Should you be using stock images?

Thursday, 08 September 2016

The other week we at Escape Technology sent out a promotional email about Adobe Stock. Once upon a time I was one of those naive people that thought all stock imagery was a fallback option - the cheat’s answer to not having an image.

Should you be using stock images?

Obviously, when you don’t have access to any kind of imagery or an ability to generate your own then native stock is a great way to go. But for visual creatives it’s always had a bit of a mixed reputation. That’s been, in my experience, largely down to a misconception of when professional visual communicators should be using stock imagery. The VFX industry has got this sort of thing down to a fine art.

Companies like Adobe provide a fantastic resource - access to photographs, illustrations, and video. And I’ve used it in my work, both here as creative lead at Escape Technology and outside on personal projects. But I avoid using stock as a primary asset.

Whenever digital artists use stock imagery it’s for a variety of reasons. Some need a tree for a composition, others a new sky to drop into their footage. Maybe an establishing shot of New York for your film. Some just need inspiration or placeholders for mockups. This is where stock imagery really holds its own: when used in concert with other assets.

Motion pictures, global advertising campaigns, and big brands all use stock imagery. They use it to fill in the gaps but never without tweaking. That could mean colour correction, replacing sections of images, or turning a piece of stock footage into something new entirely.

Inexperienced creatives often assume that stock images always have a certain look to them. The audience will always know it’s stock. Which is true, if you leave them as they are. Stock images and footage always have a certain... quality. Some have transcended what we used to understand by stock footage and have become 4K things of beauty. But they’re still stock. And they won’t match your final piece of work. Unless you change them.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used stock imagery without changing it in some way. And each of those times it’s very, very noticeable. The rest are, I hope, seamless.

For this reason stock image sites are an incredibly powerful resource. I can sit at Photoshop - which is connected to Adobe Stock - and create moodboards and rough ideas from a huge library of material. Or I can take elements from several different images to create an entirely new work. Having that kind of versatility at your fingertips is remarkable. And when I’m making films on my own time I have access to that library for the same reasons: inspiration, look development, and cutaways when I need.

And that’s possibly the most important point: it’s there when you need it. How much would it cost you, and how long would it take, to get shots of wildlife on the Serengeti?

If you have gaps in your work that need filling then yes you should be using stock images or footage. But never use them as you find them. Make them yours. Match them to your work, to your company brand, to your original moodboard. Match it to whatever it is you’re doing. Even a simple colour grade can do that.

And take pleasure in the fact that you don’t have to travel to Africa to get a shot of a lion in the wild. Unless that’s your thing.

Some of my favourite stock footage sites: