Quora is an interesting web site. Questions are created, answered, edited and organized by its users. And its users seem more intelligent and less abusive than the average troll one encounters online.

Here’s a good one: What are some of the reasons that stock photos look like stock photos?

This is an excellent question. Alas, so far there are only four answers, none of them particularly illuminating.

Let me have a go. First of all, let’s forget photography and look at economics — the law of supply and demand. The four basic laws of supply and demand are:

  1. Demand increases, supply remains unchanged: a shortage occurs, leading to a higher equilibrium price.
  2. Demand decreases, supply remains unchanged: a surplus occurs, leading to a lower equilibrium price.
  3. Demand remains unchanged, supply increases: a surplus occurs, leading to a lower equilibrium price.
  4. Demand remains unchanged, supply decreases: a shortage occurs, leading to a higher equilibrium price.

Unfortunately in the picture library / stock agency business we have involuntarily created the fifth law of supply and demand:

  1. Demand decreases, supply increases dramatically: a massive surplus occurs, leading to a far lower equilibrium price.

That’s where we stand at the moment. Twenty years ago if you wanted a sunny photograph of a couple running happily down a beach hand-in-hand, you either commissioned a photographer at considerable expense, or you trawled through transparencies at a picture library (and paid a hefty fee for doing so). Now they’re so common you can scarcely give them away.

I went into the Spar store in Harlech yesterday, hoping to buy a packet of frozen broad beans. What they had in the freezer was:

  • Frozen oven chips
  • Frozen roast potatoes
  • Frozen potato wedges
  • Frozen hash browns
  • Frozen French fries
  • Frozen jacket potatoes
  • Frozen Smiles (??) potatoes
  • Frozen garden peas

That was the extent of their frozen vegetable range. Now I’m as anti-eating green things as any ordinary man can be (although peas and broad beans are sort of OK) but even I felt that this was an overwhelming bias in favour of potato-based products.

Potato-based products are heavily marketed, so people buy them. At first we don’t notice the broad bean chicks have been ousted from the freezer nest by these cuckoo brands.

It’s the same with microstock and rights-managed images. Microstock is heavily marketed, like supermarkets, with a loss leader — $1 for an image! And that’s all that buyers remember, until they’re suckered in to an annual deal where they’ll pay as much for their images as if they’d bought them from us without any trade agreement. They don’t notice they end up paying at least the same, and probably more.

The boon and the benefit of Microstock is that everything has been ironed down to the lowest possible common denominator. Welcome to a perfect world, where everyone lives exclusively on potato-based products and sugary drinks, yet keeps a trim figure and teeth like the grille on a Cadillac. Nothing has ever gone wrong in these people’s lives, and that’s what the client wants. So endless numbers of photographers endlessly reproduce the same image with infinitesmal variations, like this:

Happy couples running hand-in-hand down the beach

Happy couples running hand-in-hand down the beach

Oops — the last one is embarrassingly much better then the rest. Oh, it’s not a microstock image at all, it’s a fotoLibra Rights Managed image (thank you, Peter Phipp!).

When I was a kid we rebelled against conformity by growing long hair and wearing blue jeans. We all wanted long hair and blue jeans. We all looked the same. We conformed.

The point is that stock photos look like stock photos because that’s what the market wants. Conformity. And potato-based products.

You get what you pay for.

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24 Responses to “Why do stock photos look like stock photos?”

  1. George Sampford says:

    Quite agree with lots of that, but as a vegan I obviously look at all manner of veggies, I recently bought frozen Okra! Most of my stuff I try to grow and indeed I dug up half a bag of potatoes (3 kinds) only last week. Point is that whilst the over-done potato stuff (conformity) on offer never enters my house, it does have its uses for some. Personally, I look out for the unusual in food, drink, transport – even my narrowboat is very different from most and is much admired, so carry on supplying the norm, but don’t let the oddballs escape!

  2. Terry Forshaw says:

    This is simply not true.

    Many microstock images are of a far greater quality than you suggest and the majority of websites have a much broader scope of subject area.

    And you are completely wrong about subscriptions. I was recently working on eight animal books simultaneously, each needing about 100 pictures. I took out a monthly subscription with a microstock site for £149 which allowed me to download 750 images at a per picture cost of 20p an image. Yeah, I was really suckered into that one.

    I understand that you are just trying to protect your livelihood and that of your photographers, but your arguments are not based on reality.

  3. John Cleare says:

    What you say Gwyn is correct, of course, but I think that there are another couple of reasons as well.

    (1) is lack of discernment by the buyer. Provided it’s cheap (and nasty?) and the caption vaguely fits the requirement, the first image that comes up on screen is
    “good enough”. The fact that the caption happens to be incorrect is irrelevant.

    How often have I asked the ‘girl on the phone’ what the picture is for ? But she never knew, so I had to ask to speak to the (so-called) Art Director (probably just out of art school and semi-literate)so I could provide exactly what he envisaged or (often) what I knew he really wanted but couldn’t articulate.

    (2) Poor, lazy organisation. Clients used to give professional picture researchers time to access the best images from specialist picture libraries who knew their stuff – Royal Mail and Despatch Riders provided the interface.
    Now the finding of pictures is typically left until the last minute, because it CAN BE. Spoil the ship for a ha’peth of TIME.

    It seems that an easy life (“..it doesn’t matter..”) is often more important than producing the best work one can….?

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      You’re right, and you’re right. I may have been talking to the wrong people for the past ten years, but as Tom Lehrer sang, “What’s important is the price.” Until we can knock down the prices even further, they won’t even tell us what images they’re looking for.
      It’s pressure from the top to deliver shareholder value. And it’s the ones at the top who hold the shares.

  4. Ian Hooker says:

    I blame the great Welsh Potato Famine of 1845 (that’s quarter to seven last night)!!!

  5. Chris Fagg says:

    I once had to look through hundreds of stock shots for a psychology series. Long before that I had a job at the BBC researching rights-free music. In both cases after a while the will to live began to drain from every pore.It’s the mediocrity, Gwyn, the rootless content….

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      That totaly depends on the subject, Chris! There’s nothing more relaxing (dare I say soporific) than putting together a dozen lightboxes. But the content is simply what the client wants. We have no say.

  6. zeb says:

    I can see no real difference between the last image and the rest (and I dont understand why the last one is ‘better’) and I don’t see the point in stating that ‘all images on microstocks are the same’ or look the same’… there are all sort of images on microctocks but probably what we are talking here about is the images that are most popular… anyone can go to the page number 100 or 500 in any search term and see how ‘different’ images can be… in fact there are all sort of images on microstocks… all that people care to supply… and what we are talking here about is the ‘taste of the market’ or ‘style’ of commercial image or the psychology of symbol in communication between seller and buyer that positions tha image on the top of the list…

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      One complaint we often hear from clients who use us regularly is that the people who appear in normal microstock images don’t look British. For a start they have good teeth and clear skin!

  7. Brian Murray says:

    Who are buying stock images these days? I mean, actually paying? Most magazines now are extremely short on content and long on “advertainment”. Even camera mags are primarily about buying the products of the people who advertise in said mag. Compared to those magazines from the past, modern ones are weak, plainly a marketing tool and short on actual helpful content. Their images reflect that.

    Hey, no surprise, a lot of their content is unashamedly reader generated or provided by advertisers.

    This makes even worse that horrible, bland, mindless “corporate” style. This is what people think “Photography” is.

    And it is precisely these who are doing much of the buying. They like to project a corporate image and so use the same style of image as anyone else to “prove” how corporate they are. Hence photo libraries generally provide only that kind of image. Wallpaper indeed.

    Another feature, particularly of U.S libraries, is the tendency to Photoshop images to within an inch of their lives.

    I remember the old argument made by some prominent pro photographers: don’t go to art school, or your photos will end up just like everyone else’s.

    This has happened anyhow.

    I got around the “you don’t eat enough vegetables” argument by re-classifying chicken as a veg. Now I can have my 5 a day.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      We have a few lovely and loyal magazine clients, ‘few’ being the operative word. Our biggest market is educational book publishers, as you probably know, because they are very specific about what they want and the microstock market is simply not configered to supply that need.
      But yes, they can supply wallpaper very well indeed.

      • Hey Gwyn, I’ve been reading all the above comments of bitching and moaning. Microstock is simply repeeating itself, and in the process dumbing down photography in genera. As far as educatuinal publishers are concerned, I’ve found in the last six months that almost all textbooks are reusing images and paying a lower cost for that. One client, re-licensed an image for an engineering textbook that will retail for $240.00! And it’s probably good for one semester.That’s how we’re fuelling the publishing giants, no less a footprint than Getty or Gates. Eventually Gwyn, that market too, will shrivel and disappear. Ever heard of the internet?

        • Gwyn Headley says:

          Traditional picture libraries (in the 20th Century, not today) used to make 35-40% of their income from extended licences, charging publishers when books were reprinted. Because that was expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive, manaagement embraced microstock and RF images with fervour. Quality took a hit, naturally, but who cared when the bottom line showed a spike in its inexorable decline?

  8. Ellen says:

    I’n not at all convinced that people do want conformity. In the high street shops I visit, I am one of many disaffected rummagers who can’t find what they really want and end up buying the same as everyone else, simply because retailers are playing safe and nothing different enough to stand out (be out-standing) is on offer. The internet is a little better, but not much.

    • Brian Murray says:

      Yes, Publishers are far more cynical and lazy than they used to be. Most magazines now are about selling the products touted by those who advertise in the magazine, thus making sure they use the magazine for adverts next time.

      Many magazines use social media and forums as a cheap way of gaining (often useless and inane) content. The rest is generic and dull.

      People may not want conformity, but it’s what they’re getting.

      • Gwyn Headley says:

        It’s always cheaper to provide conformity than a choice. Remember Henry Ford’s Model T? “You can have any color you like, as long as it’s black”?
        And the famous brown shoe factory in Slaka that only produced left foot shoes under the Glorious Five Year Plan?

  9. Sachin says:

    I like very much this snaps which located on beach.

  10. charles solo says:

    Even as potatoes are stocked in various varieties,their validity for consumptions will definitely expires one day and they will become a waste. Happy to know that the opposite is the case in stock photo. IF it is not consumed today,it could be consumed tomorrow or next or even in years to come.
    FOTOLIBRA, you are doing great.
    Thanks.
    SOLO.