How an awkward stock photo is born

July 17, 2013
July 17, 2013

The above picture is one of approximately 14 million images inside stock photo provider Bigstock’s collection. You might find yourself drawn to the over-the-top expressions on the models’ faces. Perhaps the rich and vibrant colors catch your eye. Maybe the less obvious details pique your interest, like the flower in the girl’s hair or her tongue stud. No matter what draws you to this particular image, we can probably agree that it falls into that puzzling and difficult to define category: it’s an awkward stock photo.

Over recent years, with the proliferation of web images, awkward stock photos have found their way into the internet lexicon. Their popularity has even spawned websites dedicated solely to the mission of finding and sharing the weirdest of the bunch.

People often wonder where this niche of images come from, who would need them, and why they exist in the first place. So I sought to find out. The “Girl making fun of nerdy guy” image was taken by Bigstock contributor Anna Matyszczak (ninamalyna), who has been taking stock images for six years. Her life as a photographer started when her father lent her his old SLR camera for a school trip in Poland, where she grew up. In all of her work, Matyszczak hopes to snap stills of everyday life and ordinary people—albeit, at times, exaggerated.

Taking another look at this photo from her portfolio, she remembers that she “fell in love with his brilliant expressions.” Stock photographers engage in a guessing game of sorts when they stage their shoots because they only make money when someone actually downloads their image. They must, therefore, envision and predict what type of imagery graphic designers, photo editors, or creative directors might need for their projects down the line. Here, Matyszczak tried to capture some of the ways that young people might behave and interact with each other, keeping in mind the needs of magazines or blogs that cover relationships and dating advice. That was her target.

The Global Stock Image Market Research Group in Heidelberg, Germany, recently studied the stock imagery industry and estimated that it generated $2.88 billion in revenue last year. According to the research, nearly 200 different companies compete in this industry, ranging in size from small to large. A similar range of experience and profitability exists for stock contributors.

Putting together a shoot is no small undertaking, and Matyszczak buys all kinds of props, costumes, and accessories from second-hand stores or eBay to maximize the creative options from a single shoot. With an idea in mind and all of the necessary accoutrements at her disposal, she gets down to business and scouts a location, in this case a colorful restaurant interior. But working with multiple models simultaneously can be tricky, she says, because “it takes time to synchronize desired expressions on two faces for the perfect shot.” And there’s usually some touching up that needs to be done afterward to enhance both the models and the overall image.

To help simplify the process, Matyszczak often works with the same models who know her style and her sensibility. A comfort level and rapport builds over time that allows everyone to relax and have fun with the shoots. “In my portfolio there are many other series with Mr. Nerd,” she says. By bringing back this character time and again, Matyszczak is also helping build familiarity with photo editors who might be interested in doing a spread or theme around a central recurring character. For projects like those, she may see multiple image downloads from one client, with corresponding payouts.

Although photographers around the world take the shot, the homes for the stock photography companies are relatively common:  Two-thirds of these companies are based out of the United States, United Kingdom, or Germany. In total, across the globe, the stock imagery industry has collectively produced 362 million images, according to the report. Matyszczak is one of many contributors who regularly submit their photos to Bigstock.com.The company employs a team of reviewers who look at every picture, carefully considering everything from subject matter to sales potential to composition of the image. They must also screen for objectionable material or inappropriate content. Technical quality and commercial viability of the images is also taken into account.

The review process can take up to seven days—occasionally a bit longer if it’s busy season—for contributors to hear back.  Reviewers give feedback to contributors when an image is declined, and, in some cases, ask them to edit and then resubmit. From the time a photo has been approved, it will typically take under 72 hours before it joins the Bigstock collection. That’s when it becomes available for downloading.

For the nerdy guy image, reviewers saw potential based on past performance. Historically, nerds have been a popular character to shoot and to feature. According to Bigstock reviewers, what stands out most about this photo is how well connected the two characters are despite their obvious differences. In addition, the girl’s direct interaction with the viewer brightens up the scene further. Thanks to the recognizable characters and generic setting, there are potentially a variety of usages. With that, Matyszczak has tapped into popular culture and familiar territory.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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