relatability are key when connecting with today’s consumer, with authentic lifestyle storytelling the main vehicle. As the dance of technology and artistry continues, we will see a continued evolution of conceptual ideas merged with realism”

Because Flickr and the iPhone made taking and sharing photographs so much easier, the cultural visual vocabulary has changed drastically – but not everyone has caught up yet.

Here is an example of two modern brands competing in the same industry. One of them has adapted to the changes in what consumers expect from creative imagery, and the other is still working on it – Ace Hotel and Hilton Worldwide.


stock photography as seen on the Ace Hotels website

In the Ace Hotel website, the imagery appears attainable & relatable. In Chicago, people are jumping in a lake, and in Portland, bicycling across a bridge – casual, easy activities. A viewer might recognize the use of popular photo filters from Instagram, and the artistic lens flares in the Palm Springs picture.

stock photography seen on Hilton Hotel website

The Hilton Hotels website is speaking a very different visual language, that calls back to a more contrived aesthetic. Razor sharp focus, and crystal clear blue color on a perfect, calm ocean. This is an image of the “ideal life” that Hilton wants their brand to represent. It looks like paradise, but does it elicit emotion? Is it authentic?

What does authenticity look like in a stock photograph?

Even when a brand is striving to represent a visual wonderland like a beautiful beach, authenticity in the image is key to connecting with the audience. Getty Images is bursting with available stock photography that could make the Hilton beach scene more relatable and attainable.

Here are two examples where a different perspective – the beach as seen by someone sitting on it, or by a group of friends playing a game – can change the values of what the brand is offering.

A realistic stock photo of a beautiful beach

Example of authentic stock photography - a group of people playing on a beach

These images do a better job capturing what is being recognized as the key to successful brand images: “connecting with today’s consumer with authentic lifestyle storytelling.”

While these photos use the visual vocabulary of authenticity, the concept itself can still be ambiguous. Already some photographers have found that “authenticity” isn’t difficult to artificially create. On social platforms like Instagram, the #liveauthentic hashtag has become so popular that its meaning can be lost entirely. A Bloomberg reporter used fabricated “lifestyle” images of himself to gain a following and capitalize on his purchased popularity in an exposé on the subject.

When brands use stock photography to represent themselves, it’s important to keep up with visual trends, but there is a delicate balance between blindly jumping on a bandwagon and finding images that truly represent their values.

 

 

*ed. note – this post was written for a digital marketing class at the Georgetown University S.C.S. 

Two Ideas

“Have more than one idea on the go at any given time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I can choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.”
Geoff Dyer

I read Geoff Dyer’s book “Paris, Trance” over the weekend, and came away with a great deal of respect for his writing. Some books you pick up and read a few pages of and think they aren’t going to be great, then 24 hours later you turn the last page and realize you haven’t put the thing down since you started and it’s over. The effect is all the more pronounced when you took a chance on a low Amazon rating (I really can’t comprehend why it only has 2.5 stars on Amazon – the Goodreads aggregate of 3.65 is much more reasonable.)

The suggestion to carry two ideas all the time is interesting and I can relate to it. I can also relate to having too many damn ideas to do anything about any of them. This blog is an example.

Most people with any sense come up with a theme for their blog, market it to an appropriate audience, and make some money. Or, if they’re photographers, they focus on their photography and don’t spend time writing book reviews or literary weather reports.

I’ve historically been torn between visual art or writing as a creative outlet, but the last few days I’ve been trying to paint with one hand and to take photographs with the other. Thankfully, painting and photography are two things I can deal with more ambidextrously than painting and writing, or photography and writing. The answer is just to paint from photographs.

Here’s a photograph I took in Paris, in 2011:

Here’s a painting I made of that photograph, in 2017:

There’s a party scene in “Paris, Trance” where a character is introduced as a “writer and a painter,” and another character retorts that nobody can be any good at both. “What about Van Gogh, haven’t you read his letters?” the writer/painter asks in his own defense…

“Sure, they’re great, but have you seen his paintings?”

I guess I like ‘Podcasts’ Now. Here’s a few shows you should check out

I had avoided Podcasts for many years after they surfaced because of what they were called. Words derived from commercial products just seem gross to me. They’re lazy.

Maybe I also just didn’t enjoy listening to people yap, instead preferring all the music that became so limitlessly available around 2008.

But, times change. For the past few months, I’ve been listening to several ….Podcasts…. (the term still makes me cringe) and gathering information, insight, and entertainment.

 

Here’s a roundup of what’s been in my queue:

Longform

Longform has been great to hear writers talk about their craft. It’s an interview show that spends an hour or more asking good writers great questions. So far, I’ve heard Josh Dean, Malcom Gladwell, and Carol Loomis.

Listening to Josh Dean sent me careening down the David Foster Wallace rabbit hole, since some of his stories were edited by Dean for the New York Times Magazine. After reading DFW’s piece about Wimbledon, I fell into watching Federer videos on YouTube – listening to a writer talk for an hour can lead the mind to all kinds of places. Dean’s story also made me think about how NYC-centric magazine writing is, how being ‘in’ the industry is critical.

What clicked for me while listening to Malcom Gladwell was his perspective of his work being “optimistic,” and how he doesn’t believe in ‘gotcha’ journalism, and how if someone says something you think they wouldn’t say again, you shouldn’t quote them on it. His sense of ethics is curious when thinking about how popular his work is – being nice makes for repeat customers, I guess. He said something about how you can only make so many negative statements before you turn your reader against you.

Carol Loomis had a very interesting story – she’s one of Warren Buffet’s best friends, and had a 60+ year career writing for Fortune Magazine. Her longevity in the industry is monumental, and when she started, being a female writer covering finance was taboo. There’s much to be learned from her approach to owning a subject and sticking to a beat.

http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-131-josh-dean
http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-62-malcolm-gladwell
http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-152-carol-loomis

The Candid Frame

The Candid Frame is similar to Longform, but focuses on photographers. Almost an identical format. I’ve listened to two episodes so far, neither were people I’d previously heard of.

The first was Matt Sweeney, who spoke about photographs he took of Los Angeles in the 70’s and 80’s. His story was as much about his own life as the work he’s done, and how the photographs were an artifact of his lifestyle.

The next I listened to was Jenna Close, a photographer who started with alternative energy and launched a successful industrial photography business. She spoke about the importance of business and domain knowledge, and gave examples of ‘sticktuitiveness.’ In general, I found The Candid Frame seems to go deeper into the history of its subjects than Longform, or maybe encourages more ‘origin’ storytelling.

http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/2015/7/26/the-candid-frame-284-matt-sweeney
http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/2015/4/19/the-candid-frame-274-jenna-close

The Tim Ferris Podcast

The Tim Ferris Podcast is one that I decided to listen to after hearing Tim Ferris give an interview on Longform. Ferris is a writer I’m familiar with, and I’ve written about his book, the 4 Hour Workweek. The book was OK, but not as good as his Podcasts. He does a great job reaching into different areas of interest for what he calls ‘top performers,’ and he grills them to uncover the habits that lead to their accomplishments. His guests are typically famous in their own right, and so far I’ve listened to Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED magazine), Jon Favreau (director of the Iron Man movies, actor), Tara Brach (PhD, author, and popular meditation teacher), Jane McGonigal (author, speaker, and expert on Games).

Kevin Kelly was somewhat bland, since the episode I listened to was him answering reader questions and not engaging with Ferris. He briefly spoke about how important ‘AI’ will be in the future, without going into detail. Artificial Intelligence is a really broad subject, and he didn’t specify exactly which part of it he was talking about. Kelly did make a suggestion to ‘read 10 books a year’ and how doing so would transform anyone’s life, so I can appreciate that.

Jon Favreau’s interview was wonderful, and spanned everything from how he finds ways to relate to people who don’t work in the movie business, to what his life was like before he started writing scripts. He talked about how trying out an office job revealed how little time people get to pursue their real interests, and how he was moved to get away from that. His comments on why he enjoys cooking were interesting – because it’s such a universal thing, and his world is so different from most people’s, he’s found it’s a great common bond to share with others.

Tara Brach and Jane McGonigal were both great interviews. Brach’s thoughts on mindfulness, especially the two-step process of recognizing a feeling, then ‘inviting it to tea,’ were interesting. She also stressed the importance of unplugging from time to time, something everyone should really try to practice more often. McGonigal’s citation of studies on how gaming is beneficial were good – particularly that visually intense games can decrease cravings for things, because the brain stays ‘distracted’ by them. McGonigal talked about her new book ‘Superbetter’ which has an accompanying iPhone app that’s worth checking out.

http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/04/14/jon-favreau/
http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/07/31/tara-brach/

 

A few more Podcasts I recommend exploring:

Lexicon Valley: two guys talking about language. Topics include everything from the origin of the word ‘seer-sucker’, to the pitfalls of translating Russian literature, and the American female’s tendency to adopt a ‘vocal fry’ in speech.
The Moth: live storytelling on a stage. Dramatic recounting of stuff like being interviewed by Martha Stewart, being a member of the ‘Blue Man Group,’ and being a chaplain in the Forest Service. Kind of like TED talks, but without all the politics and pretension of ‘saving the world.’
Planet Money: Probably the most popular Podcast around. Produced by NPR, explores all the ways money interacts with and influences the world. Recent episodes question why people don’t work less than they did a hundred years ago, where the people of Greece are hiding their money, and whether or not robots will ever be able to fold our laundry.
HBR Ideacast: Harvard Business Review’s brief interviews with business leaders. A recent episode with the CEO of Evernote was fascinating, but some guests are dreadfully lacking ‘listenability.’
Talking Code: Software development topics. Presented in an interview format, and with just enough explanation to make it consumable for people who don’t work in the industry.

202 days down, 163 to go

I’m still in the photo-a-day project, more than halfway to 365 pictures.

It hasn’t gotten any easier, and the difficulty that’s been creeping in could be due to the repetitive nature of the project, or the wearing off of novelty, or my transition from walking everywhere to spending time in the car, or my continual pull away from photography and toward work, and writing, and home life.

The catalyst for this project was thin – it was a cold, wintry Sunday and I felt the need to do at least one thing, other than nurse myself on the couch, after a long Saturday of carousing. So I went for a long walk, took a picture of some trees, and decided on the fly that I would take another picture every day for a year. That was it. No research to start, no browsing through other’s work and finding inspiration, no possible financial reward. Just a bored need to do something productive with a hangover.

1/365

After I began, and started taking a few nice pictures, I was hooked. The first few weeks and months were invigorating and I had plenty of subjects, around my office and apartment everything started to look fresh and new. The brief, low sunlight of winter was offering lots of shadows, and the early sunsets meant I was always out and about during the good ‘blue hours.’ But as winter turned to spring, and spring turned into summer, the sun blasted everything all day long, the opportunities for finding those uniquely colorful skies or silhouettes was less, and I was more frequently just pointing my camera at the ground and taking pictures of grass or frantically trying to coax the cat into holding a pose for a minute while I adjusted the lamp.

165/365

I’ve ended up following a fairly strict regiment of what is an ‘OK’ daily picture and what isn’t. Selfies, voluminous food pictures, screenshots, pictures of people that I work with, and unpleasant things like toilets and trash cans are generally out of the question when I’m looking for a subject. I’ve settled mostly on the landscape, ‘found art’, my fiancee, signs, details of familiar objects, the dog, architecture, empty places and abstract patterns. There’s no real method to this selection, it’s just been what I’m comfortable with. Because I didn’t start the project with any formal goals like documenting ‘important things in my life,’ or ‘finding representations of my environment’ or ‘telling stories,’ these self-organizing limitations I’ve been following have been fine and haven’t diminished the purpose of what I’m doing.

That I do now have these unplanned norms of what to shoot and what not to doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the benefit of planning, and also understand how more carefully thinking about what I want to shoot could improve the course of the work. It would have been nice to say, at the beginning, ‘this will be a portrait of my personal life,’ or ‘this will be a year of pictures of the place where I live,’ and to go on from that and build a coherent and themed body of images. But when I started, I didn’t know what I didn’t know – mostly that having at least a vague goal or purpose would be a helpful concept.

73/365

Maybe when I look back at this (if I do, someday) I’ll be charmed by it’s aimlessness and it will remind me of who I was and what I was like at this time. Maybe I won’t ever look back at this, because I won’t ever stop… it’s actually difficult to reason why I should ever quit, even after the 365 days is over. Because of how effortlessly and unceremoniously I started, stopping might feel like acquiescence, or like I had been wasting my time. I could just vow to continue taking a picture every day for the rest of my life – hell, why not.

Some of my favorite pictures from the effort have been those that are the least recognizable, the things that make me (or anyone looking) think ‘why would someone see THAT in their daily comings and goings?’ That removal from the expected is what I’m always looking for, and it’s the hardest thing to find, by definition. What makes it great is what makes it so hard to capture – its fleeting essence, its otherworldly appearance, the pause it gives and the puzzlement or astonishment or wonder it produces. It feels like a mini-rebellion – an underhand statement I make to this digital device I’m always carrying, the thing tracking my movements and seeing the world with me, that I can still surprise it, no matter how easily it can record, transmit, and normalize to the world my day-to-day existence.

71/365

Maybe someday when I return to these pictures, my favorites won’t be those artistic shots, but the most casual, the most everyday life, the pictures of me and my future wife and my family and our friends. Maybe those will remind me most of my life, and maybe the more conceptual and thoughtfully aesthetic pictures won’t continue to feel important.

22/365

The thing that’s been the biggest struggle for me with this project is whether or not to take it seriously as ‘photography,’ or whether to treat it like a personal diary. I can’t decide how much I should go out of my way to make it great. I know that if I take an hour or two every day to step away from my routine, to go out and actually look for a picture, I’ll find something new and different, and maybe make a nice picture of it. But I can avoid doing that by justifying the nature of the work as casual, I can say that I’m just doing this to capture ‘what my life really looked like, lazy mornings and quiet dog walks and all,’ and then I’ve excused myself from making the effort of looking for better images.

56/365

As I wrap up the final third of the year, that will be the question I’ll try to answer about this project – if it is just snapshots of my life, for my own personal enjoyment and memory, or if I’m doing this to force myself into creative excellence, to sharpen my skills and make myself a better photographer. Maybe I’ll find that in this first year, it’s OK to try both.

198/365

on 365 (Inspiration is for Amateurs)

Twenty-four days ago I decided I would take a single photograph every day, for 365 consecutive days. I’m only using an iPhone, and I’m often taking more than one picture, but the goal is a single ‘shareable’ image at the end of each day.

Creative people who ‘sit around and wait for the clouds to part,’ as Chuck Close has put it, before they sit down and get to work, are not going accomplish very much. Often it seems easier to believe that the best work only comes in moments of divine inspiration, but as I embark on this challenge I’m finding that routine & persistence is the best way to refine technique and make good work.

Knowing that I need to make a photograph at some point during each day is opening my eyes in ways that they weren’t open before, when I was lazily waiting for the right image to coalesce before me.

Here’s a gallery of what I’ve done so far, in these first few weeks:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/brianbrian/sets/72157650665080771

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Paris par Deux

I last visited Paris in November, 2011. It is a city I admire and my imagination returns to it often. Despite what the terrorists would have us believe, Paris is a city of love – maybe a cliche, but for many, absolute truth.

During my last trip, I walked the city at length. I love the city’s rhythm, and my camera kept finding moments of ‘two’ – two people sharing a small corner of the city, amongst the millions who inhabit it.

At a time when Paris is threatened by separation, division, and ideology that seeks to break apart – I want to pause and reflect on these small moments I last saw there, and the unity they represented – simple frames of two people, sharing togetherness, freedom, and fraternity.

Squares and Dreams

Discovering a balance of visual elements within a defined space is exciting.

Driven by the influence of Instagram, most of the photography I’ve done lately has been in a square format, and captured on the fly – pieces of everyday life that I sneak into a symmetry. I go about my routines looking for rhythmic views that I might steal from the disproportionate world.

The square nudges me into looking for harmony of dimension, and the scenes I stumble on can occasionally trick me into thinking I’ve escaped the lazy, uninterpreted world… and slipped into a more astral, dreamy place.

Images from the last few weeks:

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Oct. 3

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Sept. 25

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Sept. 8

GoPro… for the Average Joe

My calendar doesn’t have any upcoming skydiving, scuba or surfing adventures, but I’m the proud new owner of a GoPro Hero III camera, and well… I’ve got to do something with it.

Their small & easily portable form, rugged accessories, and reputation for being nearly indestructible make GoPro cameras the device of choice for adventure sport athletes, whether they’re trekking up Mt. Everest or scaling skyscrapers in Shanghai.

The rest of us can still find ways to be creative with the GoPro. I’ve been using the camera’s time lapse feature to record activities that a typical video wouldn’t capture very well – running, cooking, feeding the cat. Anything that takes thirty minutes, but looks very much cooler when it’s played back in three is fair game.

Out of the box, the Hero III comes with a waterproof case, several pieces of mounting hardware, and wireless functionality. Accessories available for purchase include systems for mounting the GoPro on just about anything – a bicycle, a vehicle, a human head.

The image quality is amazing for such a tiny device, with settings to shoot up to 12MP stills, and 4K video.

GoPro still image

One of the most amazing things is the storage medium – the GoPro uses MicroSD cards, a memory format that is smaller than a fingernail and capable of holding 64 gigabytes of data. When I think of my first digital camera and its 32 megabyte memory card, my head spins at how far along the technology has come.

I haven’t shot much actual video with the camera yet, because frankly, I don’t often do anything exciting that would warrant such documentation. But I enjoy experimenting with the time lapse feature, either to capture the changes of an environment from a stationary perspective (like a sunrise) or to show a subject that’s moving around within a small space (like me in the kitchen.)

The GoPro Cineform Studio, the device’s software, is capable of changing the frame-rate of video to either slow it down or speed it up – an exciting feature that I hope I’ll find a reason to use soon. Additionally, editing features like white balance, contrast, and style filters are available to add artistic flavor to any project. The Studio is a robust application and its inclusion with a camera purchase is a great bargain.

Snow from a Phone

I (unbelievably) can’t remember how many times snow has fallen this winter. Seven? Fourteen? Twenty? I’ve been using Instagram to capture the beauty of the season.

From nearly 70°F two days ago, to eight (!) inches of snow this morning, watching the deviant flakes fall this St. Patrick’s Day is a fitting way to celebrate the nonconformist Irish spirit.

Sláinte!