Stock Photography vs. Custom Photography

Everyone knows first impressions are very important, and in today’s online world, professional custom photography speaks volumes over generic stock photos.

It’s true that hiring an experienced, qualified photographer will be more expensive than using stock photography, however, custom photos are not only more persuasive and believable, they also create a richer user experience for your website users and users of your other marketing materials. In the long run, it can help increase brand interest, revenue, and margins.

So what kinds of photos do you need to have for your brand? Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular types of photography.

The Most Popular Types of Photography in Advertising

There are many different photography types and styles, but the three most popular types of photography in advertising are:

  1. Product photography
  2. Food photography
  3. Lifestyle photography

I’m going to give a quick overview of what’s involved in each, then discuss why you should hire a professional rather than use stock photos.

#1 Product Photography: The Key to a Positive First Impression

Product photography is typically done in a studio environment, so the photographer can control the lighting and highlight the product in the best way possible. You NEED good product photography! A photo of your product might be someone’s first encounter i.e., first impression, of your brand. You want to make it look as good as possible so that their first impression is positive.

A professional product photographer knows how to:

  • Set up appropriate lighting
  • Use professional equipment such as lights, cameras, and a tripod
  • Stage the product in a complimentary way


In addition, they’ll make sure the photo is sharp—not blurry. Then after all that, they load the photos into Photoshop to edit them.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? It can be, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s why you should hire a professional.

#2 Food Photography: Make Your Food Look Appetizing

Food photography is typically done in a well-equipped studio that has access to kitchen supplies and appliances. The photographer will need things like a refrigerator, microwave, sink, and potentially other tools (did someone say blowtorch!?) to be able to create whatever kind of food shot they need.  In advertising, most food photography isn’t just food cooked fresh from the grill; it’s been skillfully styled and staged to make it look as appetizing as possible.

Professional photographers may have some tricks up their sleeves, but also use correct exposure and photography best practices to show the food in its best light. Think about this: before going to a new restaurant, people are going to check out your website and Yelp, so your photos better look good because there’s another restaurant (or 10) down the street they could choose instead. You want to show your food, not something similar to your food, so stock photos are not an option here.

You also want to make sure you show great shots of your food because there are more than likely going to be amateurs posting photos of their half-eaten breakfast from your restaurant, which may not look the most appetizing. So you want to make sure you also have beautiful photos to counterbalance the crappy ones.

I can tell you from personal experience that food is really hard to photograph, so you definitely must hire a good food photographer. See the difference? Which photo makes you more hungry—theirs, or yours?

Professional Food Photographer
Professional Food Photographer

#3 Lifestyle Photography: Make a Connection with Your Audience

Lifestyle photography is typically done outside of a studio, with the goal being to capture the essence of everyday life. You want people viewing your lifestyle images to be able to imagine themselves in that scene using, or being, whatever it is you’re selling. So hiring a photographer to capture real-life events in an artistic way, so that the stories are relatable, is ideal.

There are many factors that come into play when taking photography outside the studio and with people. A professional photographer will know how to direct the people in the shots to get real emotions and make a connection with your viewer. They know how to capture moments, and also have the skill to know what lighting will work and what features on the camera need to be used in different settings.

Why Hire a Professional Instead of Using Stock Photography

Now that I’ve gone over the different types of photography, let’s talk about why you should hire a professional photographer for your projects, rather than spending hours and hours sifting through stock photos. There are several problems with using stock photography in your branding and advertising that I’ll discuss.

One problem is that the stock photo could be used elsewhere. Think about what would happen if it showed up in an ad adjacent from your ad in a magazine. It’s happened before!

The point is, chances are other people are looking for “smiling business woman” or “confident man running.” They’ll find the same results you do, and once they find that “perfect” photo they’ll use it all over their collateral—just like you.

Another problem is if you’re looking for a “face” for your brand or campaign, there’s a risk that someone else will hire that same model for their company. Then your brand will end up looking generic and inauthentic.

I’ve run into this problem before. After hours and hours of searching for a stock photo with the campaign’s manager, we decided on a really nice looking lady. Apparently other people thought she was a nice choice also, because I saw her on yahoo’s homepage in a large web banner, and even on a billboard, just months after we launched our campaign. Neither of those advertisements were for our campaign!

Speaking of generic, even if you aren’t using a stock photo for a main model, stock photos tend to generally look “stock-y” and generic. Nobody is wearing your uniform or standing in your store. They’re made to be generic because the person who took the photo wants to make it appeal to as many people as possible, because that’s how they get paid.

No matter how professional the stock photo, it’ll always be someone else’s vision that you are trying to adapt to your brand, when it really should be the other way around.

To reiterate, here’s a quick list of the benefits of using custom photography:

  1. You’re a lot less likely to have the problem of other companies using the same photo/model.
  2. You get to direct exactly what you want people to see and feel through your custom photos, amplifying the message you’re creating.
  3. You’ll have the “right” pictures versus “good enough.”
  4. With custom photography, you have control over what thoughts and emotions your brand conveys.
  5. When you use custom photography, you build a library of images for yourself that sticks to your brand’s look and feels consistent. With stock photography, there are often limitations on how you can use the image, and for how long.
  6. Stock photography is not custom—nobody is wearing your uniform, and that stock photo of a Caesar salad isn’t exactly what your beautifully crafted salad looks like.

Go the extra mile for your brand and hire a professional.