A chat with Craig of Harvey Cameron

With an overwhelming number of stock photos out there, finding one that looks authentic and spontaneous can sometimes feel like a wild goose chase. In this post, Craig of Harvey Cameron, a marketing and communications agency, talks about the downsides of settling for stock photos that don’t feel genuine and how to circumvent the issue.

Man driving the van with the dogs by Damon Marshall

Authenticity is an elusive concept. Especially in artistic practices such as photography, where subjectivity makes for a huge part of our scrutiny, where styles and techniques quickly cross-pollinate so as to make us feel like “we’ve seen this before.” This lack of authenticity comes to light when we see something done for commercial purposes only, with quantity over quality in mind – an all too common trait of stock images. So what makes one photograph more authentic than another?

Saint Bernard dog, Coromandel by Tracey Walker

“A photograph that doesn’t feel genuine offers no connection with the viewer, and therefore provides no saliency for brands – which is a disaster,” says Craig Stapley, the Associate Creative Director at Harvey Cameron, a marketing, communications, and advertising agency based in Christchurch. Given his role in the company and his experience with creative processes, Craig observes a lack of authentic imagery in traditional stock libraries and is aware of the potential pitfalls this represents to the agency’s clients. In the case of Harvey Cameron, whose diverse clients require a wide range of images in a variety of styles for various purposes, the most desirable images usually include people.

Tramper at camp, Ruahine by Shaun Barnett

From a marketing perspective, using stock photographs with people as subjects is a double-edged sword – and it illustrates the issue of authenticity to the T. On one hand, as Craig explains, people in photography is probably the most effective type of imagery to convey a particular message: “We are hardwired to respond to other humans, subtly picking up social cues, which in turn helps to build trust and connection from a brand perspective.” On the other hand, it is perhaps the kind of photograph to impart the most artificiality when one browses traditional stock libraries. Hence the most difficult to find authentic shots.

There are several reasons why this is the case. Below are the five main features that make a stock photograph look so “stock” - and that you should steer clear of:

  1. They have a polished, ultra-high-definition, heavily post-processed veneer;
  2. They tend to boast perfect lighting, spotless settings, meticulous composition, and out-of-a-magazine models;
  3. Having been created to appeal to as many people as possible, they sometimes have to avoid elements that might hamper this versatility, e.g. alluding to the country where the picture was taken or having situation-specific objects included. This causes them to lack context – which makes them look generic and bland.
  4. Lacking context, they lack content; that is, they have a small number of elements with which to build a narrative and hardly leave space for interpretation. This affects the connection with the viewer, often sending either the wrong message, a mixed message, or no message at all;
  5. They are unrealistic (think of the ever-present beaming faces) and highly unimaginative (think of the usual proactive gesticulations, restrained postures etc.), which compromises its credibility;
Woman on the phone by Palliser Photography

“Stock photos basically look too contrived,” says Craig, emphasising that, when searching for photographs for Harvey Cameron’s clients, he looks for “honest emotional interaction between individuals, and eschews anything cliched or cheesy as much as possible.” This makes sense, considering that consumers are increasingly scrupulous about resonating with the businesses and brands they engage with. Since visual storytelling is a primary medium to represent values, choosing an image that has been carefully staged isn’t the way to build that bond.

The good news is that even with the overwhelming number of run-of-the-mill photographs out there, it is possible to find the right stock image for your project. One way to do this is by keeping an eye out for the aforementioned five features of unauthentic photographs and to trust that you will know viscerally how to discern the natural from the artificial. You can also seek platforms and photographers whose philosophy diverges from this one-size-fits-all approach, and whose images haven’t been taken with a predetermined commercial objective in mind, but simply to capture the moment.

Browse the Excio Library for authentic photos taken spontaneously by dedicated photographers.

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