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Should you use stock photography or custom artwork?

The value of custom artwork versus stock photography

Stock photography can become a huge point of contention in the design industry. Sometimes being seen as dated, overused or generic in the corporate world, stock photography can quickly become a homogenous visual landscape with competition producing bizarro versions of each other. It's my hope with this article that we open the door a bit and establish when and where to use stock - if you must do so.

Despite what the uninformed believe: One cannot simply grab any image from the internet for their purposes. 

Finding the right image for your project comes with the territory when branding your business. It could be one item, or a series of imagery used throughout your material - be it in print or online.

There is a wealth of choice of pre-made artwork available from many different collections available for use, all within reach with the click of a button. With a world of providers offering similar services, how do you pick and choose? You could potentially manage the project in house, but sometimes special attention needs to be made or you need some help, and that's where you might call in a company like us at Jackson Wynne to help.

Start by determining your target audience. I'm not saying you need to have focus groups necessarily, but understanding your end goal is helpful in determining what sorts of imagery you end up with. You have options.

Some types of standard artwork:

- Photography
- Illustration
- Video
- Animation

These are just a handful of types of artwork, but are most common. Depending on the situation, it might make sense to use a custom illustration to communicate your message, instead of a generic stock photo where possible.

Full disclosure: I am personally biased to using original artwork, but it's not always possible. What can you do?

Determining Budget

A very important first step is to figure out how much you have to spend. This is crucial because it can dictate what options are available. On the lower end, you can purchase royalty free stock photos, illustrations, and video. If you have more spend available, consider custom artwork at the top of your list.

Enterprise companies have larger marketing budgets whereas a startup or small business may have limitations and need to get creative.

budget - generic credit card stock photo
Stock photography can be as good or as bad you want it to be - it depends how you use it

Stock Photography

When I say "stock photography" in the general sense it applies to photos, illustrations, video etc. available for purchase from stock providers.

This is a good option and can be quite economical.

Pros

- Affordable Pricing
- Lots of options
- Ready to use

Cons

- Available to anyone
- Sometimes generic in nature
- Quality Control

Consider the control you have here. With various licensing options available, you have to consider the application and usage.

Stock photography provides a mountain of options, for better or worse. If you know what you're looking for and can distinguish the good from the bad, you can run with stock to your hearts content. If you're on a limited budget, there are certain design treatments and ways to use stock to end up with a good looking product.

I get it, we don't all have budgets for photo shoots. Sometimes you just need an image for a quick promo or are waiting for the right direction or timing to do it right.

Perhaps the biggest pitfall of using stock is that you might perhaps end up with a generic image, or worst case - end up using the same imagery as your competition. Stock photography in general can get quite interesting.

That being said, I have seen and used some stock photography where the quality has been quite good and professional - so it is definitely not anything to turn your nose up at. If you have the eye for it and enjoy a good hunt, it can be a good option. Even just as a temporary measure until you can swap out with more original work.

stocksy
Stock photography can be artistic and tasteful from well curated resources like Stocksy

There is some good stock photography out there. If you develop an eye for it you can find some decent options available.

One of the largest hurdles to get over is sifting through the endless amount of options. Where do you start? Where are the good photos? Is this a good photo? Does it align with the goals you are trying to reach?

Not *ALL* of your artwork needs to be custom necessarily.

Let's compare with custom artwork.

Custom Artwork

Custom artwork is imagery made especially for your project, mostly unique in one way or another considered "one of a kind". This could mean putting together your own photo shoot, or hiring an illustrator to provide you with hand drawn, custom imagery that helps position your business.

Pros

- Original artwork
- Control of the final product
- Investment into long-term brand building

Cons

- Can cost more
- Timeline may be longer
- Expectations of results

The path of custom artwork is not good for those who desire instant gratification. It takes a bit of time and work to produce great things.

If you have a clear direction and can put together a team that understands your brand, custom can be very rewarding. Think beyond your logo. An extension of your brand, custom imagery can help reinforce your message and build a level of continuity and enjoyment that your customers will appreciate.

custom-artwork-2
Custom illustration, icon and logo design requires special attention like with the Chuck Levin's project we worked on. Drawing icon concept sketch by Renata Pereira

Although custom artwork can cost more, in the long run I would consider it an investment. Who else in your industry will have similar images? Ideally you stand out from the crowd, and save yourself from embarrassment . The internet makes the world a small, small place.

Ideally you stand out from the crowd, and save yourself from embarrassment.

Whereas stock can have a shorter shelf life, with custom artwork - you should be getting a lot more mileage out of it.

Style vs Substance

Style can be very subjective. One person's taste is not another's, and in the end - you really can't please everyone. Think of your audience first, if it makes sense for what you're doing. If it fits with your brand. If you can set aside your personal taste, and look at things from an agnostic standpoint - this is even better.

Sometimes you just need to trust and take a leap of faith.

That being said, beware of running with something that is "cool" just because. It also needs to connect in some way with what you're trying to promote. The balance of form vs. function.

Final Considerations

Other than the artwork by itself, does it match your brand message? Do you have strong copywriting to accompany it? How is your brand working together as a whole?

Never use custom artwork as a bandaid for a poor brand. You could have the greatest artwork in the world, but if the content doesn't match or no one ever sees it, it might all be for naught.

Next time you need artwork for your project, think twice about your options. What do you use?

Sidenote

How much did we spend on artwork for this blog post? The picture frame was from a free resource. The line drawing inside the frame was a custom draw vector illustration to fit. The texture was from Subtle Patterns. Two photos were purchased from Stocksy. A grand total of $27.48 CAD (plus my time, of course!). Not bad.

Resources

Since we're talking about stock photography, I've collected a few useful stock websites that provide a breath of fresh air. Ranging from free to paid, there are plenty of options:

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Jack Shepherd
Written By

Jack Shepherd

Co-founder, Partner and Design Director at Jackson Wynne

@jacksheps
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