How to Choose the Right Images: Original Photography vs. Stock

man holding a Canon DSLR camera, wearing a dark shirt


f you want the world to see your business as luxurious, every aspect of your brand needs to exude sophistication, elegance, and exclusivity. From your website to social media and everything in between, your brand’s visual style plays a crucial role in shaping the perception of your company.

This isn’t something that just happens on a whim. Striking exactly the right tone with your copy and imagery is a strategic, intentional process that can take a lot of time and effort, because the details matter in this competitive space. In this blog, we’re going to focus on choosing the right imagery to elevate your brand: live photo shoots vs. stock photography, plus the pros and cons of both.

Original vs. Stock Photography

First, let’s take a look at the differences between creating your own images and using someone else’s. Here are some factors to consider for each. (We’ll take a look at the new, third choice – AI-generated photography – at the end of this article.)

Advantages of Stock Photography

  • Convenience: Although it can still take time to find the perfect stock photo, going this route is a quicker solution for sourcing high-quality imagery compared to the time and expense that come with photo shoots.
  • Variety: This is the reason it can take a long time to find the perfect stock photo, especially if you aren’t quite sure what you’re looking for. The available platforms have huge collections of images that cover a wide range of themes, styles, sizes, subjects, and more.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Stock imagery requires you to pay a licensing fee (We don’t recommend free sites, but more on that later.) But compared to commissioning original photography, purchasing stock images can be a more cost-effective option. This is especially good for smaller businesses with limited budgets.

Disadvantages of Stock Photography

  • Lack of Exclusivity: Since stock images are available to multiple users, there’s a risk of encountering the same visuals on other websites. This could cause confusion among your customers and diminish the uniqueness of your brand.
  • Limited Customization: You may find a lot of stock photos that are 99 percent perfect – but not quite. Some stock sites allow you to alter their photos, but it depends on the type of license you buy.
  • Ethical Considerations: Stock photos in some categories tend to perpetuate stereotypes or lack diversity. When you’re sorting through photos, pay extra attention to ensuring that your brand is inclusive and diverse.
  • Low-quality Images: Especially on free stock sites, the imagery isn’t likely to be as high-resolution or high-quality as your brand requires. It’s very important to look at any downloaded photos in various sizes to ensure they don’t get pixelated.

Advantages of Original Photography

  • Authenticity: Original photography allows you to capture the unique essence of your brand. It’s something that younger consumers – who aren’t keen on hard sells – tend to gravitate toward. For some, a feeling of authenticity can be the reason they interact (or don’t) with a brand.
  • Customization: With original photography, you have complete control over the creative direction. This ensures that the visuals align perfectly with your brand’s aesthetic and messaging.
  • Exclusivity: By commissioning original photography, you ensure that your images are unique to your brand, enhancing your brand’s identity and differentiation in the market.

Disadvantages of Original Photography

  • Cost and Time: Original photography will often be your most expensive option for imagery.
  • Logistical Challenges: Organizing photoshoots, securing locations, and coordinating schedules can present logistical challenges, especially for businesses with limited resources or tight timelines.
  • Maintenance: Unlike stock photography, which can be easily replaced or updated, original photography requires ongoing maintenance and management to ensure your library is as relevant and up-to-date as possible.

Achieving Success With Original Photography

If you decide to schedule a live photo shoot, get ready to do a lot of planning, organizing, and adapting. You’ll need a clear understanding of your brand’s aesthetic and messaging, what the photos are trying to convey, and the little details that can make or break your final result.

We offer a wide variety of options for original photo shoots, including architectural, lifestyle, event-focused, social media mini-shoots, and more. We work hand-in-hand with our clients to understand their marketing objectives and adhere to these best practices:

  • Develop a strategy: Much like a content strategy, a smart photography strategy starts at the end, by defining your vision and goals for the project.
  • Draft a creative brief: Once you’ve articulated your images, the next step is a thorough brief that outlines the desired aesthetic, mood, and style that will best align with your brand and appeal to your target audience.
  • Use a professional photographer: Creating imagery for a luxury brand is not the time to use iPhone photos. Hire an experienced photographer with professional equipment whose portfolio and skills align with your desired outcome. Most photographers have their own lighting and equipment, but if not, they can provide the needed expertise for finding the right vendor.
  • Choose your support team wisely: Be sure that your selected location, models, hair and makeup people, and any props are aligned with your brand identity. All professionals in this space should have portfolios for you to peruse, so ask to see them and choose partners that match your desired aesthetic.
  • Anticipate hiccups: Always have a Plan B, just in case your makeup person gets sick, it rains, your prop tablecloth doesn’t arrive on time, or a location accidentally double-books you.
  • Pay attention: During the photo shoot itself, never take your eye off the ball. Keep close track of both the overall images and the small details to make sure nothing veers from your desired look. In addition, ask to review images in real-time in order to provide feedback or make adjustments. This is an important step because it will be far more expensive to have to re-gather everyone than to go into overtime pricing.

Achieving Success With Stock Photography

If you choose the stock photography route, a lot of your success will come down to selecting the right source provider. Not all platforms are created equal, so it’s essential to select a vendor that can deliver the type of images you need.

At Hawthorn Creative, our full-service branding services include photography consultation, strategy, and sourcing. Here are our best recommendations for finding high-quality, luxury stock imagery that reflects your brand prestige:

  • Choose premium platforms: Just like avoiding iPhone photos for luxury companies, we also recommend that you steer away from free stock photography sites. Instead, opt for reputable companies that specialize in high-quality, premium content – and be willing to pay for it. Some of our favorites include Getty Images, Adobe Stock, and Shutterstock.
  • Focus on authenticity: Prioritize images that convey a sense of elegance and exclusivity. Choose high-resolution images with refined composition, lighting, and attention to detail. Cliche or generic imagery could dilute the exclusivity of your brand.
  • Avoid trends: Select images that evoke a timeless sense of sophistication rather than fads that can be fleeting. (Unless you’re creating content centered around something topical.) This is especially important for print pieces that aren’t updated as often as their digital counterparts.
  • Create a shot list: If you were doing an original photo shoot, what kinds of images would you capture? Having a shot list on hand when you’re searching through stock photography can not only help you find the right photos, but focus your search terms as well.
  • Maintain brand consistency: If you’re choosing imagery for an email campaign, consider the look and feel of your other properties – does it work well with your website, social media accounts, and digital ads?
  • Read the license agreement: Stock photos come with different rules and restrictions, especially when it comes to commercial use. Some are exclusive rights, for example, meaning that once you use an image it’s taken out of consideration for others, and some aren’t allowed for commercial use at all. Read through the fine print as you’re researching stock photography providers to understand their legal requirements.

The Rise of AI in Stock Photography

In recent years, advancements in artificial intelligence have transformed the stock photography industry. You’ve likely seen images that people have created using AI-powered tools and algorithms – at this stage of the game, many of them are almost right (but not quite).

For stock platforms, AI has streamlined the process of image search, tagging, and recommendation, making it easier for users to find relevant content quickly. You can use AI-powered image recognition, for example, to help search for similar images. This is a huge advancement from a number of perspectives: One, being able to find stock imagery that matches the overall aesthetic of your other images, and two, cutting down the time it takes to sift through thousands of images by hand.

There are ethical questions, however. For example, some companies refuse to allow any AI-generated imagery that shows faces in a commercial context, because those images are still based on someone’s face and there’s no feasible way to get their permission. Because AI draws on existing data, it’s also more likely that the images it produces might be stereotypical vs. authentic and diverse.

Finally, AI-generated images can lack the human touch and emotional depth of photos captured by professional photographers, which can potentially impact the overall aesthetic and storytelling of a brand.

The bottom line, from our perspective, is to approach AI with caution. Until the science improves, you’re more likely to get exactly what you’re looking for with original or well-sourced stock photography.

If you’d like help developing your image strategy, Hawthorn Creative’s team of experts can work with you every step of the way, from initial ideas to sourcing vendor partners.


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