Ever journey through the interwebs in search of something specific, only to land on a company’s website with images of awkwardly posed models who are very clearly not the employees of said company? Perhaps you’ve come across a perfectly captured high five between (fake) colleagues or hell, even a bemused professional carrying a handful of balloons and a briefcase, enjoying the breeze.
Of course, not all generic stock images are as bewildering as the ones above.
In fact, most are bland.
Entrepreneurs and business owners who choose to use generic stock photography in their online marketing are playing a game of “what fits best,” rather than acting intentionally and strategically to form relationships with their intended audiences. It’s hard to evoke curiosity or loyalty in potential customers using cold and corny images that are likely replicated all over the internet. So, what’s the answer?
Custom stock photography. Sounds like an oxymoron, right?
Why Are Brands Using “Custom Stock Photography”?
Custom stock photography tends to have the opposite effect of generic stock photography. Brand-specific, custom stock photos differentiate businesses from their competitors. When used consistently, custom stock photos will convey a brand’s personality and values, enhancing a brand’s ability to genuinely connect with their customers. Custom stock images bring clarity to a company’s expertise, services, and the intended customer experience.
Capturing Images with Intention
A typical custom stock photography shoot may include environmental shots (your office or workspace), product shots, and shots of the company's team engaging with others, serving clients, and generally doing the things they do best.
Let’s dive into the benefits of custom stock photography, using my lovely client Caroline Sanney as an example.
Using her own home office as the setting of this shoot, Caroline conveyed competence, organization, and expertise without saying a word. She has the necessary tools for the job, a functional pragmatism, and a clean aesthetic. The information conveyed in these images builds a relationship with her potential clients before she’s even approached by them.
Actually showing Caroline immersed in her work and smiling warmly creates a genuine first impression; rather than randomly styled models pretending to have the best business meeting of their lives, she offers her own face, furthering the notion that she is a real professional and that she can back up the claims she makes about the services she offers. Her personality shines through in her decor and the way she carries herself. It’s clear that she's calm, intelligent, and careful in her work - keywords to describe her brand.
Ultimately, investing in custom stock photography is about harnessing the power of intentional imagery and cashing in on your authenticity. It’s about being crystal clear in your communications to customers and future clients.
And, it’s about standing out and being memorable in a sea of cheesy handshakes.
Let’s start by throwing away the trigger phrases "finding balance" and "we can have it all."
Perhaps you can do these things, but honestly, that needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis. When it comes to your self-employed hustle in Asheville, the same answer does not hold true for everyone. That being said, I would love to share some of my experience and tips with you on how to make your small business your full-time livelihood (if you want that!) and stay sane as a creative, maker, or artist in a town that we all love ...but that certainly has its own unique set of challenges.
1. Protect yourself from the “working 24/7” burnout.
I put my phone away after dinner 90% of the time to allow my brain to clear. Since my phone connects me to Instagram, Facebook, and email, the lines are blurred between work and play/relaxation.
Accepting that Instagram (for example) is equal parts work and play for me, I decide to stay away from it altogether when I need a work break, because the boundary is too blurry (because, for instance, I could be scrolling for fun and then get 2 DMs about potential sessions).
Personally, I’ve tried to accept only 2 shoots per week. As a self-employed photographer, I have found that understanding my working capacity affects everything else in my life in a positive way. It also gives me structure and familiarity.
By giving myself this work rhythm, I know there are days every week when I can focus on admin tasks or editing or having a full day off. It’s when I overcommit myself and agree to 3, 4 or 5 shoots in a week that everything else starts to fall behind, and I feel really overwhelmed. What boundaries can you create that will have a positive domino effect elsewhere?
3. Earning money, supporting yourself and feeling secure financially is important.
Don’t be ashamed of that, and don’t force yourself to let go of part time work before you or your business is ready. Release yourself from judgment about working on your art OR having a side gig. Both are important, and both are fueling your future. Accept the situation you’re in, and embrace it for all it is. I worked a second job up until 2 years ago, and I firmly believe it’s the only reason I got to where I am today.
4. Being discerning and knowing your bandwidth.
Unfortunately, sometimes you have to say no to some things in order to say yes to others. Are you talented and wanted, but refuse to turn down offers for fear of missing out or disappointing? In saying yes too much, do you overextend or sabotage yourself? If this sounds like you, my best recommendation is to read Essentialism by Greg McKeown - a recent fave business-yet-lifestyle book.
Here’s an example of mitigating your self-employed hustle: There’s a high expectation for you to make homemade cookies for your daughter‘s elementary school bake sale, and you would love to do it. It sounds fun and you wish you had a free afternoon to really enjoy that activity... but the only afternoon you have available this week really needed to be devoted to your work on a commissioned piece of art. So, maybe you decide to focus on the commissioned work, because you have a deadline and someone is paying you. Then, you can buy premade cookies from Whole Foods, Short Street, or Ingles. It’s about making that decision and letting yourself be OK with whatever decision you make.
5. Know your rhythms.
I know a few people who light up right around 9 PM and start having all kinds of inspirational ideas and energy to really work on their side gig/art/whatever. Some of us feel that jolt in the morning. Understand how your rhythms and natural energy works, then do your best to build around that. Of course, that’s not always possible and we have to be flexible, so that we can tend to other responsibilities as professionals, parents, or community members. Simply start by observing your natural tendencies and trying to make yourself available to them.
There’s no secret to becoming a self-employed hustler, but giving yourself the routines and habits to induce creative productivity will go a long way. And once you’re productive, it’ll show up in your experience. You’ll build a portfolio and/or track record of success. Then, with a little focused effort in self care and setting boundaries, you’ll build a sustainable foundation and hopefully, you’ll avoid the dreaded “burn out,” too. Eventually, you will find yourself in a place where you are doing the thing that is so close to your heart, and getting paid to do it, with only yourself as your boss. And that, my friends, is fulfillment.
You’ve just received that highly anticipated link to your new photo gallery! Your adrenaline is pumping and you cannot wait to level up your brand’s visual identity game. You open the gallery, and…..YES! You love your photos.
But now what?
Well, now it’s time to start curating stories with intention. Photo is one huge piece of the puzzle, but what you do with these photos and the content you generate to support your storytelling is what gives the photos LIFE.
For most of my clients, photos serve as one part of their marketing strategy, and specifically their social media plans. Visual storytelling is an integral part of social media, and resonant photos are the key to winning hearts and minds on platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Here, I’m offering a few of my favorite social media best practices to give your photos excellent mileage, from one entrepreneur to another:
-Once you receive your online gallery, follow the download instructions. These are very important because you need the image to be formatted to fit your intended use, otherwise it could come out pixelated.
-Next, backup your images. Friendly reminder: USBs and computers don't last forever, and sometimes they get lost or stolen- yikes. Using a cloud-based storage service is going to give you flexibility and peace of mind!
A personal fave of mine is Dropbox, which can be used to transfer images from computer to phone using the app. A basic Dropbox account is free, as is the app. This could be your convenient backup source!
As an added bonus, you can download your photos from the Dropbox app on your phone straight to your to Instagram or Facebook app when you’re ready to share your photos with the world!
-Once your photos are backed up and you’ve uploaded them to your social media platform, it’s time to tag, tag, tag!
If there are featured products, services, or contextual information related to other vendors or organizations in your photos, do tag them! Maybe you're using an East Fork plate, or maybe you’re featuring your products in a national park. Tagging those associated with your brand’s photos is social media courtesy and networking, plus they may reshare!
Feel free to tag Chelsea Lane Photography. I certainly appreciate the help in spreading the word about my services, but I definitely don't require it if you prefer to keep some mystery alive.
-Use all the hashtags! Seriously, use 'em! It's my understanding you can use up to 30 and there's no reason not to max that out. Take a lazy evening at home (bottle of wine...Netflix on in background...who knew hashtagging could be so romantic?).
Find the tags that are right for you by doing some research. Think of the type of images you share, then do some digging from brands you admire. Think of what your ideal customer may search. You can perform a search on that hashtag to gauge how active and popular it is. Pick active tags, and consider using a tag that no one is using, so that you can begin to dominate it with your own branded posts and user-generated content from brand loyalists!
Once you’ve got your bevy of selected tags, save the list in your phone notes so that you can easily copy and paste the list each time you post! I use my Notes app for this. Notes has become a living document on my phone for Instagram caption drafts and hashtag groupings.
-Use Instagram stories! This feature has blown up and people LOVE it! You can get creative with it- share images, videos, live stream, and ask your audience questions! Use this informal way of communicating however you feel comfortable. Make it personal and fun, or keep it strictly business. It’s all fair game on Instagram Stories!
-Engage. The biggest "secret" to success on social media is liking + commenting on others’ posts. It helps with the dreaded algorithm and creates community with your followers, peers, and those you admire.
-Show up as you. We're all camera shy, but nothing creates more connection with your followers than simply showing yourself. I'd say we all pretty much expect it now. I find it strange when I happen upon a biz account with zero trace of the owners. A portrait, a candid moment, a TBT memory, you playing around with your kids on IG Stories... however you want to do it, people will love it!
-Be sure to answer your Direct Messages as they come in. You’ll be generating buzz with your visually stunning and content-savvy posts, so expect some great leads to come in the form of DMs! Timely responses increase your chance of true connection with potential new customers. Pop in to your inbox regularly because you won't be notified if someone who you don't follow messages you.
-Post relatively consistently. Establishing a loose rhythm to roll out your new photos and tell your brand’s story is key. A daily post or every other day is a healthy social media post rate for most businesses and organizations to get some momentum.
-Encourage interaction and user-generated content! Showing off a gorgeous shot of your product? Offer a branded hashtag and ask your audience to post a photo enjoying the product, too! Then, routinely check the hashtag, and engage with your brand loyalists by liking and commenting on their branded photos.
-Follow these pros for the best advice that's always up to date: Tyler J. McCall, Jenna Kutcher, Jasmine Star
Cheers to you for understanding that visual identity is critical to social media success. I hope you’re jazzed about your photos, and that you’re ready to conquer the world with your social game!
Before I sign off, here’s a little ode to all of my fellow business owners:
You’re doing the damn thing, and although it is impossible to be an expert in all facets of your business, that’s what is somehow required and expected of you in order to thrive in a bustling, noisy market landscape. Luckily, with great content, you’ll go a long way in your marketing goals! Stay focused, embrace your creativity, and enjoy the ride.
It really is quite a treat to be drawn into a photo that seems to tell a full story. I love an invitation to ponder the clues and details of a scene, or imagine the dynamic of a couple. Visual storytelling is enticing, and that’s exactly why lifestyle photography is such an engaging tool to be used in professional settings (like selling your products and services), or personally (for instance, in milestones like your wedding).
Lifestyle photography can be defined as a style of photography that aims to capture real-life events in an artistic way. For business owners, this means that your products, services, and brand experiences are grounded in a setting that conceptualizes how wonderful it might be for your potential customers to have you in their own lives. It invites the viewers to imagine what it’s like to actually engage with your brand.
There are a number of national and local brands doing away with the white backdrop and perfectly styled products in favor of real, raw, and less stylized images of their offerings in application. And that’s because sterility and perfection are hard to relate to, and don’t do much to give your viewers’ imaginations the fuel they need to invoke the other senses.
And how about these images? Are they enticing you, inspiring you to imagine the smells, the taste, and the feeling of a warm mug of herbal tea in your hand? Do you begin to envision the sunshine on your back as you read a book and pour yourself a second cup of earthy black tea infused with the floral sweetness of calendula flowers? Are you starting to crave a lingering chat with your best friend, and the sound of birds chirping serenely as the mug rests in your palm?
It’s pretty clear that the second set of photos accomplish so much more than the first, because it offers a pretty excellent experience along with the featured product.
Similarly, using lifestyle photography in your personal shoots to document your wedding, engagement, or other personal milestones provides intimate context, sparks memories, and becomes much less about the aesthetics and so much more about the personal connections.
Today I'm chatting with local graphic designer Katie of Rotanz Design about all things Branding + Logos + Website design for the small business people out there! We're in a different situation than the big guys, we're not rolling around in money so we make tough decisions about our investments, especially in the beginning.
Let's get her profesh opinion to help guide you through your choices!
Katie! Give us a quick run-down of what you do + who you are!
Hello! I’m Katie Rotanz, Owner/Graphic Designer of Rotanz Design in Asheville. I help small businesses, creatives and entrepreneurs stand out in the market with beautiful, modern, minimal designs. I design logos, websites and print pieces such as brochures, catalogs, rack cards, business cards and labels. I strive for simplicity and clarity in all my work and enjoy the challenge of finding the best solution both visually and functionally.
I moved to Asheville about 6 years ago and worked as a waitress until I was able to land my first design job. I’ve since worked for two agencies in town and have been working for myself full-time for a little over a year now. I’m super excited to be moving into a shared office space with some other freelancers in the River Arts District!
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
One of my favorite parts about this job is the relationships I’ve made with my clients. There’s something really special about working with other local business owners and creatives that are passionate about what they do. The energy that surrounds them is contagious and it’s so fun to be part of their business journey. I have to say my favorite moments are seeing my logos and designs out in the wild on t-shirts, hats and cars… I have to hold back from fist pumping in public!
What's the value in a branded identity that includes a logo and custom website? What are ways a website can make or break your small biz?
Having a strong brand can improve recognition in the marketplace as well as build trust amongst your target audience. If people see that your brand is consistent across all platforms, there’s a sense of quality and professionalism that not only helps your reputation and referral network, but it helps you stand out from your competition.
A website is such an important tool for your business! Think about how often people are on their phones and computers, Googling and researching exactly what they are looking for. I think the best thing you can do for your website is be authentic and provide as much information about your business and services as possible. It’s also important to make sure your site is mobile-friendly, easy to navigate and is up-to-date. If visitors struggle to find information or can’t easily understand where to go on your site, they’re going to bounce right off and find another website.
What advice do you have for small biz on a budget? They have the same goals but maybe lack funds this year.
While it’s ideal to have a logo, website and all the things when you get started, I can totally relate to the financial anxiety of starting a business and prioritizing your funds. If you have to pick one thing first, I would suggest building a website. A website is an incredible tool to hold all the information about your business and can work for you 24/7. If you can’t afford a web designer then I would recommend starting a Squarespace site on your own. Squarespace has a wonderful library of video tutorials and guides that can help you get started. When you’ve saved up some money, you can hire a designer to begin the logo/branding process and then take your website to the next level.
Another important piece is a business card. I have those things on me all. the. time. You never know who you are going to run into in a coffee shop, bar or networking event who may need your services or products. I’ve worked with people to design a card before they dive into a full brand design and can charge for an hour or two to put together a nice “interim” card before they begin the branding process. You can also design cards on Vistaprint or other online services if necessary (although some of the designs can be quite cheesy).
The goal here is to have something to hand out to people AND have a place for them to go to learn more about you and your business. These two items are great first steps.
What if a small biz has no ideas on branding and needs help from all angles, what should they nail down before working with you?
While you don’t have to have a business plan, a marketing strategy or a mission statement to get started, I do I prefer to work with people who can quickly and easily tell me what their services are and who they do it for. In order for me to create effective design, it’s important to focus on who we’re targeting so I can design accordingly. It’s difficult for me to work with clients that are indecisive about their business goals because if their mind changes after finishing a brand, they may need to start over depending on the new direction of the business.
I also don’t specialize in business naming, taglines or trademarking so my clients will definitely need to have their business name figured out and legally checked prior to working with me.
*Side note: I highly recommend taking classes at Mountain Bizworks if you’re just starting off. I took a class called Foundations and it really helped me figure out the direction I wanted to go with my business.
On the flip side, if a business already has a website but they want to hire you and switch to a new host based on your recommendation, do you help with the transfer over?
Absolutely! I only work in Squarespace, but if a client has a website in Wordpress, Wix or another platform, all I need to do is point their domain (url) to the new website I’ve built. I’ll then give them instructions on how to cancel their old hosting. If someone already has a Squarespace site then all they’ll need to do is invite me as a contributor and I can hop onto their site and make specific changes or find a new template and redesign it completely.
What advice do you have for someone worried they'll change their style + branding within the next year or so? They're still figuring it out!
I think the most important thing to do is be consistent.* Oftentimes businesses will change their mind on design direction and branding and will make little changes here and there which causes brand confusion. My advice is to own your brand, stick with your color scheme, fonts and style and if/when the time comes to rebrand, then you can make that decision and go for it intentionally.
If you’re new to your business and not quite sure which direction you are going to take, then it’s okay to be patient and wait to invest in branding when you have a better idea of where you want to go.
*Chelsea note: Check out this video from Marie Forleo all about consistency - it's SO important when developing an audience!
Do you have a certain style you like to stick with when it comes to design or do you love a variety?
I definitely prefer simplicity in design. I find that minimal design catches my eye and stands out against the noise of the streets, screens and magazines. My logos are especially minimal, but that’s to ensure they work across all platforms from large billboards down to a tiny Instagram profile picture. The more complex the logo, the harder it is to be effective in really small applications – and harder to be remembered! I work with lots of different types of businesses and can still accomplish a very different look and feel for each, but I certainly have a modern style and always make sure potential clients have checked out my logo portfolio to make sure my aesthetic is what they’re going for.
My websites also have a minimal look to them and while that’s clearly my preference, functionality and usability is always what I focus on first. You can land on a beautiful website, but if you have no idea how to navigate it, then it’s not doing the job.
Who's your dream client?
My dream client is a small business owner, entrepreneur, or creative in the Asheville area. My favorite clients have gone through my logo and website process and then check back any time they need other branded materials such as signage, brochures, stickers or other print pieces. I love that aha moment that I see in my clients when everything starts taking shape. There’s a real sense of pride and excitement when they can SEE it coming together.
Where people can find ya to keep following along your work, journey and tips?
Thank you for including me on your blog, Chelsea! I’m honored to be featured and hope these answers can help new or existing business owners understand the world of branding and web design a little better.
If anyone has additional questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out! My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can check out my website at rotanzdesign.com and find me @rotanzdesign on Instagram!
Hi all! I'm excited to introduce a new addition to the CLP blog - guest posts!
I love working with other creatives / makers / entrepreneurs and now I'm tapping into their expertise and advice to share with you.
First up is my friend Kathryn of Evergreen Era Films located here in Asheville. Her films are thoughtfully produced and add such a warmth to your wedding or business. Yep, she offers her services to the same crowd I do - weddings and small businesses! Woo hoo! She's always who I recommend when clients are looking for film of their wedding day or to promote their brand via video.
She's sharing with us 3 reasons video improves your website presence. Be sure to check out her work with small businesses once you've read the post! Take it away Kathryn...
I'm Kathryn - founder, editor, and main videographer at Evergreen Era Films.
I'm an old soul with a soft spot for raw and honest connection. With each interaction I have, my main goal is to create a space where people can feel worthy and heard. This deep rooted passion for connected and compassionate living is what fuels my belief in equality, protecting mother nature, and living life in balance. With time I have also learned to find strength in vulnerability. This is a core foundation for all my films, focusing on the authentic, honest, and heartfelt reasons that people created their business. After all, story and connection is what makes shopping small so special, right?
"With online video quickly becoming a key means for people to satisfy their information and entertainment needs, small businesses that fail to include it in their internet marketing strategies will do so at their peril."
1) People are more drawn to video than text
"It is naturally engaging and, in an age of information overload, it's vital for small businesses to offer content that is easy to digest; if not, consumers will simply move on. Video does this very well."
- The Guardian
Videos grab attention in a way that text just doesn't anymore. We are drawn to quick and visual stimulation. Attention spans are shorter than they used to be for younger generations (unfortunately), but it is one of those facts of life that we must use to our advantage as we move forward. The positive of this phenomenon is that it encourages us to discover new ways of getting our point across and interacting with our world. Therefore, video can connect you with your clients more easily in this technological age.
2) People want to connect, relate, and feel emotions
"No matter how hard you try, some people will never feel like they know the “real” you until they see you on video."
One of the most powerful aspects of a small business is the story behind it. What is your why? It is personal, relatable, and it encourages people to want to support your work because it has a purpose that resonates with them.
If you have a website to sell your products or services, this is most likely one of the first interactions your clients will have with you, especially if they aren't local to you. Therefore, you want that interaction to inspire them and allow them to relate to who you are as the creator. Having a summary film of either your business or who you are is a powerful tool to connect with people on a human "face to face" level. People connect to natural human interactions that include body language, voice, tone, etc and the best way to provide that is through video.
3) Create a more interactive webpage & social media presence
"Videos are good for SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and Google loves them!"
As simple as it may seem, using all different types of media will make your website more dynamic and interesting, but it will also help you rank higher in search engines. Utilizing photos, text, and video will give your viewer more chances to learn about you and your product while experiencing it differently each time. This allows them to move through your page and feel more and more aware of your brand than with each interaction. The longer a client stays on your page, the better it is for your SEO.
"The number one reason for using video in your content marketing plan?
Video converts more customers. Simple, right? Recent research shows that 71% of marketers say video conversion rates outperform other marketing content."
“Will you Photoshop this out?”
A common phrase we hear often.
Cultural standards on appearance have skyrocketed with social media. We all sit around thinking others look perfect and put-together all the time (no way, not true!). We get down on ourselves for being human and real. This is a problem I have to address and contemplate a lot as a photographer.
I think it’s time to draw boundaries when it comes to how we edit and the impossible standards of Photoshopping + Instagram filters + weird apps that alter your face in a photo (WHAT?!).
Let’s get to it and break down the most common scenarios:
Well I edit out your freckles? No.
Will I edit out that blemish that’ll be gone in a week? Yes.
Will I edit out scars? Not unless you asked me to.
Will I edit out grey hairs? Sometimes! If it's clear you're going for your natural hair color then no and if it's clear that you color your hair to cover up the grey then yes.
Will I edit out wrinkles in clothing? As much as I can without making your clothing appear plastic!
Will I edit out that t-shirt stain that appeared after lunch? Yes.
Will I edit out the flyaway hairs? If they're distracting. If they're showing the wind blowing through beautifully, then no.
Will I edit out that piece of trash or water bottle near your feet? Yes.
Will I edit out that distracting tree branch, bugs flying by, stranger in the background? Yes. I have no problem editing out environmental distractions to an otherwise lovely photo.
Will I "fix" your stomach or arms? Only if it's my fault because I captured an unflattering angle or didn't direct you quick enough. Overall, I never plan to flatten a tummy or remove a bump in the nose in every single image I will deliver though. More below...
I will guide you into flattering poses under beautiful lighting. I will give clothing tips and recommend you only wear something that makes you feel HOT. That being said, not every image gets set up for flattering angles.
If your spouse makes you laugh out loud or if he/she says something so sweet that your cheeks flush, I’m not worried about you looking like a model. I'll make tweaks in editing to create the most flattering final result and I’ll be sending that pic your way because of that special moment.
How do I make those decisions and why does it matter?
1. I would have to charge twice as much to accommodate editing time for extensive and timely Photoshop requests. I'm not interested in offering that service but there are many out there that do!
2. I don’t want to perpetuate impossible beauty standards by making you look like anything other than you. We need to collectively work towards highlighting the beauty of all people, not highlighting the beauty of over-Photoshopped skin or mimicking celeb Insty posts. A light touch-up here and there is as far as I go.
It’s hard to define your role in this as a photographer because it’s my goal that you enjoy your experience and the results.
When you're 80 years old and showing your wedding photos to grandkids, I want you to recognize your beautiful self from so many years ago. I want you to be reminded of exactly how you felt that day. I don't want you to look back on a plastic figure.
Tips for a photo session you'll feel great about:
One final thought: You're great just the way you are, I promise.