Monday, April 5, 2010

Microstock: how to avoid Poisonous Pictures

There has been quite a big reaction to my previous article about the perils of companies using microstock images, with comments ranging from 'hilarious', 'there ought to be a health warning attached to all micro stock purchases' and 'I might just frame that and put it in my office' to... 'biased hypocritical nonsense'. I guess you can't please everyone.

Many designers and researchers have also said that providing their clients with a link to the article is a simple and effective way to show them that with photo purchases, it's not just down to price. Buying cheap can end up an expensive mistake.

What I did not explain in the article (and I have had numerous queries about since) is how I found all these examples of the same image being used across multiple sites. With recent technological advances, it has become quick and easy, which is why companies are going to have to really think about the consequences of using microstock images to represent their brand and reputation.

The key is a website called which describes itself as a 'Reverse Image Search', and I think it is a tool that every designer and picture researcher needs to make an integral part of their work. I will now set out a 'how to' on using TinEye in your picture research:

Go to the TinEye website, and download their TinEye plugin for your browser. It's free!

Once it is installed, whenever you see an image on the web, you just need to right click on it. For example, say you want to buy a 'headset' stock image for a website you are designing. You find a nice anonymous image you could use:

Just right click with your mouse, and on the dropdown menu you will see a new option: Search Image on TinEye. Click on that option and a new window will open in your browser, showing all the matches which TinEye has in its database:

28 results in this case. Now, the first thing you need to ask yourself is "is it going to be a problem using this image if so many other sites are using it?" Traditionally the general consensus has been that in many cases this is not a problem, as the odds of someone stumbling across the same image and then highlighting the fact are probably minimal.

But... now we have TinEye.

That means that if you use the image on your website, anyone viewing the image on your site can do exactly what you just did with TinEye. It now takes just one click to find matching images across the web. Okay, so still in many cases, if your client isn't particularly high profile, no big deal. And in this case it is a fairly anonymous stock image.

But what about this?

I have to confess that my Spanish is a little rusty, but words like 'erecciones' and 'eyaculaciones' suggest to me that this is not the sort of 'enhancement' product that you want your help-centre call girls associated with.

Maybe it's time to look for another headset photo.

What you need to find is an image that is not over-used and is not tainted by the 'Poisonous Picture' phenomenon we see above. The Caveat of course is that, while TinEye allows you to find these uses:

1) It is by no means comprehensive. TinEye's database of images is constantly increasing as their spiders crawl the web, so you never know when some 'interesting' new use for an image may turn up.

2) It only shows current uses. Someone may come along next week, buy the same image as you, and use it to promote their business or product.

There is no way you can completely protect yourself unless you 'buyout' rights to the image. In most cases this is going to be too expensive, so what it really comes down to is risk assessment:

You use microstock images to represent your company: there are going to be possibly hundreds if not thousands of websites/businesses out ther using the same 2 dollar images. Also, because they are 2 dollar images, the dodgiest, seediest, fly-by-night businesses will be using them, because why would they pay more?

You use non-microstock Royalty Free images. There may well be quite a few other websites/businesses using those images, but nothing like the same scale as the microstock ones, and the dodgiest, seediest, fly-by-night businesses will not be using them because... they like cheap! (Of course because they are Royalty Free you can't be sure that the same photos are not also being sold as microstock, but that is a whole other can of worms...)

You use Rights Managed images. Not many, if any, other businesses will be using them. As they are Rights Managed, you should also be able to find out if, and where else, they have been used and whether there is a possible conflict of use with a competitor, particularly if you license them direct from the photographer.

You hire a photographer to shoot for you. This is likely to be the most expensive option if you just need one or two photos, but if you need a reasonable number (for instance a variety of shots of your staff at work, your premises and your products) it could actually end up being more economical than buying stock.

Interestingly, I have noticed a growing number of 'high-end' businesses taking this last option, and starting to avoid stock completely, and I can see good reasons for doing so. But a discussion of that will have to wait until another time.

In many cases it may not be a big deal that the girl in that beautiful layout your designer created to promote your business...

...hangs out in some bizarro parallel universe of bad design,

but when it comes to a company as high profile and prestigious as Hilton Hotels ®...

... do they really want it to look like they use the same call centre staff as Viagra Genius dot com?

"Hi, this is Shelley at Viagra Geen... I beg your pardon, I mean at Hilton Worldwide, how may I help you today?"

Microstock photos may be cheap, but they come at a price.


  1. Chris, as a follow up to this, have you considered putting a function on PD whereby we can notate our images as either RM or RF? And allowing potential clients to search just for RM, if that's what they want?

  2. Another great post Chris. Nice examples that can raise awareness to the business of photography nowadays.

  3. I don't think I've ever used a website and said, "Hey, I think I'll try to figure out where all these images come from. Maybe it's also used on a badly designed website or a viagra ad. I should use these other, non-related sites to form an opinion of the first."

    Obviously your point is to scare people into using PhotographerDirect and the best way is something sensationalized like this. We get it.

  4. I don't think anybody would assume to be talking to the person displayed.

    I really don't think it's a problem with some of the examples you showed, because these are iconic images. I don't think you would suggest that every program needs a different close button to distinguish it from other programs. Having similar or the same icons gives people a quicker understanding of the service you're providing. In these cases the photos are just nicer icons.

    In the advertisement screenshot I think it's a different story though and you'd rather want a unique picture to advertise your product (and thus also make your product appear unique).

  5. Hi Anonymous, re:

    "I don't think I've ever used a website and said, "Hey, I think I'll try to figure out where all these images come from. Maybe it's also used on a badly designed website or a viagra ad. I should use these other, non-related sites to form an opinion of the first."

    You are talking from the point of view of a consumer. Maybe you do not really understand branding and company reputation. You need to think about it from the point of view of the company. It doesn't need every single person viewing Hilton Hotels site to spot that they are using the same Viagra Genius image, it needs just one. That results in bad publicity for them. Will people care? Maybe 80% won't. Maybe 90% won't Maybe 95% won't. But for the possibly small percentage that do care, was it really worth losing their custom, or lowering their opinion of the Hilton 'brand' by saving money on a 2 dollar microstock picture?

    "Obviously your point is to scare people into using PhotographerDirect and the best way is something sensationalized like this. We get it."

    No, I don't think you do get it. This blog is not about Photographers Direct. The only place it is mentioned is the top righthand corner as 'full disclosure'. Please go through every blog post I have written with a fine toothcomb and highlight every time Photographers Direct has been mentioned.

    Do you think I expect Hilton Hotels to now come to me and want to buy pictures from me? No, I do not. I expect the opposite.

    I am publicising the dangers of companies with strong brands using microstock images, and hopefully make them think more carefully about where they source their images.

    Will they then buy from me? I highly doubt it. I am just trying to make a stand for photographers.

  6. Actually, I disagree with "Anonymous."
    When a higher profile orgainization uses an image, like the one posted, I would think threre would be some level of professionalism involved. Apparently not.

  7. What you describing on websites is eye-candy, thats all. Nobody takes notice of it whilst they are surfing, or remember an image long enough to make associations if by an long chance they come across it agin. What more worrying is how many websites do not have a spider policy and let Tineye an others webcrawl all over them. That is just a waste of procssing time an no meaning hitstats.

  8. But the thing is people do make those associations. If something is unusual and unexpected, we remember it. That is how the human brain works - it is part of our survival instinct. Most advertising is based on taking advantage of the associations we make. Here is a quote from a reader regarding an earlier article I wrote:

    "There was some magazine (Rolling Stone?) that always had a fake sex column that was really an ad for one of those penis-growing pills.

    The "columnist" had the same photo as did one of the generic people on Brother's [Printers] Web site. Every time I went to look for a new printer driver, I thought of a fake sex columnist."

    Before these 'associations' were generally made by chance, and there was a low probability of that happening. With TinEye and microstock, we now have a 'Perfect Storm'; there are thousands of examples of multiple image use, and there is an easy free tool anyone can use to find them.

  9. Chris, have you seen this?

    The ultimate argument againt stock image use .... when your competition uses the same source to discredit your advert.


  10. ouch! Now that has got to hurt.

    Confucius says:

    cheap shots can be used as... well, cheap shots

  11. Couldn't a scandal like the examples you wrote about above actually get the company more press and coverage, even if not ideal. It has people like you blogging about their ads, even if critical. Depending on how you feel about "all press is good press" this could be a good thing for some companies.

    I do agree with you that TinEye is a really cool tool.

  12. "With recent technological advances, it has become quick and easy, which is why companies are going to have to really think about the consequences of using microstock images to represent their brand and reputation. The key is a website called"

    Hehehehe. "Recent technological advances". Have you been in a coma?

    There's another recent technological advance on the horizon that's sure to change photography even more than tineye. I was in Best Buy the other day and they were selling these newfangled cameras they called "digital" cameras. Supposedly, the things take photos without loading any film in them at all! I'm still a bit skeptical, but if this proves to be true, sell your Kodak and Fuji stock, because the world of photography is about to be turned on it's ear. Remember, you heard it here first.

  13. Now, anonymous, (I know it must be nice to hide behind that name) you're just being silly.

    And a little bit of a troll...

  14. Thanks, Chris. This article is very helpful and enlightening.

  15. Interesting article.

    Looks like "Anonymous" doesn't get it all despite claims to the contrary. Maybe he'd be happy if his company was trying to make a name for itself and was found to be using the same images as a spanish viagra vendor. Maybe it's just me but I'd always take the viagra vendor to be con merchants trying to scam me and if I decided to buy something it would be nothing more than a placebo.
    I wouldn't touch them with a bargepole.

    If I then spotted the same or VERY similar image on Anonymous website, I'd rightly or wrongly assume they were part of the same company.

    Guess what? Anonymous's company are, in my opinion, now a bunch of theiving scammers trying to con me.

    Easy to be saracastic when anonymous....even easier to be wrong!

  16. Great article Chris! I hope you are going to archive these articles. The Tineye plugin is incredible too!

  17. While I agree in principle I'm not sure I agree in the details. It's easy to point the finger at microstock but all of the embarrassing uses noted could have just as easily used cheap images from macro stock, it would have cost more to look bad. But not a lot more, don't forget I can buy $5 web use images on Getty and Alamy.

    The political ad noted above by callumW could have been created with a Rights Managed image from Getty or Alamy; especially since the second image is not identical to the first. It would have cost more but the value of the turn-about would have been worth it.

    But the more we see images that we know aren't real, the more we accept that they are "iconic" and don't need to be real. Will Hilton change their web page because the call center person is used elsewhere ? Probably not. After all, the image is "iconic" and represents a call center, not the Hilton brand or Hilton personnel.

    Railing against microstock isn't the answer when in truth, all stock photography use is to blame. As you say, the only way to guard against this is to commission a shoot or pay for an exclusive license.


  18. "Maybe it's just me but I'd always take the viagra vendor to be con merchants trying to scam me and if I decided to buy something it would be nothing more than a placebo.
    I wouldn't touch them with a bargepole."
    If it's only a placebo, it wouldn't be much of a bargepole would it?

    A valuable post Chris, and I'm off now to Tineye all my images!

  19. Some people just don't get it. Microstock is a ripoff of all hard working photographers. Are some photographers so desperate to sell something, anything, that they will take pennies for their work? Apparently so, and it hurts the chances of all other legitimate photographers trying to make a living and sell their work.

  20. The answer to JimW is...only partly. Digital photography has brought a whole new and quite substantial group into the picture (a coincidental pun). It has made it so much easier to create a reasonable photograph. There are so many more 'happy snappers' now who find that their images are marketable...but they are not really interested in making a business of it and having their work earn what we could call reasonable fees. Above all, they're just happy to get pictures published, and of course the microstockers are only too happy to exploit them at our expense. I know, because I've exchanged words with a couple of them...they care not about how much they're paid but about the 'feather in their cap' for having something purchased...something they probably would never have achieved in the days of film.

  21. liked your post. Imagine the keyword "sunset" and you can imagine where this all is leading to...
    I never believed in stock / file whatsoever kind of photography. But as a matter of fact, even high end business clients are going with the flow, means posting / using what the crowd wants to see, what stitches the eye. And this contradicts the stupid platitude: a picture can say more then 1000 words, cause the word is still the instrument of thoughts.

  22. John Milbank said: "the microstockers are only happy to exploit them at our expense".

    I couldn't disagree more. After all, the microstockers don't take more as a percentage of the proceeds than the Corbis' and Getty's of the world. To me, microstocks fill a market need that wasn't filled before - cheap, competent if unimaginative images to be used in places where originality and uniqueness don't matter that much. Yes, you can't make a living by selling microstock, but that's for the better - it satisfies a customer base that would have never bought at 'real' prices. Instead of decrying the fact that we can't con people of overpaying for mediocre images, maybe we should just take better pictures or market the photographic services rather than the images themselves. As markets mature - some products do become commoditized; most recently (and close to the photography market model) it happened with software. Look at how much Iphone apps cost - and with most of them - you get what you pay for. However - the price for good, unique, complex applications (Photoshop comes to mind) or the price for custom development services has not dropped.

    On the other side, the author of this article makes a valid point - the users (editors, web designers) have to perform due diligence to find out what comes built into the low prices they pay for their images.

  23. I've read both of these posts and all the comments. You should not have made the comments about these businesses you have tried to make look like the bad guy and not trustworthy just because they used microstock. If you have any self respect I think you owe them an apology.

    Where do you you pay twice as much at the local store or pay less at a discount store because you think the local store is robbing you blind with their high prices? They have a budget just like every other person in this world. How do you think business is run? Stop and think about it before you start blasting these businesses. It's called competition in hard economic times.

    As for microstock....if I wanted an image of a spray paint gun do you honestly think I could find one on a RM stock site??? Microstock is a different type of photography. Yes they have model shots, but that is not the only thing that microstock has. I agree if a business wants a more professional look, that is something that needs to be considered and they need to hire a photographer to do this. I've looked at some of the images on your photographers direct website and the quality is not always there. I've seen much better quality on the microstock sites. Sorry but this is the new age and welcome to it.

  24. Thanks for a great post, Chris. I think the TinEye plugin is a wonderful tool that all
    photographers (and anyone who's ever posted any
    of their photos on the web) should know about. It
    occurs to me that as well as highlighting the
    issues you raised, it's very useful for anyone
    concerned about having their images stolen and
    used without permission.

    After installing the plugin, I did a few test
    searches on some images on my own web site.
    In most cases, the search returned no results,
    except for 1 image which came up with 1 result
    ... and guess what? the 1 result is my own
    web site! The TinEye spider must have crawled
    over my site to find that image, so why hasn't
    it found the others? If anyone has any insight
    into how images make it onto the TinEye database
    or how best to facilitate your own images onto
    the database, I'd love to find out more.

  25. Really useful find. also helps with tracking down unpaid-for image usages. Thanks Chris.

  26. Thanks for the insightful article. I guess each method has its pros and cons. It all boils down to the priorities of the client using the image.

  27. Seems like some people are thinking about this like a consumer rather than a marketing manager. Marketing a brand like Hilton Hotel costs literally millions to tens of millions a year.

    Why try to save literally a few hundred bucks and ruins a good branding even when the chance of being found out the same image is used badly elsewhere is small?

    Remember it is marketers, not consumers who buy photos from photo agency. So think like a marketer, not consumer.

    I am surprise that the Hilton people, with their presumably big budget does not shoot these photos in house. I guess the lazy/short-sighted attitude of the Hilton marketer is putting his job promotion at risk.

    To respond to donna,
    "Where do you you pay twice as much at the local store or pay less at a discount store because you think the local store is robbing you blind with their high prices?"

    Only if the product and/or the usage of the product is the same. I would buy from a cheaper store for sure if everything being the same. But all things aren't the same.

  28. Models have always posed for many photographers, and many companies. If the model is famous enough, everyone wants her. I see very little difference from using the same model that posed in Victoria Secret underwear to be your model on the front desk photo.

  29. Hi Anonymous

    I think there is a major difference here. These models are 'unknowns' and they need to be unknowns. If it was a famous model, why would a company dress them up in a suit and put them on their website front page? That would be even more crazy than using a microstock image because it would immediately be clear that the person did not work at that company.

    Famous models sell luxury products / an aspirational lifestyle: lingerie, jewelry, designer clothes etc. They don't sell the kind of businesses that have used this microstock images, and for good reason....

  30. Great article. Marketing is about conscious and sub-conscious. Granted, many of those images are part of default template packages and such, but it is still part of the brand and image of a company.

    As a consumer, whenever I see the same logo/default image from site to site, it makes me think one thing: cheap.

    The companies will probably spend 10's of thousands if not 100's of thousands working on an all encompassing marketing campaign, but will scrimp and save on the details which contributes to the overall end user experience.

    Not saying every image should be hired out to be shot, but yeah, association between "enhancement" companies is probably not conducive to a stronger brand... unless they are partnering with such companies/services.