Build your own stock photo library

Monday, July 21, 2014

When you’re in a pinch and need a stock photo right now, the commercial services can do admirably. (Need a photo of a whistling tea kettle? iStock has you covered.)

But when you need a photo that captures your mission, your members’ work or the heart of an issue, commercial stock photography too often falls flat. (Unless your members are blandly attractive airbrushed models smiling at each other in boardrooms or chatting on call-centre headsets.)

Want to know why it’s so hard to find good stock photography?

Because nobody is making it. Or, rather, nobody is making it for you.

Stock photo shops and the photographers who supply them need to license their images many times over to make any money, and that means catering to a bigger (and usually more corporate, and more American) crowd than Canadian union communicators. And apart from getting details wrong, the workplace narratives they’re vested in are a lot different from yours.

Fortunately, there’s an answer: making your own.

You know better than any stock photo house what images you need. You know your members, your supporters, your audience — and not just the people, but the settings they live and work in. You know what the issues you care about look like, down to the nittiest and grittiest details.

Building your own stock photo library means:

  • You can get the details right for you and your members, from patches on shoulders to that blurry provincial flag in the background.
  • You can capture the real relationships and attitudes of your workplace.
  • You can reflect the diversity of your membership and the people they work with.
  • You can show your members you’re proud of both them and the work they do — and you’re happy to put them front and centre.
  • Over the years, we’ve set up several photo shoots for our clients. We’ve been delighted with the results, and they’ve found it hugely helpful. Not having to pay licensing fees, not having to spend hours scouring online directories of photos, not having to spend more time turning a photo that kind-of-works into one that sings… that’s gratifying. Not to mention economical.

Here’s how to start.

First, lay the groundwork for your stock photo library.

Do an inventory. Haul those shoeboxes marked “Photo Archives” out of cold storage. You may be surprised at how many images you already have on hand.

Start tracking rights and permissions from the people in those photos. Do you have signed releases from the people in your photos? If not, you’ll want to track them down (and ask nicely).

Don’t have a release form? There are plenty of examples on the web (just Google “model release form”), but you’ll want to make sure your lawyer has a look before you start collecting signatures. Be sure you have a signed, dated release form for everyone in your photos.

Build a list of the kinds of photos you need. Brainstorm with your colleagues, and keep this list handy; you’re going to be adding to it for a long time. Think about…

  • your people: What range of employment specialties do you represent? Who are the people your members interact with? What mix of gender, ethnicity and ability will represent them all?
  • locations and settings: Where do those interactions happen? At what times of day? During what seasons?
  • equipment and context: Do you want close-up shots of pieces of equipment? Objects that represent aspects of the issues you’re discussing?
  • genres of photo: Not just the content, but the photo’s visual approach. Is this a candid action shot? A posed portrait? One person or multiple?

Look at your list, and identify your most urgent needs. Look especially hard for the kinds of photo that come up again and again.

Now get ready to start taking photos.

When you plan your first shoot, aim to cover off as many of the most urgent needs as feasible. But don’t expect to be able to shoot everything. Instead, look for natural clusters: the photos that would all work on one particular set, or with the same small group of people, or with the same equipment.

Make your communications do double-duty. At NOW, when we shoot an ad for a client, we also hire a still photographer. The lighting, sets, props and people are all in place, and getting some high-quality photos takes only a little extra time. Do you have a video shoot coming up? That could be the right moment.

Throughout the shoot and afterward, remember your message and branding. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous a photo is; unless it’s consistent with your message and brand, it’s useless to you.

Seriously: hire a professional photographer, unless you’re strapped for cash, or you have the equivalent of Annie Leibovitz on staff (or eagerly volunteering). They have the equipment, the lighting skills, the visual savvy and — this is critical — the experience getting great photos out of people. You’ll save a lot of time during the shoot, and you’ll be much, much happier with the results.

Consider hiring models or actors. Not for dazzling good looks or wind-swept hair, but for their ability to come off as natural and spontaneous, even in posed situations. They’re experienced professionals. Look for expressive, compelling faces with character.

Consider using your members. Not (just) for cost savings, but because there’s a genuine benefit to depicting real members in their own jobs. And they’ll know just how to use that weird piece of equipment or wear their uniform with confidence and authority.

Think about your backdrop. Do you want the versatility of a white backdrop? The immediacy and real-world flavour of the workplace? Is there room (and time) to do both?

Get those release forms signed. Do it before the shoot begins, and you won’t have to worry about catching anyone who has to leave early.

Have an expert at the shoot: someone who knows what goes where, and can make sure you get the details right. There’s nothing quite as embarrassing as publishing a photo with an obvious (but unintended) safety violation, or someone holding a stethoscope backward.

Don’t be afraid to do some directing. Work out with your photographer how to communicate on the set, and then be explicit about what you want: happier expressions, more concern, subjects closer together — whatever will get you the photos you need. Be polite and firm; don't micromanage their work, but be sure you get what you're paying for.

Check out the photos as the shoot happens. One of the greatest things about digital photography is you can look at a photo immediately. Your photographer should let you have a look now and then to make sure you’re getting every shot you want. Get a variety of photos of each subject: closely and loosely cropped, high and low angles, and a range of different emotions and expressions. When it comes time to use these photos, you want to have choices — especially because the need for a particular kind of image will probably come up several times.

Review the photos — and cull ruthlessly. Do it as soon as possible after the shoot, while you still remember the great moments you wanted to be sure to keep. Select the very best images: the ones that evoke the right mood and tell the right stories; the ones without distracting shadows, blurred movements or strained facial expressions; the ones you’ll be proud to use. Do your post-production and colour-correction work on those, and archive the others.

Keep building your library.

You’re off to a great start. Now keep adding to your wishlist every time a need comes up for a photo you don’t have on hand. Whenever circumstances and budget allow, consider organizing another shoot to expand your library.

Make sure everyone knows where to look for photos. Store them on a networked hard drive, and keep a binder of printed thumbnails to flip through. (And back them up.)

This may sound like a lot of work, and it can be — especially when you have a complex shoot and want to cover a lot of territory. (That’s often when our clients call us: not just to manage the logistics, but to help ensure the photographs they end up with are sharply focused on their strategic message.)

And don’t dismiss the commercial stock photo suppliers. We use stock photography regularly, and we don’t expect that to change any time soon. Sometimes they can come through wonderfully, especially when you want a more conceptual image — or just an image right now.

But you’ll be glad to have your own library to turn to when you want photos that tell the story of your union, your members and the work they do.