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November 6, 2023
November 8, 2023

Generative AI vs. Stock Photo Industry: Battle of the Century?

Gouri Sasidharan

Generative AI vs. Stock Photo Industry: Battle of the Century?

October 31, 2023
November 8, 2023
Gouri Sasidharan


Have you been consuming a lot of digital content lately? 

What makes you want to consume them in the first place? 

Is it the visual or the copy?

Well, it is said that a human brain can process any image within 13 milliseconds and marketers obtain up to 94% more views when their content has visuals. 

A high-quality image is definitely an eye-grabber and the need to get your visuals noticed is crucial in the marketing world. For years, the stock photo industry has been the go-to source when you can’t source original images due to time and budget constraints. But with the rise of AI image generator tools like DALL-E 2, Stability.ai, and Midjourney, AI has made its way into digital imagery as well.

But still, the debate continues about which is better or whether AI would overtake OG stock photography. 

This article speaks for people who are looking for closure to this question.

Stock photo industry: A long-standing tradition

Stock photos have been ruling the visual content category for decades. It is a vast marketplace where photographers and visual artists upload their images for licensing and sale. Marketers and designers approach royalty-free websites like Unsplash, Getty Images, Pexels, Freepik, and more to purchase these images for various purposes, making them a trustworthy source for those aiming for high-quality visuals.

Unsplash library
Source: Unsplash

In 2023, the global stock photography market is estimated to be $4 billion. The industry has several benefits, including an extensive and diverse image library, reliable licensing terms, and the availability of original, unique, and professionally captured images. It has served as the go-to choice for designers, marketers, and content creators for years, and many businesses have long-standing ties with stock photo providers.

What gives stock photos an advantage over generative AI?

1. Ready-to-use content

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” — except with royalty-free websites, you get images of both lemons and lemonade. You find thousands of images that you can use for various marketing purposes. You can also use any of them without thinking about it even for a second due to their authenticity and reliability.

2. Uniqueness

Stock photo libraries are unique and vast. You can find what you want most of the time be it in PNG, PSD, vector, or illustration format. These images have been already established and can be used anywhere. Meanwhile, AI images are generated based on a dataset of existing images and text. This means that there is a risk that AI-generated images may be similar to existing images, or that they may contain elements that have been copyrighted by others. 

3. Quality control

The stock photo industry doesn't compromise the quality of the images, ensuring that the images available meet certain standards. In contrast, the quality of AI-generated images can vary widely, and achieving consistent results may require some trial and error along with a knack for engineering good prompts. This makes stock photos a reliable choice for projects where image quality is paramount. 

4. Human touch

Stock photos result from human photographers' artistic vision and skill. They convey emotions, stories, and unique perspectives that can be challenging for AI in its present form to replicate completely.

Traditional stock photography: Limitations

1. Cost

Stock photos can be expensive, particularly for high-quality, exclusive images. This can be a major barrier for individuals and businesses with limited budgets. 

2. Inflexible customization

While stock photos offer a wide range of choices, they lack the level of customization that generative AI provides. If you need a specific image with distinct attributes, you may find it challenging to execute with stock photos.

3. Copyright restrictions

Stock photos may come with usage limitations despite clear licensing terms, and getting exclusive rights can be costly. This may limit creative freedom for certain projects.

Rise of generative AI 

Generative AI is a subset of artificial intelligence that focuses on creating images that mimic human creativity and produce original content, often using large datasets and machine learning. With generative AI, you can generate anything from landscapes and objects to human-like figures with no camera or a traditional artist. This technology has been booming across various fields, including art, design, and content creation.

Prompt: “A ballerina elephant dancing in roller skates on clouds.”

Geez, try searching for this on Unsplash!

One of the biggest advantages of generative AI is its ability to produce any image you need in a beat. With it, you can produce a wide range of visuals, tailored to specific needs, without the constraints of traditional photography. Furthermore, AI-generated images can be customized to include specific elements, such as changing the background, colors, or certain objects. This level of control is often not viable with stock photos.

Edit image with AI
Customize AI-generated images to your liking.

How generative AI has revolutionized image creation 

1. Rapid image generation

Generative AI can create a vast number of images quickly. It's a boon for content creators working on tight schedules and seeking broad options of visuals. This not only saves time but extra costs and energy as well.

Also read: The Brand Team’s Complete Guide to Generative AI

2. Customization

With generative AI, you have access to various customization options. It allows you to define the precise details you need in an image, be it altering backgrounds, generative fills, adding filters, or even expanding an image keeping its originality.

Edit AI generated images
Customize AI-generated images to your liking.

It’s crazy to think that this feature could even replace wide-angle lenses. This level of control is often impossible with stock photos.

3. Harmless to your pockets

Many AI-generated images come at a lower cost than their stock photo counterparts. This affordability is attractive to smaller businesses, startups, and individual content creators with limited budgets.

4. Say goodbye to repetitive tasks

Automating grunt work is the biggest thing teams want to do with AI in 2024. Here, AI can handle various routine tasks in the image enhancement space. From removing image noise to giving suggestions on how to improve the image, you can quickly get done with general tasks, freeing up time for more creative and strategic brainstorming.

With Artwork Flow, not only can you generate images within the library, but its creative automation software is equipped with automating repetitive tasks and helps you cover everything from scaling to personalizing your creatives.

Generate images within Artwork Flow's libary

Also read: AI Trends in Creative Operations 2024

The marriage of generative AI and stock photos 

Generative AI has a huge potential to expand the possibilities and accessibility of stock photos. Here's how these two elements can work together:

1. Image generation and customization

  • You can generate custom images tailored to your specific needs with generative AI. For brands, this means the ability to create visuals that align with their branding and marketing strategies. 

         Artwork Flow’s brand compliance feature helps you with adherence to brand guidelines. All you need to do is add your brand elements to the toolkit and let the AI           score your creative based on the elements used in it.

  • Stock photo agencies can use AI to let customers customize stock images with contributor consent. Contributors will be compensated for variations/editing, similar to the original image purchase. For instance, users could adjust the colors, add or remove elements, or even personalize models to represent diverse demographics, making stock images more versatile.

For example, the denim giant Levi’s will launch AI-generated models to represent diversity in their branding. At the same time, they also stated that it will not replace the real-life models but provide the users with a personal shopping experience with a variety of AI models to choose from based on size and skin tone when you want to view the outfit.

Levi's AI model
Source: Verge

2. Cost-effective content creation

  • Traditional stock photography often involves expensive photo shoots, hiring models, and renting exotic locations or studios. Generative AI can significantly reduce these costs by creating images on demand.
  • Stock photo agencies can offer more competitive pricing for AI-generated content, making high-quality visuals accessible to a wider range of customers, including small businesses and startups.

3. Expanding the stock photo library

  • Generative AI can generate images of subjects or scenarios that are challenging to capture in real life. This can include futuristic concepts, historical reenactments, or fantasy scenes.
A cat reading book with sunglasses in Shakespearean era
Prompt: “A cat wearing sunglasses in the Shakespearean era.”

  • Stock photo libraries can be enriched with a broader and more diverse range of images that cater to specific markets and unique content needs.

4. Speed and efficiency

  • AI can generate images quickly, which is especially valuable for time-sensitive projects or marketing campaigns.
  • Stock photo agencies can offer a faster turnaround time, allowing customers to find or generate the needed images on short notice.

Also read: How Creative Automation Can Plug the Content Gap and Leave Time to Create?

How Artwork Flow played with generative AI

Instance A

Right before the Barbie movie was released, we wanted to publish our blog on Best Barbie Brand Campaigns 2023. The team needed the perfect feature image but couldn’t find it on any stock image websites. That’s when we turned to Clipdrop where we typed in the prompt, and voila! We got the exact result we wanted within seconds!

Barbie in a movie set. Image is AI-generated.
Prompt: “Barbie in a studio set.”

Also read: How Marketing Teams Can Use ClipDrop

Instance B

Recently, we had to announce the release of our very first podcast with Mark Brady from Hubspot on LinkedIn. For the cover page of the post, we wanted to expand on the speaker’s headshot to suit our image style. So, using Photoshop’s generative fill, our designer was able to expand it easily.

Here’s the result of the final creative!

LinkedIn poster

5. Combining AI-generated and traditional stock photos

  • Users and designers can combine AI-generated images with traditional stock photos to create unique, hybrid visuals that seamlessly blend both worlds.
  • This approach can result in highly customized and cost-effective content while still incorporating the authenticity and uniqueness of traditional photography.

To keep up with the competition, renowned stock photo licensing companies like Shutterstock have tied up with Open AI, Meta, and LG for technological advances. In addition, Getty Images has partnered with Nvidia to launch Generative AI by Getty Images and Adobe Stock with Adobe Firefly creating waves in the market of interest.

AI-generated image of a hummingbird.
Prompt: “A closeup shot of a hummingbird resting on a grass; bokeh mode.”

6. Supervision and quality control

  • Photographers and designers can work alongside generative AI to ensure the quality and relevance of the images produced.
  • Stock photo companies can implement strict quality control processes to maintain the integrity and originality of their content.

7. Enhancing user experience

  • Stock photo websites can use AI to provide personalized image recommendations based on a user's previous downloads, searches, or preferences.

          For example, Canva provides free high-quality stock photos and design recommendations.  

Canva recommendations.

Once you search for a keyword, you get related keyword recommendations as well making the whole design process easier.

Source: Canva

  • This can enhance the user experience by making it easier for customers to find the right visuals for their projects.

Also read: Mastering Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO): A Guide to Personalizing Your Ads for Maximum Impact

Integrating generative AI and stock photography has the potential to transform the way we play with visual content. It offers greater customization, cost-efficiency, diversity, and speed, while also bringing challenges such as quality control and ethical considerations.

Generative AI: Things to consider 

1. Quality and consistency

The stock photo industry is synonymous with quality control, ensuring that images are of certain criteria. In contrast, the quality of AI-generated images can fluctuate, and achieving consistent results may require generating images with the same prompt a couple of times.

AI generated image of a girl holding a flower

In the above picture, created using an AI image generator, the image looks fine at first glance. But when you further look at it, you can spot common AI fails such as too many fingers, messed up nails, and an almost smooth sheen only AI-generated images usually carry.

2. Lack of emotional depth

While generative AI can create stunning images, some argue that it lacks the emotional depth and storytelling abilities that human photographers can infuse into their work. This can be a critical factor for marketing campaigns.

3. Copyright and licensing

The stock photo industry has established licensing terms, making it easy for users to understand how they can legally use purchased images. Generative AI may require additional attention to licensing and usage rights, given its relative novelty and evolving landscape.

The way forward

The showdown between generative AI and the stock photo industry is a remarkable shift in the way we source and use visual content. Each approach has its merits and limitations, and the choice between them will depend on factors such as quality, budget, customization, and expressiveness.

The future of visual content may be an ecosystem where generative AI and stock photos coexist, offering users a spectrum of options for their creative works. As technology continues to advance and the capabilities of generative AI improve, the lines between these two domains may blur even further, ultimately reshaping the visual content landscape in ways we can't yet imagine. It's an exciting time for creators and businesses, with an abundance of tools and resources to help them bring their visions to life.

Want to take creative process and marketing campaigns to the next level? A creative operations platform like Artwork Flow can help you out! Be it planning a social media campaign with existing images or churning out multiple generated content at a time, the platform offers you a lot varying from smart proofing to automated workflows.

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