Phone, Stock or Professional: A Guide to Marketing Photography

Now, more than ever, photographs fill our lives. Entire wordless conversations take place via Snapchat and Instagram. What we eat, who we love and what we hate. The captured image – filtered, stickered and altered – has become a language all its own and a shortcut to emotional connection.

I’m guilty of this – being manipulative of others with a images. Since I work closely with organizations like Stray Rescue, I push out dog and cat pictures of animals up for adoption all the time. I ask myself: How am I going to reach you? Do I want to tug on your heart strings with an uber cute adorbs pic? Do I share the heart-wrenching image of the animal being rescued from sure death living in squalor?

I’m also a victim of this. One visit to Facebook can ruin my intentions for a healthy diet. When an ad with a photo of a really juicy hamburger pops up on my timeline – you know, this thing looks so good I want to wipe the melty cheese off my screen, I’m texting my friend Beth to ask her what her dinner plans are.

Effective photography is now the basis of the stories we tell. When done well, it helps people connect with you or your brand on an emotional level. Let me repeat that. WHEN…DONE…WELL…

Here’s the point: just because photos are everywhere and just because every device in your hand has a camera, that does not mean that every photo is effective. Let me run through a common scenario to help you with this:

Joe Blow: So Erin, I have this brochure I put together, but it doesn’t seem to be drawing much attention.

Me: Oh, well let me take a look. Where did you get these pictures? They are kind of fuzzy.

Joe Blow: I took them myself with my phone, why?

Me: Well, your patio looks really dark – this picture isn’t showing off the romantic atmosphere you created for it in person. This color of the food is really off…and is that a table full of dirty dishes on the left in this dining room shot?

“I have a camera” or “My phone takes pictures.” I hear it all the time. And yes, if you have an eye for details, this may work for the occasional social media post, update, or promotion. But with it comes to your brand, and you are communicating with your audience with such a powerful tool like photography – why risk it?

Know your intention

The golden rule of the guide to great photography: Know your intention and your brand. If you want something warm and inviting, let that guide your decisions. Hint: This is when knowing your why is crucial.

Phone, Professional or Stock?

After you know your why and what your intention of your photos need be, you must now decide what level of photography you need. As an example of how the same subject can work across a variety of these, we will use Chipotle – we all love to eat, right? To break it down to the simplest terms, here is a general guide on when to use certain kinds of photos – phone, professional and stock photos.


When to use your phone:

Social media. When you want the brand to be human.

Social media – Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest – rewards amateur photography. The filters are forgiving and amateur images seem more authentic. They can even make your brand more human. But you need to be mindful of your subject matter and still focused on your intention. As an example, my friend Lisa Newlin is a big fan of Chipotle, and when I say Instagram photos of giant burritos, she converted me. Hell, I love it now – mine are always a piled high, delicious mess.


When to use stock photos:

Tight deadlines. Smaller image needs.

I use stock photography. I love stock photography. I don’t know where I’d be with out it. It is best when there is a tight deadline or for smaller image needs. For example, if you have a menu, you want to make sure the larger photo elements are professional photography. But if there is need to convey a simple emotion – togetherness or happiness – you can get away with some stock photos. The drawback to using a stock photo is that it may have appeared in the menu of the restaurant down the street, or, worse, in the brochure for the clinic where you get a colonoscopy. You need to weigh this decision with your marketing team when deciding what is right for your budget. Some stock photo sites I like are: iStockphoto, Dollar Photo Club and Getty Images.


When to call in a professional:

When it counts. A marketing investment.

A professional photographer has a special place in great marketing. These artistic gurus have a sharp eye for detail, lighting, shadows, staging and more and will help you capture the mood, environment, feel, taste, and emotion you wish to convey to your customers. They make the food you make taste even more delicious, the hotel you run look even more accommodating, clean and friendly. They make light appear when there is none, colors pop more vibrantly than ever before and help set the scene for the audience so that with every picture they are more invested in your brand. You want to use a professional when you can’t afford for your intention to be mistaken and for marketing investments.

My bias

Even though you can use your phone or stock photos, my years as an art director have created a bias in me.   There really is no substitute for the real thing – professional photography.

If you don’t believe me, check out some of these photos from an article I came across in the Huffington Post. Take a gander at some at staged versus actual food shots. Which story would you want to tell?

In the end, it is up to you. But images are the new language we use. And therefore, your brand has to be especially vigilant in how they are used.

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