The Evolution of Stock Photography Aesthetics

6 min readJul 9, 2020

Stock photography is more than just commercial images. Just as the history of mankind can be explored with art or fashion of different centuries, stock photography libraries over the past decades serve as a museum of visual communication and culture.

This summer, the Depositphotos team released a new project on the evolution of stock photography. This article includes all the key points and outcomes of the project.

Historical Dive: The Power of Technologies and First Microstocks

The stock photography business is one hundred years old. In the 1920s, the first stock photography agencies appeared. They provided their clients (mainly newspapers and magazines) with the necessary snaps. This business model was almost the same as the one modern paparazzi use: the task of photographers was to be the first at the scene or to make an exclusive shot with a celebrity.

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Thus, the magazine’s editors could simply buy images they needed instead of sending their reporter somewhere. Stock photo agencies of that time also accumulated photographs from around the world and resold them to media that did not have remote correspondents.

The 1990s can be called a milestone in the development of photo stocks. At this time, high technologies were developing, companies were establishing their first digital archives, and the Internet was gaining momentum.

In the 1990s, archives became digital, and by the mid-2000s stock photography business completely migrated online. Such a technological revolution led to the liberalization of the commercial photography market.

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Microstock platforms of the late 2000s (which are not much different from modern platforms like Depositphotos) literally allow photographers in one hemisphere of the planet to sell pictures to businesses from another one.

Subsequent changes in this field and new milestones were all about new content and the changing aesthetics of stock photos.

The Late 2000s: Naivety

Visual preferences: flash photography and studio lighting, traditional composition, bright and contrasting colors, manipulations with sharpness, silhouettes, blitz and fire imitations, white isolated backgrounds.

Popular concepts: simple and standardized interpretations of concepts like teamwork, business, success, and a happy family.

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The Mid 2010s: Theatricality

Visual preferences: unnatural expressions and posing, contrasting colors, deep editing, well-balanced, ‘by-the-book’ compositions.

Popular concepts: universal interpretations of leading marketing concepts; the difference from the previous decade is that these times marked significantly more visual clichés and they related to more specific life situations (buying an apartment, cooking, learning, success, cybercriminals, arguing with your boss and meditation in nature).

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2020: Authenticity

Visual preferences: depicting real people with real feelings, natural light (or its imitation), minimalist compositions, intentionally imperfect images from a technical point of view (wrong white balance, composition, or focus), unexpected backgrounds.

Popular concepts: casualty and the beauty of everyday life, imperfections became a sign of artistic individuality, diverse cultures, and inclusivity.

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The Future: Self-Expression

Visual preferences: high-quality images achieved by wide usage of AI-based technologies, imitation of the content of social networks, broken compositions, which supposedly indicate that the scene was shot accidentally (which is not always true).

Popular concepts: depicting rare emotions, a critical glance on reality and a quick artistic reaction to events that are happening in the world at the moment, wide representation of national and other minorities, as well as great creative freedom of photographers.

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7 Factors That Shaped Stock Photography Aesthetics (2009–2020)

Today, the Depositphotos library has over 150 million photos, vectors, illustrations, and videos. This collection has been formed in the span of the past ten years.

The company’s research team talked with photographers who were at the forefront of the stock photography business. We also turned to marketers and content curators for extra insights. Our aim was to list the most important factors influencing the look of stock photography today.

Spoiler: you can hardly distinguish a microstocks shot from an original photograph taken as part of a commercial photoshoot.

#1 Demand for photos that sell a lifestyle

#2 New (and smaller) clients such as editors, designers, and individual entrepreneurs

#3 Rapid development of social networks, including Instagram and YouTube

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#4 Mobile-first, global approach

#5 Development of mirrorless cameras, AI, and other technologies

#6 Changes in post-production trends

#7 Growing demand for a unique artistic vision and an individual approach to stocks

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Note! You will find a detailed description of each of the factors on the page of the special project, which we called Stock Photography Then and Now: The Rise of a New Aesthetic.

To summarize our findings, we should mention that stock photography ideally reflects the social trends of our time. For example, every year we can observe more and more people fighting for saving nature. And if you look at the Depositphotos collections over the past year, you will see how many images and illustrations on the topic of ecological lifestyle and recycling have appeared there.

Final Thoughts

The fewer cliches in advertising and photography exist, the fewer stereotypes are formed. This means more inclusivity and better representation of our contemporary culture, concepts, and ideas.

This year Depositphotos turns 11. We invite you to immerse yourself in the history of stock photography and see the brightest images of the decade on the web page of our special project Stock Photography Then and Now: The Rise of a New Aesthetic.

Whether you are a photographer, an artist, a marketer, a designer, or an editor, we want to immerse you into a time capsule of stock photos — from visual clichés to breaking social stereotypes and sharing a unique artistic vision.




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