4 Theories of Stock Photography

A story about word clouds, cyber women and unfortunate modelling situations.

If you’ve ever had to use stock photography in your work, you’ll probably know about the strange, unusual and downright batshit insane imagery you come across in the process of trying to find a good image. It’s a common phenomenon — in fact, there are whole communities dedicated to it like WTF Stock Photos on reddit. For reference a longstanding favourite of mine has always been CYBER WOMAN WITH CORN:

also I swear that’s the headband from a pair of headphones she’s wearing
also I swear that’s the headband from a pair of headphones she’s wearing

1. Whatever it is, there’ll be a picture of a businesswoman doing it.

Bear with me on this one. Think of any verb, or maybe a noun, right now. Now type it into Shutterstock with the prefix “businesswoman ____”. The more creative or outlandish the word, the better. I almost guarantee you’ll be spoilt for choice. Now don’t ask me why there’s such a high volume of these photos, and definitely don’t shoot the messenger — but trust me, I have just as many questions as you do, too.

I mean, I even got a result for ‘businesswoman fart’:


Even ‘businesswoman crabs’ got me a result:


Now imagine being one of those poor models. You get the call, you’re excited about the acting job and to be getting some money in, and then you find out the picture you’re tasked with posing for is a shot of you squatting on the pan. And now anybody can go online and buy that picture of you for relatively low cost.

Let’s spare a thought for those models. The unsung and unfortunate heroes of stock.

2. Whatever it is, there’ll be a word cloud of it.

Remember word clouds? They were a trend when infographics first started getting big, and sadly they’ve been lingering around stock sites like a fly on a cow turd ever since. I think word clouds are big money spinners for contributors on Shutterstock, since they barely require any photography setup, models, or talent.

all things which bear practically no relation to blogging
all things which bear practically no relation to blogging

I mean, word clouds are piss easy to make — which makes me worry about how some Shutterstock contributors are still able to make them look hideous. I can make word clouds on my phone. There are websites where you can make them for free, like right here — AND it event lets you pick the font.

If you ever happen to need a word cloud for a project you’re working on, I’d suggest that you

a) reconsider your choices, and;

b) make it yourself.


3. Whatever it is, there’ll be a picture of someone writing it on a board or a businessperson touching it.

Okay, I promise I’ll stop with this title convention next time. Like word clouds, for some reason decorated words are just as popular on Shutterstock — and they’re just as piss easy to make too. All you need to do is get a nice shot of a person holding a pen or pointing at the camera, a good handwritten font, and boom: you now have the tools to make HUNDREDS of different images and you’re on your way to that sweet Shutterstock profit.

But even I have to have a limit here. I mean, look:

Screen Shot 2017-02-04 at 12.24.23 pm

Who ever needs a picture of the phrase ‘stop diarrhoea’ being handwritten?

Who ever needs a picture of a businesswoman pointing to ‘oral cancer’ on a beach?

I’ve come to realise that clearly the best way to make money on Shutterstock is to flood the market with an answer to every possible image need that anybody could ever have. THAT’S why there’s so many damn word clouds out there or three hundred different pictures of a businesswoman on the toilet.

Yet whilst researching the images above, I discovered that my previous theories were not mutually exclusive; it turns out they can get combined too — like this example.


This one has nearly everything! It combines both theory 2 AND 3 into something even more distended and awful: 1) it’s distasteful, 2) it’s being written by a disembodied hand, and 3) it’s a word cloud. Bingo! We just need a businesswoman writing it and we could have had the full house.

4. When you’re the photographer, it’s surprising to learn where your photos end up.

Now I feel I’m allowed to talk about this with at least a little experience since I used to upload some of my images to a free stock photography site. All public domain, free to use photos that I’d taken, which meant you didn’t have to credit me to use them in your work or anything like that. It was mostly a way for me to give my shots a new lease of life after I’d used them for whatever work projects.

Since uploading them, though, I’ve found it fascinating to see where my pictures have ended up. For example, since taking this shot:


I discovered it’s being used by a campsite in France to advertise their breakfasts:


Or by a restaurant in Italy to showcase their desserts:


Which is interesting, since those croissants actually came from a British bakery and that picture was taken in a market in Guernsey. So please note I can’t be held responsible if the pastries at Le Pré Gallo or Pepita aren’t quite as advertised.

Stock is useful. Hell, stock can be beautiful, too — if you’re looking to escape the tedium of Shutterstock, perhaps try sites like Stocksy or Twenty20 which usually have some really artistic, nicely composed work. If a search result for ‘word cloud’ on your stock site reveals no results, you know you’re in a better place.

What’s the worst stock photography or use of stock photography you’ve ever come across? Tweet it to me at @yourolly.