A Stock

Photo & Video


Stock Photos and Video Footage: Archetypes, Limitations and Diversity

Stock photos and footage have become a staple in today’s digital landscape.  There are more resources than ever to download these free resources at your disposal.  Although this makes it more convenient to source an image or media you want to use for your next IG post, it also poses many limitations that you may not have thought about. 

In this blog post, we want to take a deep dive into stock photography/video and how it is becoming a conversation about authenticity and connecting with your audience.  This is not to discredit stock footage creators.  It’s a labor of love.  There are some magical moments that have been captured and widely available.  These stock photo creators are also putting their work out there so that you might hire them in the future.  This post is to champion their skills and resources so content creation can resonate more with audiences.  

man looking at his phone looking excited

Free to Use Stock Photos vs Paid

There are many resources for stock photos and footage, with some free to use and other sites offer paid per photo options.  Sites like Pexels and Unsplash offer a wider variety of free photos and videos and other sites like Adobe Stock or Getty Images offer paid royalty free images and videos.  There are also vectors and illustrations available in these libraries, but for the sake of this examination, we will focus on the context of the stock photos and videos. We can get into the sheer mass volume of the overused imagery or the lack of authenticity but this study is more focused on breaking down what stock photos and videos really are, the action taking place, the lack of diversity and representation, and what to consider when choosing stock photos versus original stock photography.

The Motivation Behind Stock Photos

Woman on bed that looks sad and depressed.

 Let’s first jump into the action taking place in these stock photos.  What is really going on here?  A photographer grabbed a camera, set up a collaboration with a model and went out to snap some shots.  They spent time getting the scene right, the wardrobe, the lighting and focus.  Then, there’s the direction given to the model, “Sit down here.  Look depressed and the world is crumbling around you.” 

To get the best out of your talent, you must focus on the motivations and what drives a character to move, pose or act a certain way.  Filmmakers, actors, models and photographers all use motivation to arouse the action taking place.  They look for ways to connect their own real-life experiences.  If you are working with a script, you have an organized concept that is driving the narrative.  The actors understand what they are ‘selling’ so they are able to deliver the exact emotion needed for the narrative. 

Giving Direction

On a film set, it’s the director’s responsibility to tell the story and give direction to the talent and crew on how to tell that story.  They are orchestrating the action that takes place in the frame.  A great director wants you to feel immersed in the story and the biggest contributing factor to keep an audience engaged is to imitate real life.  This is known as “Cinema Verité,” to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind reality. 

The director and his actors are exploring the authenticity of a scene, what motivates the character/s and how close can they get to portraying real life moments and emotions.   When a director feels that the actor is forcing the action, or the scene feels derivative it’s usually followed up by “Cut! Let’s go back to one.  From the top.”  The director knows that the action they just watched was not genuine and so he/she makes adjustments to get there.  

Purpose and Use of Stock Photos and Videos

  Some stock photos could have been created from a specific photoshoot for a client or it could have been created solely for stock photo libraries.  Images created for stock photo libraries are not going off a script.  The direction given does not have a specific narrative or objective to achieve.  The models/actors do not know exactly what they are ‘selling’ and they are given direction that is a general request to pose or express something that people can plainly understand.  What happens is that the action taking place becomes an archetype of “looking depressed” or “happy walking in the park,” and so forth. 

You feel like you’ve seen the image before, and you know what, chances you have.   When we think about the expressions and poses in stock photos, most of time they do not feel authentic, and an oversimplification represents what we are accustomed to seeing.  There is no room for originality and creativity.  It just feels like someone has been given direction to pose that way, “look happy and smiling” or “act frustrated.”  The action is derivative.  What we see in these stock footage segments are personifications of real life, more so, forced representation of what was directed.  The image of someone in real depression so many dimensions. It is not always an archetype of someone with their hands on their head, looking like the world is crumbling.  There are more layers to human emotion and it’s important to explore them to make better creative media.  

Diving Deeper with Context in Photos

 We start to discern what is “really” going on as we look into the action of stock photos.  When we search “family,” images look like family photos that are displayed on a mantle.  Some “business” photos have people standing around a conference table looking intrigued and engaged.  When you scroll down, the same type of action is recycled over and over.    The action is generic, and with that, the response will be the same way.  All the images are homogenized and what you are left with is a lot of the same representations that you have seen over and over. 

We’ve all watched a blockbuster action film.  There’s always a character that is about to die but before they do, they mutter one last sentence- “The treasure is in the sea”…then turn their head to the side and they die.  We’ve seen this so many times before.  We know what’s going to happen.  We are not surprised by the death of the character after the last dyeing words, and we already predicted what will happen.  It feels like we’ve already there so there is nothing to gain, and no emotions are exchanged.   This limits your messaging.  Not only are these stock photos being used by 100’s or 1000’s of other brands, but the stories are also unoriginal.  The same representation of “sadness” or “melancholy” is being recycled by the 1000s.  

A corporate setting with business men and women standing around a desk shaking hands.

The Diversity and Lack of Representation of Stock Photos and Footage

 What about representation and diversity?  If your objective is to represent a Polynesian restaurant and need a Polynesian cook to further your narrative, you will find it difficult to source.  A study conducted at NC State looked into the limited options available on free stock libraries vs paid stock libraries. The NC State study concluded, 

The findings are significant because using images relevant to audiences is an important factor in successful communication and outreach efforts. If many populations are not well represented on stock photography sites, it’s more difficult to develop effective communication tools to reach those populations. 

People want to feel connected.  Brands should especially be aware of this and when you create outward facing collateral to connect with your audience, choosing the correct imagery to induce a response is the number one factor in a successful campaign.  

Limitations for Specific Stock Photo Needs

 Sometimes it can take hours to find the right image.  If you find yourself scouring stock photo libraries for an extended period of time, you might want to pause and ask yourself, “would it be better to film what I need?”  If you are asking yourself this question, chances are that the image you are looking for is too specific and not available in a stock library.   While stock photos can be a valuable resource in certain situations, it’s crucial to recognize their limitations.

Striking a balance between stock and original photography ensures that not only are your visuals are appealing but also align with your brand identity and messaging goals. In the competitive landscape of digital content, investing the time and resources to create original photos and videos is a strategic move that pays off in authenticity, uniqueness, and a stronger connection with your audience.   Is the action in stock photos portraying real life moments?  Are the expressions moving you and giving you a new experience?

Stock Photo Quality

This is where we get into the quality of stock photos.  Some images are terrific and they do transfer an experience and some images feel forced and uninspiring.  If you’re in charge of creative, the most important decision to make is the quality of your imagery and if the imagery compliments your message or narrative.   At Seal Media, we strive to create media that connects with people.  Don’t just create content, connect with content.  What does that mean exactly?  If you are going to create media, don’t just do it to satisfy an algorithm but build the right creative that speaks to your specific audience.  Do it right or don’t do it at all. 

Creating any type of photo or video that doesn’t truly connect with your audience and what their needs are, becomes more of a distraction.  Instead of producing mediocre content for a general purpose, you could be creating content that let’s your tribe know you are listening.    

Anderson Seal is an award-winning filmmaker & owner of Seal Media since 2007. A graduate of Cal State University Long Beach, community advocate, father, & husband. 

Scroll to Top