Is Stock Photography Useless Trash?

Posted on 6/26/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see a news story about how terrible stock photography is. Writer may pull a bunch of the worst and most inappropriate pictures from Shutterstock and other web sites and imply that these represent all stock photography. They encourage image users to ignore and stop using stock photography.

Some writer may complain that stock pictures are all staged and do not represent “real life” or “real people.”

I was particularly struck by a recent report on National Public Radio (NPR) where they interviewed two young people in New York, Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi, co-founders of TONL, “a (new) company focused on creating more diverse stock photos.” (Don’t bother looking for TONI. It is due to launch later this summer.)

According the the interviewer, Melissa Block, “Stock photos of people often have some common elements - big, fake smiles, unnatural poses. – and they lack real world diversity.”
Okonkwo says that when she tried to find imagery for a blog it was all “skewed toward the white race” and she simply couldn’t find “diverse imagery.”

I’m not sure where she was looking. I suspect she was looking for “Free” stock photo imagery. I thought I would check out some of the popular web sites where you have to pay a little money for images (often not very much) to see what they might have in the way of imagery showing diversity.

Keywords Shutterstock Getty Images
Ethnic diversity 199,736 395,846
Ethnic diversity business 78,798 110,150
African American 360,690 294,001
Asian people 1,788,446 725,070
Black people 2,362,033 411,688
Hispanic people 416,390 350,764
Latino people 416,383 342,834
Ethnic people riding bike 1,497 2,183
Ethnic people shopping 30,687 9,320
    Keep in mind I was searching the Getty Creative collection, not its entire collection including editorial and Getty only has about one-seventh the number of images in its Creative collection as Shutterstock has in its whole collection.
Kissi, the photographer, said, “Stock photos of people often have some common elements - big, fake smiles, unnatural poses. When I think of stock images, I think of just bad images, (with) bad lighting, bad models, bad poses.”

Kissi added, “I'm looking for just different types of people, just people I haven't seen in media or visual media in general. I'm on the F train, for example - and even going from Queens to Manhattan, there's just a plethora of this diversity and beautiful people from Eastern European people to Southeast Asian to African-Americans to Africans to Hispanics.”

One point I would make with regard to “fake smiles” and “unnatural poses” is that the people who buy pictures are usually looking for images that show people enjoying what they are doing because they intend to use the pictures to encourage others to do the same thing in order to sell a product or encourage people to use a service. For the most part, they are not looking for people who are bored or distressed. People who buy pictures are not looking for a shot of the average person on the street or the F train, but an image that is more positive than the average.

If we’re talking about editorial photography, then yes, sometimes we need to show the worst and most depressing parts of society. But, if we are talking about commercial photography it usually needs to be positive and uplifting.

But Maybe The TONL People Are Right

On the other hand, maybe they are right. Most people have no idea which images in a stock photo collection are actually being used. Maybe the average person thinks everything is being used equally. They think the collection, taken as a whole, is an example of what stock imagery is. Those of us in the industry know that 99% of what the viewer finds in these collections are images that are never purchased or used by anyone. The viewer doesn’t know that.

If the layman considers everything in a stock photo collection as of equal value and importance, they can come away with a very distorted impression of what stock photography really is.

Are we destroying the credibility of stock photography by including so much trash and not giving the consumer any idea, whatsoever, about what is considered “good stock photography” by both the buyers and the image creators. Just because someone has a camera in their pocket doesn't mean they will can take, or create, a good, uplifting, positive photograph that someone will want to use.

Is editing important? If we want to kill stock photography, the best way to do it is to keep loading up the collections with images no one wants to buy, and images that are disgusting.

For more photos that are giving stock imagery a bad name and maybe don’t need to be included in stock photo collections check out the links here and here.

Copyright © 2016 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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