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)
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.