| Design Basics, Design Trends, Startups

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Our typical design client at Visible Logic is a small business. This could be a one-person operation (such as Cream & Sugar Bakery) or a regional bank (such as Androscoggin Bank). We don’t have any Fortune 500 clients, and we’re OK with that. We love working closely with the leadership team or owner of a small business and helping them to understand and harness the power of effective web design, branding and print marketing.

Small businesses are the majority of businesses in the U.S. and any service-based business has to learn how to work with small business owners.

Today I was thinking about the fact that there are so many business owners who have a budget-conscious, do-it-themselves mentality. This has led to the fact that we pretty much exclusively use royalty-free photos these days.

When I started in design, the idea of royalty-free photos didn’t exist. If you didn’t hire a photographer for a custom shoot, you used what was called stock photography. [Read this, if you’re not sure about the difference between stock and royalty free photos.] But now, the pendulum has fully swung to the royalty-free photo side of things.

There are still times you need custom photography (you need to shoot your own location, your own product, your own people, or need something very unique). But the reality is that my clients are demanding royalty-free photos, for the following reasons:

Two reasons small business owners demand royalty-free photos

  1. Known product. With a custom shoot you can minimize risk by working with talent you trust, art directing and showing similar photo styles, layouts, etc. but the truth is that you do not know 100% what you’ll get from any shoot. With a royalty-free photo, you can see the image in place, in the layout, before buying the photo.
  2. Fixed costs. With royalty-free photos you buy the photo rights once and you can use it for anything. With both stock and custom work, usage rights are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

It’s hard to argue with the two benefit listed above. However, there is a vast range of photographic talent and quality to be purchased using the royalty-free model.

Today, there are thousands of new businesses who want marketing materials, web sites and blogs, but don’t have an understanding or the money for anything but royalty-free photography. In the old days, the only people buying photos were businesses with a marketing department and budget. They were staffed by professionals who understood the risks of a custom shoot, but understood the benefits, too. Or, they were prepared for the costs of purchasing stock photo rights. These days every business needs a web site to compete and adding photos to a web site is a desirable thing to add meaning, graphic interest, etc.

Royalty-free, OK. But, let’s find some quality images

What bothers me is that there is such little value placed on purchasing the photography. Not only have business owners accepted that they’ll only purchase royalty-free photos, they only seem to accept the most cheaply purchased photos.

The stock agencies have tried to respond by moving more stock photos into the royalty-free category. This allows flexibility with usage. But business owners need to accept that photos are one of those things that you get what you pay for. It’s a good idea to look beyond the cheapest-of-the-cheap if you want to create a professional and unique brand image for your company.


If you are a business owner, what do you expect to pay for photography?



  1. Mike Maddaloni - @thehotiron | April 20, 2011 at 9:08 am

    What bothers me more about royalty-free photography is that you can see it from a mile away! Either it is the same pictures you see on other Web sites – many times they come with the template or theme used for the site – or they simply don’t represent the employees or customers of the organization.

    Not too long ago I was in a CVS Pharmacy and I saw a sign for the pharmacy with a photo of a woman who I thought looked familiar – after research I realized she was the very same woman in a stock photo used on the Web site of my former employer who was a healthcare company!

    There are many options on photography other than stock photos. Taking “decent” photos and working with a great graphic designer (as you are!) can produce good results. You can also reach out to an art or photography school and have a student take photos. Once my wife, when working for a small ad agency who had a very large but cheap client, did a low-cost photo shoot this way -they paid for the photographer and had the models for free, in return for headshots taken by the photographer. They got many takers for it.

    There are options – explore them… please!


  2. Emily Brackett | April 20, 2011 at 11:55 am

    Mike, As usual, great insight. Besides stock or full-on professional photography there are other options. If you know you’ll only be able to afford snapshots from amateurs maybe that becomes a theme for the piece (won’t always work, but people should think outside the box to create a unique brand image for their company).

    And yes, one of the things I hate most about poor royalty-free photos is how they can look nothing like the real world. There are so many glammed up people in rf photos, yet I don’t seem them in my reality!

  3. Devine Images By Lizz | July 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Strong and to the point.
    I just shot a Guitar store and am trying to show him how important it is to say who he is..
    I charged him $300.00 dollars to shoot both his stores.
    He said he can’t afford it..
    I want him to make it, I do believe a great site should have great photos, HIS

  4. Emily Brackett | July 14, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Did you do the photo shoot without any sort of contract or guarantee?


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