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Commercial Stock Photography vs. Editorial Stock Photography

What's The Difference?
The choice is yours...

The fast lane of commercial stock photography or the more relaxed lane of editorial stock photography...

The Difference:
Commercial stock photographs are used in ads, promotional brochures, posters, etc. that advertise and/or endorse products or services. "Musts" for these images usually include: healthy, wholesome models; politically correct subject matter; this year's trends, hues and colors. These photos frequently are taken on assignment, or they come from files of stock photos that depict standard catalog images: waterfalls, sunsets, striking scenics, clouds, contrived family settings like a young couple picnicking in a city park or healthy-looking senior citizens cycling through colorful autumn leaves. Model releases are required for commercial stock photos, since their purpose is to endorse or help sell something.
Editorial stock photos are used as illustrations in books, magazines, informational periodicals and electronic media, educational materials, etc. Editorial stock photos frequently include people, depicting them as they are in real-life situations, not the stereotypical set-ups of commercial stock. Through their editorial statement these photos are inherently more unique and content-specific than the more generic commercial stock photos. Editorial buyers need "believable" pictures, not manufactured images. Model releases are not needed, in most cases, for editorial photos, since their purpose is to educate and inform.
Higher fees are paid by buyers of commercial stock photos -- the photos are helping them sell their product. However, because much of commercial stock is contemporary and trendy, these photos go stale quickly and rarely have long-term value. And, due to frequent high personnel turnover in the commercial world, long-term buyer-photographer working relationships are also rare.

In short: commercial stock photography offers high upfront money, but questionable artistic reward and little opportunity for long-term photographer/buyer relationships.
Editorial stock (photo illustration) receives lower fees, but the photos enjoy longer shelf-life and multiple sales over the long haul. Editorial stock is generally more introspective, sensitive, and universally appealing, and eventually can become historically significant. And the nature of most editorial markets, with less turnover of personnel, provide photographers with opportunities for long-term sales associations with buyers. All that marketing homework has a chance to reap more mileage.

"Photography is an instantaneous expression of the world in visual terms, and a perpetual quest and interrogation. The camera is an admirable instrument for seizing upon life as it presents itself. A photographer must always work with the greatest respect for his subject and in terms of his own "point of view." That is my own personal attitude; consequently, I have a marked prejudice against 'arranged' photographs and contrived settings."

Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1968


Editorial stock photography is driven by the public’s need to know, as well as the photographer’s own need to know, and to express him/herself.
The editorial stock photo market is vast. It extends from your immediate community to across the nation, and around the globe. Editorial markets demand authenticity, documentation and accuracy. They also appreciate good story-telling. They love insights into how others are living their lives – locally, nationally and internationally. The success of TV’s 60-MINUTES, 20/20, DATELINE, PBS series, and the afternoon and late-night talk shows, attest to the unquenchable curiosity of the public to learn about the world around it.
In the past, most photobuyers reluctantly accepted the fact that the exact picture they needed was too hard to find, or not available at all, and settled for contrived or generalized commercial images for their page layouts, or used no photos at all.
Thanks now to improved, easier-to-use cameras, better film, and more manageable digital equipment, thousands of photographers with serious commitment have been encouraged to enter the field of documenting the world around them, in the areas of their prime interests.
Today, also, thanks to search engines on the Web, photo editors are discovering that a massive supply of editorial photos exists that can be tapped, for pictures to perfectly exemplify and illustrate their topics of interest. No longer do photographers with large collections of editorial photos need to see them languishing in files and shoeboxes in their homes and offices, failing to get published.
Since the computer has ushered in a new era of information exchange, we are going to see more, not fewer, editorial pictures in the future. Be prepared to show off your collection of editorial photos to the world. --RE

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