Get the picture!

Nothing conveys the powerful messages of a charity or social enterprise as well as great, original photography, writes Ian Cuthbert

Of course, producing successful marketing communications involves a vital mix of different ingredients, photos alone can’t do everything. But if the photo is wrong, the message can be lost. In an age when we’re bombarded with images, literally every minute of the day, many people have become adept at sorting the wheat from the chaff. So, when we use photos to start important conversations with our audiences, it’s vital that we get this right.

The best way to help audiences understand their work and values is to showcase real people in authentic settings.

I’ve been a designer and photographer, working exclusively with clients in the voluntary sector and social enterprise sector, for over 20 years. I do all kinds of design – from postcards to posters, from brochures to big reports, from Facebook graphics to websites, from banner stands to brand identities. As a designer I have always believed in the power of strong photography of people because, ultimately, charities and social enterprises are all people-centred. The best way to help audiences understand their work and values is to showcase real people in authentic settings.

The past decade has seen a burgeoning of online stock photo libraries. The choice is bewildering and there are now hundreds of millions of photos available through the big stock photo suppliers. I’ve bought thousands of stock photos for my clients over the years, but each time I do it I think, ‘An original photos would work so much better’.

Here’s why…


No matter how hard you work searching through those millions of images on the stock photo websites – seeking out the photos which represent the people and settings that adequately match your organisation’s work and values – they don’t feature your people or your settings. They are (I acknowledge that this has lately become a somewhat loaded word), fake. Photos featuring your service users, customers, beneficiaries, volunteers, staff – in the settings where you actually do your work – will work so much better to convey your key messages.


Marketing is all about telling stories, in a good way. It’s become a bit of a cliché, but narrative really is fundamental to how we communicate. And nothing helps us quickly transmit a story like a great photo. Emphasis on quickly, because in a world where attention is so ephemeral. We are just a couple of seconds away from clicking, scrolling past or the recycle bin, so getting a message across fast is now a necessity. Are you still here? I hope so. Carefully choosing people, context, props (whether they’re just a natural part of the scene or, as in PR photography, contrived) can help tell a story quickly. This is hard to achieve using stock images; original photography gives us much more control over story telling.

Despite the availability of all those millions of stock photos, the same or very similar images seem to appear in the marketing communications of a lot of different organisations.


Despite the availability of all those millions of stock photos, the same or very similar images seem to appear in the marketing communications of a lot of different organisations. I often see photos not-for-profit marketing which I recognise. I can sometimes tell you which stock photo site they come from. That’s because there is actually a limited supply of stock photos that tick all the boxes for any charity or social enterprise. Every photo needs to fit our multiple expectations about how people are represented. When so much stock photography – particularly at the budget end of the spectrum – comes from international stock libraries (most frequently from the USA) it can be hard to find images of people and settings that look authentic, especially as the majority of photos feature models. So the images that tick the boxes tend to pop up all over the place. If you use original photography – real people, real settings, depicting the real work your organisation does – you won’t have this problem.


Given that commissioning a day of professional photography is likely to set you back several hundred pounds – potentially much more if you have particular creative or technical requirements – it might seem odd to hear it argued that it is better value than budget stock photos from places like Shutterstock or iStockphoto. Typically, a photo from a ‘royalty free’ stock photo library (where, for a one off fee, you buy rights for almost unlimited use of a photo) will cost around £10 to £25. Compared to ‘rights managed’ stock photos (where you buy rights for strictly limited use – one position in a brochure with a print run on 2,000 copies, or six months on a website, for example) this seems like great value. You could pay upwards of £250 for one off use of a rights managed photo in a single publication. The advantage is that specialist rights managed libraries exist with more sector-friendly photos. There are are libraries to social issues and criminal justice, for example.

But, whatever type of stock photo you buy, it won’t show your people, your work or your stories. For a typical project (a website refresh, an annual review, a marketing campaign for a new project, say) you may require 10 or more photos. Finding those from stock photo libraries is time consuming. Like most designers, I would build time into a quote to cover picture research, so the face value of a cheap stock image does not reflect the true cost. As a photographer, a commission for half a day might result in 200 unique photos – photos that tell real stories about real people. That’s maybe £1-2 per image, depending on requirements. Photographers vary in their approach to rights but many, like myself, will provide photos royalty free and in perpetuity. You can use them as much as you like for as long as you like. Used carefully, these can become part of your very own stock library to help with your marketing and communications over an extended period.

You can commission bespoke images, telling the exact story you wish to convey. And you can join up design and photography concepts so they work as one, to make really powerful communications.

Creative freedom

Original photography will almost always give you greater scope to make really creative marketing communications. You can commission bespoke images, telling the exact story you wish to convey. And you can join up design and photography concepts so they work as one, to make really powerful communications. This could be as simple as ensuring that you get photos with plenty of copy space – space where you can add texts such as headlines, quotes and captions. Or it may involve using a series of photos to help build a narrative based on a strong creative concept. Working as a team with your photographer and designer can help you achieve this.


So what are the downsides to commissioning original photography?

Finding the right photographer

Sounds obvious, but you’ll need someone who understands your organisation and its work – or is willing to learn. As much as their creative and technical skills, you’ll need someone who is good with people, able to communicate with them and put them at ease. The best way to narrow down the search is to ask other organisations in the same sector for a recommendation. Then review a sample of their work and see if they fit your needs, expectations and budget.


To get the most out of the exercise, and the best value, you’ll often need to spend some time setting up photo opportunities to make sure your photographer can capture as many useful images as possible. You’ll need to plan ahead. This might involve liaising with multiple participants – so they know what’s expected and can get involved in the process. It might mean co-ordinating diaries so all the right people can be in the right place at the right time. A good photographer will be as flexible as possible and will be able to think on their feet – so they can adapt to circumstances as they arise on the day. A clear brief, setting out what you aim to achieve, will help the photographer and everyone else. For projects like annual reports and impact reports, you should start planning your photography at the start of the year, to make sure you can capture key moments. All of this takes time, but it’s well worth the effort.

Legal and ethical considerations

You’ll have to ensure that everyone who will feature in the photos has given consent. In the case of children and vulnerable adults, this consent may need to come from a parent, guardian or carer and be in writing. Most organisations will have a photo release form for this purpose. If you haven’t, your photographer should be able to help you with this.

There are also a number of ethical considerations concerning the use of photos of clients, service users, customers, members of the public and other people associated with your organisation. For example, even when consent is given, if you provide services for vulnerable people and sensitive issues – drug or alcohol addiction or criminal justice, for example – somewhere down the line those people might not be happy for their image to be used in this context. So you will need to periodically review your collection of images and consider how long it is appropriate to keep using photos of any one individual. You’ll also need to think about how the photos are used in marketing communications, making sure this is done in a sensitive way that does not misrepresent people. Sometimes it may not be appropriate for clients or service users to be identifiable in the photos, but you can work with your photographer to find creative ways to represent them whilst keeping their identity concealed.

There’s a lot to consider, but with a little planning and creative thinking, you can make photography a valuable ally in your marketing and communications work – rather than a chore when you need to fill a hole in a report, website or social media post. Let the pictures do the talking!

Ian Cuthbert is a freelance photographer and graphic designer. He has worked with charities, voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises for over 20 years. He works with organisations of all sizes, from local community groups through to national charities. You can see a few examples of his photography and design work via his online portfolio.

Words and images © Ian Cuthbert 2018. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of (in order of appearance): Sähëlï Hub; Olton Grange; Sähëlï Hub; Spitfire Services. Copying and reproduction is prohibited.

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