By: Tara Campbell

Cannabis stock photos need an update — here’s how to do it

Cannabis is seemingly everywhere these days. The last time we saw this much reefer madness was the “War on Drugs” campaign of the 80s. 2019’s relationship with cannabis, however, is a little different. As the green rush takes the world by storm, publishers, advertisers, and media moguls are getting excited about a huge, legal, emerging market.

What this means for visual media is that demand for cannabis stock photos and footage is on the rise with no real end in sight. Great news! That means new material to work with in creative ways. The challenges that come with new markets (or at least new to the masses as a legitimate industry) is that messaging can be misguided, imagery can get repetitive, and representation can be skewed by opinions based on propaganda of the past. We’ve gathered some information on how to best represent cannabis in contemporary culture so your pot-related projects make a positive impression.

Marijuana images and messaging

First, a little on word choice. We’ve all heard the terms pot, weed, marijuana, reefer, etc when referring to cannabis. Although most are fine for casual conversation or to sneak in a play on words, some of these terms have negative connotations and can be damaging to a campaign and a culture – marijuana in particular.

The word marijuana, although commonly used and seemingly harmless, was adopted in the 1930s for anti-cannabis propaganda. It is steeped in racial biases and negatives stereotypes and has become a questionable term to use when creating media for cannabis content.

Cannabis is the scientific Latin name for the plant genus and all the species that fall under its umbrella. Whether it’s buds for getting high or hemp to make a t-shirt, it’s all cannabis. Sticking to scientific terms and ditching the colloquialisms is the best way to maintain legitimacy and avoid potentially offensive slurs if you’re unsure. It will take time to weed out negative language, but our media can start by leaving marijuana messaging in the past.

Photos of smokers not stoners

As we move into contemporary representations of cannabis, like messaging, our imagery will need to mirror its modernization. That means moving away from imagery that reinforces narrow stereotypes of cannabis culture (i.e red-eyed stoners surrounded by giant plumes of smoke, dirty bongs, and an excess of apathy).

That being said, images of cannabis smokers can be expertly executed. Smoke effects, whether from cannabis or not, can present really creative photo and video opportunities. People smoke cannabis. It’s a thing and certainly shouldn’t be omitted from our stock imagery canon.

The issue arises when “stoner culture” imagery is by and large the most common kind used to represent the people, the industry, and the culture of cannabis. Ad campaigns like MedMen’s ForgetStoner work to normalize cannabis culture and the real people who participate in cannabis use for medicine and recreation.

How then can we integrate imagery of cannabis without falling into the trap of negative stereotypes and running the risk of creating projects that look like everything else on the web and print? Here are a few ideas to help choose cannabis images that are in line with contemporary culture and will lend credibility to your campaigns.


Authentic cannabis stock photos + footage

Authenticity is paramount when integrating lifestyle cannabis images. Remember the old, cliché business stock photos of a couple of duds shaking hands in front of a fake graph? In the same vein, nobody is going to be gripped by images of models awkwardly interacting with cannabis in a visibly forced atmosphere.

Sometimes it’s a party, but often people who use cannabis are just having some casual self-care time with a coffee or an art project. Or they’re just hanging out with their dog, scrolling through Instagram. Look for natural settings and realistic situations with an array of people. Cannabis consumers come in all colors, sizes, shapes, and genders, so be conscious of creating an inclusive space. Remember — real people, real life.

Edibles and topicals

You’ve likely heard about the hype surrounding CBD (aka cannabidiol) and its projected growth in the global economy over the next few years (upwards of $16 billion USD by 2025). Touted as the next new miracle medicine, CBD is a non-psychoactive part of the cannabis plant (THC is the part that gets you high) that allegedly helps to alleviate anxiety, reduce inflammation, aid better sleep, and minimize seizures among many other purported benefits.

Similarly, hemp seed and hemp oil is virtually THC-free and has been touted as a protein-rich smoothie and salad superfood in the wellness sector for years now. With the recent legal reform and growing awareness of non-psychoactive cannabis products, both CBD and Hemp Oil are set to explode. So when you are choosing imagery to represent the “green rush” remember to include imagery of cannabis tinctures, capsules, and infused edibles and beverages.


Farm to table grow op

Cannabis is a plant like may others with species that can be cultivated in an array of different settings. Cannabis can be grown indoors in controlled greenhouses, outdoors in giant farm fields, or in nice sunny spots in the backyard. Stock photos and footage of highly regulated medicinal cannabis facilities will have a different look from farms that grow outdoor industrial hemp (think labs versus corn fields) and are often used for different purposes. If you’re talking strictly recreational use, a simple gardener tending to their plants can be a great way to use stock photos to represent the wide range of cannabis farmers and hobby growers.

Cannabis in color

Images of cannabis leaves and buds are useful — they get the point across. But, as with many product shots, they can get repetitive if the same leaf on a plain background is used over and over. Color is making a huge comeback, so don’t be afraid to integrate a healthy dose of colorful graphic elements and illustration to elevate those product type shots.

Wearable weed

Cannabis fashion is on the rise so if you’ve had enough cannabis stock photos of real leaves and buds, opt for something different like cannabis apparel. That leaf is iconic enough to signal what the subject matter is about while speaking to the identification many people feel with cannabis culture. Strategically placed leaves within a fashion-style stock photo or a pair of cannabis socks in a lifestyle image offer a different visual perspective on cannabis culture without blatant interaction with physical plants.

Stocksy is a royalty-free stock media agency specialized in conceptual and authentic visuals that capture the modern world. We are committed to enabling the entire creative class to execute — without compromise — meaningful, forward-thinking work that drives social progress.