Designers and photographers discuss whether stock imagery has really changed – and how it needs to change further – so we can get photos that feel real, not cheesy clichés.

Think of the phrase ‘stock photo’ and what pops into your head? Likely it’s a woman wearing a headset ‘ready to take your call’ on a white background. Or laughing at some salad (nope, I'm not why sure either). A nuclear family who are clearly American: each with perfect teeth and an over-the-top, obviously fake smile paired with the soulless eyes of a psychopath (or kids TV presenter).

According to the stock libraries, this has changed. While those clichéd shots are still available, what we now want – and can now get – are seemingly real shots. We have instant access to authentic images that will endear brands to people, showing how their products and services really can improve your life in a way that really matters rather then pretending it will make it perfect.

But is this true?

To discuss whether stock can match our needs – or what it can do to improve – I took part in a roundtable discussion organized by Adobe (which has its own Adobe Stock service) with practitioners who both create and use photography: designer Gavin Campell, photographer Sophie Ebrard, photographer and former picture editor at The Times newspaper Paul Sanders and Adobe's own Richard Curtis. The discussion was chaired by technology journalist and presenter David McClelland.

Everyone agrees that no-one wants those fake-looking, clichéd stock images – except, notes David, some deluded clients who believe that because they've seen a lot of them over the years, they're what 'should' be used.

Finding better imagery used to require a different approach. When he was working for The Times, Paul used to commission his own 'stock' photos rather than getting one from an online stock service.

"If we needed a shot of a person drinking a cup of coffee, we would never buy from the stock agency because it would be over-lit," he says. "It was always perfect and you don't want perfection because it's not believable – certainly in a newspaper.

"We would get letters in saying, 'Why do you use a stock picture of a person drinking a cup of coffee?' – because it was always look like it was lit using three lights and the background was always completely clean. It was actually easier to shoot your own and generate your own stock."

Now he feels that he can get more authentic images from stock libraries.

Image (L-R): Richard Curtis, David McClelland and Gavin Campbell. Photo by Dominik Tomaszewski

It's worth noting that when we talk about 'authenticity', we usually don't mean true reality. People don't want the mundanity of the daily grind; the awkward, poorly composed photos that make up most of social media; the bad hair days. People want the idealised 'authenticity' of Innocent, Zoella, and Taylor Swift's gram (or, arguably, unfortunately Donald Trump) – still aspirational but seemingly achievable. High-flying, but with its feet on the ground (to horribly mix metaphors).

Or as Sophie puts it, it's not that we want reality, we're just more attuned to spotting fake news.

"Everyday people see thousands of images, so they're a lot more savvy than they used to be," she says. "Brands need to give consumers something that feels real. It can't be too sharp. I shoot a lot with film and there's something about film stock that brings that feeling to a photo."

Images that British people can easily relate too as need to be innately British. This doesn’t mean photos of men wearing bowler hats – but there’s a certain type of facial features (especially for non-white ethnicities) and fashion choices that easily mark models as obviously American. We also like our authenticity to be a little less idealised than our American cousins.

"Nobody looks like the people in [traditional] stock pictures. Their teeth are over-white. Their lips are overly-red. Their eyes are always clear. There's not a blemish on the skin. Nobody looks like that. Look at us,” laughs Gavin.

Finding the right niche

Another trend in stock photography that’s linked to this idea of authenticity (and Britishness) is a move from generic images to ones that more specifically represent a brand’s message or a product’s use. While the growth in the sheer number of stock photos out there has meant that there are loads more bland images trying to compete for popular search terms, there are a lot more photos hitting niche terms too – whether you want a specific place, pose or collection of people – as photographers have realised they can make money from shots that have greater appeal to a smaller audience.

Paul tells us about one of these photographers, saying that “there was a chap who came to me said, 'I want to make money in news photography' and I said to him, ‘There's no money in news photography. You get paid £160 for the shift and some expenses and that's it. If you want to make money, go around London and photograph all the street furniture – all the signs, road signs, cycle lanes, and put it in the stock library. Your name will never appear next to any pictures in a newspaper but you'll make money from it.'"

"He phoned me up 18 months later, and he's earning £65,000 a year from those photos."

The photographer is making that money because lots of newspapers, magazines and businesses want photos of specific streets – the street where a store is based, a brand was born or a crime happened.

As well as wanting more-specific photos, we also want to use more photos overall. Often these are multiple photos from the same shoot: landscape for online use or portrait for the cover of a print brochure; cropped in tight on someone’s face for social media as well as pulled back for the opening spread of that brochure or website background; or just five different photos that marketers can A/B test to see which gets the best response.

Capturing photos from video

One way for designers to get photos with the exact composition you want, suggested by Adobe’s Richard, is to buy 4K video clips and extract a particular frame. He also notes that photographers shooting video allows them to do this to capture stills – which will be sold as stock photos – that they wouldn’t otherwise be able get.

"I was at an event with some birds of prey recently and there was a 4K camera shooting 30 frames a second,” says Richard. “[The cameraman] wanted to see if he could capture the bird blinking – and the only way of doing that is by filming it. You shoot the bird, take it into Premiere, then pull the frame where it blinks."

Sophie and Paul aren’t fans of the idea of photographers shooting video and then selecting the best frame afterwards, with Paul describing it as “cheapening the whole idea of photography” and Sophie saying that by doing so “you might lose authenticity, you might lose the connection [between photographer and subject that leads to the best shots]."

Instead what’s needed, perhaps, is for photographers to offer more variations of shots on stock sites – specifically targeting media from print to social with different compositions, poses and angles (and levels of warmth versus contrast).

Another request for how stock sites should improve is by offering a better selection of high-end fashion imagery.

"I'm creating a number of sites right now that are related to fashion brands,” says Gavin. “They need stock photography that's fashion orientated and there's a lot of stock imagery that just looks like stock. It's trying to be fashion-orientated – but it’s attempting to mimic the look and poses of Gap rather than [editorial] fashion photography."

The need for better search on stock sites

One area that everyone agrees needs improving are stock libraries’ search facilities - so we can find precisely the image we want as quickly as possible. Some of this is down to improving site search tools through technology like machine learning (as what’s essentially a step along the way to artificial intelligence is known) – but it’s also about forcing photographers to keyword their photos better, especially avoiding applying generic keywords across shoots even when they don’t apply.

"I know a particular photographer who shoots and literally just uploads his entire card to the [stock library] with all the same keywords,” says Paul. "If he was shooting here today where only one of us is female – every shot would have the tag ‘female’, even if Sophie’s not in the shot.

"It's in the quality of the people putting the information in as to how effective a stock library is."