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5 Alternatives to Make Stock Photography a Last Resort

How do you produce more high-quality visual content for your brand when the need has spiked to thousands of assets per quarter and your budget hasn’t changed?

You need to get agile about your tooling. Think of your company’s photo library as a pool and recognize all the ways to fill that pool as your visual asset pipelines.

If you haven’t designated an official companywide pool of image assets, employees likely pull them from anywhere – searching Google or free stock photo sites like Unsplash. Issues arise as the images are likely to be:

  • Off brand – If a photo is worth a thousand words, and contains someone else’s product, it’s saying all the wrong things.
  • Poor quality – Employees may pull low-res images that translate into blurry published images.
  • A copyright infringement – An entire industry exists to police and prosecute those violating copyright laws. If your organization is using unattributed images in your marketing, expect to get caught and face the consequences.
  • Causing brand melt – Without a common source of truth, different teams and business units slowly develop different conventions, use different icons, and tug the brand in different directions until, like a melting ice sculpture, your brand’s imagery is a formless lump.
If your organization is using unattributed #images in your #marketing, expect to get caught and face the consequences, says @Chads_chats via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

A comprehensive, centralized, quality visual repository can be a huge opportunity. You can broadcast a cohesive message through every facet of the business and every content distribution channel. A successful asset pipeline transfers images that are:

  • High quality – They catch the audience’s attention. They appeal to them visually.
  • On brand – They reflect the brand guidelines and style.
  • Consistent – They have similar technical qualities – consistent lighting, locations, camera settings, models, etc.

A comprehensive, centralized, quality #visual repository can be a huge opportunity, says @Chads_chats via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Fill your visual asset pool

The machinery of your visual content pipeline should include a healthy mix of the following, based on your industry, vertical, and need.

Your #visual pipelines should be based on your industry, vertical, and needs, says @Chads_chats via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

In-house team members

In-house visual teams are fast, dedicated, and don’t have to be briefed on what the brand does. The only downside? Most are overworked. Seventy-one percent of creative leaders say they don’t have time to train their team.

In-house teams often are geographically limited. To fly an in-house team halfway across the world for a shoot usually is not cost effective.

Good for: In-house shoots; nearby shoots; high-volume, single-location product shoots


Agencies offer experience. They have the talent, equipment, and project management resources to take on visual content production without day-to-day brand involvement. Most agencies are “designed for long-term client partnerships and marketing plans that often stretch over years,” writes Nick Phelps in this Adweek article.

More agile brands such as those with high-volume needs for daily social media ads should make sure agencies can adapt to that model because the images are based on who’s clicking what that week.

Brands also should make sure to know who owns the photos – them, the agency, or the photographer – before they’re used. It can be a nightmare to untangle creative ownership once a photo has been used in dozens of places.

Good for: High-production value shots, unusual shoots, fixed-location international shoots

Freelance photographers

Freelance photographers can be a less-expensive option. The challenge for brands – whether they access them on their own or use sites like Upwork or Freelancer – is that they must invest the time to identify, vet, and manage the photographers. But when you find a good freelancer, never let them go.

When you find a good freelance photographer, never let them go, says @Chads_chats via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Good for: Small projects, inconsistent content needs, handling overflow content demand

Custom visual content platforms

Photographers shoot new photos on demand following a process aided by technology. Getty Images offers this, as do smaller companies. (Full disclosure: This is what my company does.)

Custom content platforms often have networks of professional photographers, models, and producers around the world. Brands submit their requests in a brief, the call goes out to the creatives, and images are delivered.

Each platform differs in its service, but the general trend is toward a self-service model for brands. That may not be ideal for those who have specific needs or want guidance.

Good for: High-production, budget friendly visuals; medium-production value visuals; API integrations; multi-product shoots; multi-location shoots; and fast turnaround times

Web-based design tools

Web-based design tools like Canva have become a staple for stitching together images for infographics and PowerPoint decks. What they offer in flexibility, they risk in brand melt. Giving lots of people the power to snip, chop, and edit is a recipe for unwelcome innovation.

These design tools can be a godsend for easing the pressure on the in-house design or photography team to produce high-volume, low-production-value visuals. It’s not ideal to have the sales team making its own charts, but it may be a necessary transgression when confined to a single product demo.

Good for: Low-production value assets, non-photo graphics that aren’t worth a designer’s time

Stock photography sites

What stock photos make up for in abundance and availability, they cost marketers in conversions. They usually perform less well than any other type of asset. Their ubiquitous use also means they can be inauthentic for your brand.

Good for: Last resort

What’s the right balance of these sources for your brand images? That depends on how you plan to use them.

What #stockphotos make up for in abundance and availability, they cost marketers in conversions, says @Chads_chats via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Build a DAM pool

With your image pipelines filling your pool, it’s helpful to make your pool a DAM one. A digital asset management system allows you to organize the images and make them accessible to those who should be using visuals in your company (and inaccessible to those who shouldn’t). It also reduces the number of times a new image is created because no one knew the brand already had something similar in its image library.

DAMs can address the copyright and ownership challenges. “A good DAM tracks your images across your online properties to manage rights,” says James Winter, vice president of marketing at Brandfolder. “That way, if you’ve got a photo that’s expiring, you get notified. Or if someone’s using an old logo, you can rescind it.”

A good #DAM tracks #images across your properties to manage rights, says James Winter @Brandfolder via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

TIP: Find a DAM that already has customers in your vertical.

Build your pipelines

Publishing high-quality images authentic to your brand is essential to your visual content’s success. Creating them in a timely manner and managing their rights also are critical to your program. Get ahead of the potential troubles by codifying your company’s visual asset pipelines. Create a universal pool to draw images from and keep picking the photo sources that’ll keep your pool filled.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones you have used).

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute