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I have purchased thousands of stock photos during my career, as well as provided direction to photographers for custom work at times. When purchasing images for small to medium sized marketing firms for clients ranging from cosmetic dentists to fashion labels and large manufacturers like HP and Intel, there are certain things I always look for when buying photographs. Depending on the project, standards may vary. In this article I’m including my own criteria as well as the perspectives of a Hollywood Set Decorator, a design & photography educator, and an Art Director/Designer for a creative firm catering to very small businesses. Each gave some words of insight and advice for SLR Lounge.

Licensing Terms

From a commercial standpoint, budget and licensing terms are often at the top of the list of considerations when buying photography. Perhaps 95% of the time as a designer I’m tasked with finding royalty free imagery. This isn’t always the case, but more often than not firms don’t want to have to deal with renewing a license or policing how often and where an image can be used.

For larger campaigns, ‘rights managed’ licensing terms may be in the budget and appropriate to use. An example of a time I bought a one-time-use stock image was when I needed a very rare historical image for an Academy Awards after party photo booth backdrop, and we would only be using it for that one night. Other rights-managed situations might include magazine covers, use on a product for re-sale, or on a television or movie set.

On the set of Disney’s Good Luck Charlie. Set decoration by Daryn-Reid Goodall. The two large portraits are mine.

For Daryn-Reid Goodall, an award winning Set Decorator for television series’ like The Mickey Mouse Club, Mad TV, Castle, and various Disney sitcoms, licensing clearance for use on Television sets is the number one priority when searching for art and photography.

When it comes to art/photos I look for clearance, contrast, content and size. If a piece can’t be cleared it is a no-go. Contrast-I don’t want it to draw too much attention, but I don’t want it to disappear either. Content, should help tell the story or define a character. Size, it needs to fill the space.

For more information about set decoration, visit the Set Decorators Society of America.

Image Quality

Overall sharpness, lack of noise, pleasing skin tones, and no obvious distortion of human subjects are all important factors of excellent image quality I’ll look for when buying an image. More often than not, an image will have to be cut out for use in graphic design. If the edges of a subject aren’t sharp, it’s hard to cut out and  ends up looking funny.

If it’s an isolated subject, a clean white background is important because this will save the designer time if the image needs to be clipped from that background. Color correcting orange or grainy skin tones is a major pain and a time consuming thing designers don’t want to have to do as well.


For billboards, vehicle wraps, trade show or event graphics, a very high resolution and huge file size is usually required as the higher the resolution the better when it comes to some print applications, and we can always scale down. Making a digital photo larger can be trickier, and interpolation has its limits.

Also, keeping your images in color is also a good idea. If a designer wants it to be black and white or a duotone, they can convert it. Having a color version to start with is desirable.

SLR Lounge premium

If you want to improve the quality of your images, consider taking a course or two here at SLR Lounge. The new premium subscription is the best way to go, because you’ll have all the previously published workshops at your disposal, plus any new workshops being released. Photography 101, Lighting 101 and 201 are great foundations for learning to create technically high quality images.

Clear Focal Point & Brand Continuity

When hiring a photographer for custom work, Sophie Sylvia, Art Director at Rainmaker Creative in Spokane, WA looks for realness, brand continuity, and a photographer who’s willing to put their ego aside and fulfill a specific assignment.

The brands we work with are made up of real people who are talking to a real audience. I want the images I design with to be relatable and approachable. Where you feel like you’re interacting with a group of people instead of a generic company. This also applies to the current year! Technology and fashion, although secondary to the “mood” of most shots, should look current and relevant.

what art directors look for in photographs

The downfall of stock images are your location, people, signage, products, or brand will not be featured in them. Photos should include people and places that will feel familiar and consistent with the experience of working with or buying from the company. And this sets a realistic expectation for the next interaction. (It’s not always models and sunsets, am I right?)

When hiring a photographer, it’s important I find someone who’s willing to listen to my art direction. I’m all about letting professionals do what they’re great at, but sometimes an artistic approach is weighted too heavily to the function of a shot. I want to have a good working relationship so I can say, “That looks nice but it’s not focusing on the item we’re trying to sell!

Unique Style & Skill

In many cases, a project will call for a certain style and skill level. This will vary based on the project, the taste of the director/designer, and the visual style of the brand being represented. Developing a style and making sure your portfolio is consistent with that style can be very important in these instances.

John Urquiza, an advertising Art Director for over 20 years, who also happens to be an incredible photographer himself, was my design and photography professor at FIDM back in 2003. His digital photography class was hands down my favorite of that entire year. I learned so much, walking around the streets of L.A. as a class snapping photos and later enduring critique of our work in the classroom, and I continue to learn from Urquiza through his various personal projects, including on-going works about homelessness and gentrification in Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas. When choosing photography for commercial works and curated shows, John looks for signs of a skilled artist and innate ability to capture emotion in photographs.


In the post digital era we have forgotten that photography is a craft. I have heard too often photographers say, “Oh, we can do it, fix it in Photoshop”. Photoshop is another tool and some can command that tool rather well, but photography’s skill is in the camera and the camera’s relationship to the subject.

The other skills, of course, are in the observation of light and the ability to express emotion. Photographers with that kind of empathy rise above those with superficial or trendy portfolios. They are old school, baby, and recognizing that skill is a skill itself. We can easily be mesmerized by eye candy, but a good photographer can bring life to inanimate objects and create space in this two dimensional medium. If a photographer can get me to question, think or feel about my relationship with a subject, then they have earned my attention.


In the end, designers and creative directors shopping for photography will invariably be looking for different things depending on the project, the brand, and the style preference of the individual. Developing a distinctive style and focusing on producing consistent, quality images will improve your chances of being recognized by a design firm for custom work and  having your work accepted for license on stock sites.

For more information about art direction, check out YOUR PORTFOLIO IS ONLY AS GOOD AS THE WORST IMAGE IN IT {BE YOUR OWN ART DIRECTOR PART 5}