Stock photography has always been something of an enigma. Used by brands, marketers, advertisers, and the media, it’s managed to withstand the test of time and the radical shift in how media is consumed and sold. Stock photography has, until recent years, served up functional, generic images that could be used in diverse ways by a core customer base. That’s no longer what creators want. To keep up with demand, stock photography providers have started evolving past cookie-cutter imagery to more compelling, artistic, and authentic visuals—keeping stock not only relevant, but making the industry a leader in the visual arts.
Traditionally, we all have preconceived notions about stock media: professionally-staged photographs of women laughing while eating salads and other behaviors that feel less-than-human. It’s dated and these situations just don't happen naturally in real life.
The original missive of stock photography is to give consumers easy access to a world in which represents their message but is not easily accessible with their own cameras. Once upon a time, the disconnect between reality and stock was acceptable due to consumers lack of ability to create their own content, but photographic technology has moved at such a brisk pace within the last decade (the first iPhone having a lot to do with that) and stock photography has changed along with it.
With four billion digital photos taken daily, the stock photography industry is experiencing a very visual and ethereal revolution.
This revolution has been prompted largely in part by social media. Instagram, a social photography hub of over 700 million monthly active users, is changing how we view the world. With a strong emphasis on the (filtered) unfiltered lives of authentic life, it is creating a stark contrast to the generic, sterile, and staged imagery that used to dominate stock photography. There is a deeper personal connection with these photos—an aesthetic that stock photography providers are taking note of. The industry is embracing this change with a strong pivot to community-driven photography that focuses on personal connections.
Alongside this shift to more of a personal, or "selfie" view (searches for topics related to selfies were up 270 percent in 2017), stock photography is mirroring the sensibilities of today's sharing society. With 74 percent of the creative community citing that they use their mobile at least daily or weekly for creative projects, the perspective is inevitably changing from third person views of standard situations and contemporary photography to that of a more nuanced, realistic, and visually stunning first-person approach. This creates a greater depth of selection when it comes to stock photography—one that reflects our current culture more than statically posed pictures with white backgrounds.
For some stock photography companies, this means a greater emphasis on community engagement and delivering premium stock media that reflect societal change. Consumers are craving authenticity in photos like never before. With searches for footage representing diversity up by 172 percent in 2017, companies who listen to their customers and embrace this change by offering not only traditional stock photos to clients but from large and engaged communities of users will thrive. This creates a database of images that represent the coming change in how photography is consumed and created. Community-based stock photography opens up a greater set of options for customers and provides more opportunities for creators.
All this creates a new paradigm of authenticity. Thanks to the rise of social media photo sharing, consumers are now keenly aware of the types of stock photography that brands and agencies are presenting. The bland, staged photos from a decade ago have no cultural and visual impact (outside of meme culture). Instead, consumers are looking for content that represents their lifestyle. Brightly-lit stock photos with cliché poses and fake smiles are getting replaced by user-generated content shot from a selfie stick.
Stock photography, for all that it is affected by current culture, is also an influencer on culture. Since it is used by brands, the media, and advertisers, it’s in a unique position of being both a reflection of culture and the mold for which we see cultural changes.
The industry will keep adapting to the shift in how content is collected, created, and presented to the world. The traditional take on stock photography is being quickly replaced by a world that looks and feels a bit more human.
Written by TJ Leonard, CEO of Storyblocks