Stock imagery – the phrase alone prompts much discussion among designers, with some taking umbrage at the mere mention.

a mountain range with gradients of atmospheric colour

Stock imagery is used by most brands, offering an easy-access, low-cost alternative to custom photoshoots. It has swept the social media scene and given even the smallest of brands access to high-quality imagery with which to promote their product or service.

So, why is there still some negativity from designers on the topic? Are they being oversensitive? Or simply prescribing to traditional methods, reluctant to accept new ways of working?

Fortunately, that’s not necessarily the full picture.

Most designers would concede that, when used appropriately, stock photography and video footage can be extremely effective; instead, the problem lies in avoiding potential pitfalls.

Stock libraries are easily accessible, so finding appropriate images isn’t too daunting of a task, even for non-designers. Though this is handy, it can mean that the same super-cute picture of a cuddly pug you’ve selected to promote your doggy tuxedos could also be used tomorrow to promote flea injections. And that can be an issue.

Of course, we also shouldn’t forget the images that gave birth to the phrase ‘too stocky’. You know the ones – the suspiciously happy salad eaters, or generic board meetings with strangely enthusiastic team members clinging onto their super-cool boss.

These aside, stock imagery has numerous positives; many brands wouldn’t countenance commissioning a photoshoot every time a new visual asset was needed. Even the biggest brands often choose to use stock imagery for baseline communications, with photoshoot content used to supplement specific campaigns or promotions.

The real question then is how to maximise the potential of these vast stock libraries, as the emphasis shifts to authentic, genuine imagery. Stock sites undoubtedly recognise this growing demand and are introducing more advanced search capabilities to offer a more tailored service, minimising the requirement for users who previously had to dedicate significant resource to sifting through huge libraries.

As ever, it’s all about relevancy and accuracy; familiarity with brand or campaign requirements, messaging and ultimate campaign objectives will better help filter the wheat from the chaff – and, with such a huge library available, we can now afford to be picky.

Exclusive licensing can also be a game-changer, providing the ability to make an image unavailable to competitors, therefore minimising the chance of awkward clashes.

And yet the most creative way of avoiding all of this is perhaps the simplest – and it comes down to editing. Current and emerging trends include photography with illustrated overlays and handwritten text, which can help personalise the asset.

Of course, going bespoke with the editing is always a resource consideration. However, it’s part of a tactical suite that includes photoshoots at one end of the resource scale, and the use of improved stock libraries at the other. The opportunity for brands to create bespoke, truly independent image narratives that stand-out is richer than it ever was.