You’re Awesome, But Your Stock Photos Suck


<This image is called “Perfect Family”>

Nearly a decade ago, my first communications gig was at a provincial literacy organisation. I was charged with giving the look a bit of a refresh – namely, by adding more photos to publications. I was given a tiny budget and signed up to a stock photo site.

“Families reading” produced a lot of shiny white nuclear families in crispy white shirts. As a provincial organisation with a huge First Nations and growing immigrant population, this was not going to cut the mustard.

“Diverse families + reading” was a bit better, but for the most part it simply swapped out white families for African American families. A great start, but they were still all wearing crispy shirts.

“First Nations families” – no search results found.

“Multi-cultural + books” – a very sad looking Asian woman on a bench with a newspaper.

“Indians reading books” – I suddenly feel terrible about myself and the world. The results are anything from First Nations people in cultural regalia to the bright lights of Mumbai.

I came to the realization that so many nonprofits have already discovered: STOCK PHOTOS SUCK. And I’ve just blown my $100 bucks on a stock photo site that can give me nothing I need.

We know that we need to use images to help convey our message. But how do you circumvent the suckiness of stock photos and find imagery that speaks to what you do? And how can you do it on a budget?

Here are some ideas for starting, collecting and maintaining a great nonprofit photo library.

Starting & Maintaining Your Library

1) Make a commitment to your visual content. You know you should be using more images, but it’s all too often second thought, especially at a small shop. If you already have some policies or guidelines about your visual identity in place (hint: they’re likely in a binder covered in dust or propping up your desk), review them to ensure everyone’s on the same page. Decide who is in charge of managing your photos – while clear procedures helps everyone contribute, there should be a go to staff person who makes sure your library is maintained.

2) Brainstorm with your team about what kind of images you’d like to capture and what opportunities you might have over the next year to capture them. Check out websites and material from other organisations to seek some inspiration. Make a plan – what, where, when, and who – and stick to it!

3) Get your paperwork in place. You’ll need a release form – here’s a really simple example. If you’re planning a huge event (say, a conference with more than a hundred people) you may want to work this into the registration process. Check into those dusty policies to see if any of this is already kicking around.

4) Choose a centralized place to store all your images. May I suggest somewhere in the cloud for accessibility? Some organisations choose to use disc libraries or an external hard drive, but this limits access and means a whole lot of emailing images or tracking discs.

5) Create a system for tracking and organising, including how to name an image, how to keep track of where and who it came from, and when it was taken. You’d be surprised how often photos get dumped, unnamed, into a weird place, never to be seen again!

Collecting Photos

1) Invest in a decent camera for your organisation. You don’t need a top of the line digital SLR – but relying on your Admin Assistant’s iPhone is dicey in my opinion. For less than $200 you can get a decent model. Head to a store, ask a lot of questions, and try using as many models as you can. And once you’ve made a choice, make sure it gets used by your staff as much as possible. If you can, invest in a decent tripod, too.

2) Seek out photo sponsorship or volunteers. You likely know a great local professional, or at least an amateur budding photographer. As is with any relationship, don’t abuse it! Get your professional friends to capture a big event, and use volunteers to attend a variety of programs. Talk to local photography classes to see if there are opportunities to offer some subject matter.

3) Set up “photo booths” at your events. You don’t need anything fancy – your camera and tripod, and a plain backdrop. Add some props if you like. This can be a special draw depending on your clientele. I worked recently with an organisation who works with immigrants, and they realized that many of these families have never had a family portrait. This creates an opportunity to get powerful and fun images, while offering something important to your clients in return.

4) Ask people you know for submissions. While some people might not want their personal images used in this way, most people are happy to “donate” to a cause they love in this way. Better yet, hold a contest!

5) Take a walk to capture your “b roll” – these are those images that act as filler. Trees, clouds, leaves, buildings, whatever. And while you’re at it, take along some release forms in case you spot some people who you’d love to capture!

How does your organisation capture and maintain an image library? Any sweet ideas to share?