Stock Talk: Maximize Image Assets without Breaking the Bank

Jon Jones

In the age of dirt-cheap stock photos, it’s important to be aware of what you are really buying

Jon Jones, Director of Creative Services

It’s fair to say that most companies are not shelling out the big bucks for custom photography every time they need a new flyer or print ad, which leaves them (or their marketing agencies) to purchase stock photography. There are two types of stock photography to choose from: rights-managed and royalty-free.

A rights-managed photo is highly controlled by the stock house and licensed out on a very tight leash, so that anyone buying the use of that photo knows that their ad or brochure will be unique in its field. For example, before naming a price, the stock house will want to know where the photo will be seen (print, web, TV, etc.), how many copies will be printed, where those printed copies will circulate, how many people will see those copies and how long the image will be in use. Knowing those factors, the stock house can remove that image from sale to anyone whose use of it might overlap with yours. You can rest assured that no one viewing your piece will see the same photo being used to sell a competitor’s product. Obviously that kind of control comes at a price — and the broader the reach of your campaign, the higher the price climbs.

The second way to purchase an image is royalty-free, which has forever been the cheapest option. Photos are compiled for general use to advertisers who buy the images as needed and run them with no restrictions as to the size, location, or overall reach of the given campaign. Rather than spending a thousand dollars or more on a rights-managed photo (or much more on a custom shoot), advertisers and businesses could spend a few hundred dollars and use that photo with far fewer restrictions.

In the last four to six years however, the royalty-free business has been turned on its ear by “dollar stock” sites like, and scores of others like them that sprung up like crazy (many of these sites feature a high percentage of user-submitted photos for sale).

The first and most obvious drawback to these sites is the photo quality. While some of the content is still strong, particularly in photos submitted by talented artists or cast-offs from larger, more traditional royalty-free houses, a huge portion of the files for sale are weak at best. Those using dollar stock sites should have a keen eye for elements that make a good photo, like composition, lighting and resolution. Although the price of dollar stock sites can be tempting, the lack of quality dramatically decreases the effectiveness of the entire marketing piece. This short-term savings up front can often mean the difference between a successful, lucrative campaign or a total flop. The second major drawback to cheap stock imagery is that everyone from internet companies, to ad agencies, to little league teams are using it. Since it’s all but unrestricted and readily available for anyone who wants it, there is absolutely no peace of mind that says you’ll be the only one in town using that image.

For example, let’s say an insurance company wants to use a photo of a happy teen for a brochure to launch a new dorm room insurance program targeting college students. We could recommend a model search and book a photographer, look at rights-managed photos, or buy a royalty-free image. If the company opted instead for a dollar stock image, they run the risk of walking outside to see a new billboard across the street featuring that exact same teen selling acne cream or birth control.

It might not be in everyone’s budget to book a custom photo shoot for every new campaign, but if there is room in the budget for even a slightly higher quality photo up front, it could make a world of difference to the success of the campaign down the road. At Market Mentors, we are not only creative, but also strategic brand managers. Ask us, and we’ll show you how to maximize image assets without breaking the bank.