In times to come, a few wizened old creative directors will be telling their amazed juniors about how searching a picture library used to involve a phone call to a researcher and "biking" over a selection of slides in a plastic folder, one of which would invariably be lost at some point.
While there are still some who remember the bad old days, photo libraries in 2007 are almost unrecognisable.
Partly, this is owing to the advent of technology that is suited to those trading in imagery, drastically cutting the cost of delivery and making it easier to search vast collections of pictures.
But also, while all of that has been making life easier for picture libraries, an army of amateur photographers equipped with cheaper and better quality digital cameras, has sprung up to fill websites such as Flickr and Photobucket with all manner of imagery that can be easily searched.
Reduced production costs have also lowered the barriers of entry to a new wave of royalty-free libraries, which make their money by selling subscriptions to their collections, rather than by selling individual images.
The ease of searching via the internet can be a double-edged sword for picture libraries, with creatives and designers effectively seeing the entire web as a resource when they embark on the hunt for imagery.
Nowadays, an art director is just as likely to turn to Google's image search or Flickr as they are to start searching a picture library's website.
All this translates into more competition for the established libraries that once traded on the breadth of their collections and the expert knowledge of their researchers.
So how are these libraries adapting? Corbis is long established as one of the leading image libraries, with 30 years' history of selling stock photography.
As it faces up to the new world, it has begun to shift its focus to protecting the rights of the photographer, which, according to Ivan Purdie, the senior vice-president of sales at Corbis, is the "bedrock of the business".
He says there will always be a place for the specialist libraries such as Mary Evans Picture Library, Bridgeman Art Library and the Science Library. "They have incredible depth, but little breadth. We have extensive breadth."
As a stock library, Purdie believes that the established players still have a place, likewise the expert research teams that they employ.
"Big multinationals want to work with trusted players, and our brand speaks to quality, high-end imagery," he says. "You can wade through Flickr and associated micropayment sites, but it's time-consuming and the search process is complicated. With Corbis, you know the history of an image and where it will be used in future."
But Corbis recognises that there is a great deal more competition from the royalty-free libraries, and is expanding and redefining the way it conducts business to keep ahead.
One area it is moving into is rights clearing. This means that if you decide you want an Andy Warhol image in your advertising campaign, Corbis manages the rights for a huge amount of material dating back to the early shoe illustrations that helped make Warhol's name as a talented graphic artist in the mid-50s, right up to the camouflage series he produced just months before he died. As you might expect, the collection also takes in his iconic portraits of the rock star Elvis Presley, the actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, the Campbell's Soup cans series, and the numerous self-portraits he made.
If you don't want Warhol, other celebrities Corbis manages the rights for include Steve McQueen, Albert Einstein, the Wright Brothers and, although it's tricky to think of the exact campaign he'd be right for, Liberace. It is also in the business of clearing rights for famous film footage.
"It doesn't have to be a Corbis property," Purdie says. "We recently cleared footage from a Rocky film for an Italian phone directory campaign.
"It's something that we think will be a differentiator going forward. There's an insatiable appetite for celebrity at the moment. No longer will a director say 'we'd like a celebrity in our campaign but it's too much aggravation'."
Bo Olofsson, the senior vice-president of global sales at Getty Images, is also upbeat about the changes that are going on in the industry.
"Absolutely we have a role," he says, when quizzed about the future of picture libraries in the digital age.
"There is no question that the industry is changing on many levels. What is driving change is the different ways pictures are being used. The good news is that more images are being used than ever before."
This means that the traditional customer base for images is expanding as more companies are looking to source pictures for corporate websites, advertisers are using more imagery to create digital outdoor campaigns, and news organisations are buying more editorial photography in order to illustrate ever-increasing numbers of news websites.
Two strategies that Getty and Corbis have in common are expanding the breadth of their collections via acquisition, and increasing the level of moving footage they're investing in. Film companies are seeing the opportunity to exploit the vast amounts of famous imagery they own by doing deals with picture libraries, such as those signed recently between Getty Images and Universal Pictures and Warner Bros.
While Corbis is flagging up its rights clearing services, Getty Images is appealing to customers in the advertising industry by expanding its focus on representing photographers.
Getty Images runs Orchard, a company that specialises in representing photographers. It has an international network that can be commissioned for shoots. Among the photographers that Orchard represents are Mitch Jenkins, who has shot stars such as Hugh Laurie and the cast of Grey's Anatomy for promotional campaigns for the TV network five.
"The traditional way of ad agencies sourcing photographers has been done by small agencies on a very local level. What we can bring is global reach, presenting and pushing photographers," Olofsson says.
Getty has also made an interesting venture into the user-generated image market by buying up Scoopt, which bills itself as a media agency that helps "citizen journalists" sell their photographs and video to the world's media.
Scoopt was founded around two years ago; it has 17,000 members in 130 countries - many of whom are amateurs armed with digital cameras, mobile phones and a keen eye for a good opportunity. If their imagery is picked up by anyone, the photographer keeps the copyright and takes 40 per cent of any royalties it makes.
Getty plans to invest in the site to make it more accessible, integrating it with the editorial library it already has. It has said that it won't replace photojournalism, but rather it is a "highly complementary offering".
At the cheaper end of the market is Getty's royalty-free, user-generated stock photo offering, istockphoto.com. It has pioneered the micropayment system, selling images for as little as $1, and video from $5.
Shutterstock is one of the new breed of challengers to the establishment, using the rise of imagery available and low-cost ways of distribution to quickly build a business over a relatively short period of time.
Shutterstock's founder and chief executive, Jon Oringer, says: "The market is changing swiftly. There are more companies with different business models competing in this space than ever before. As a result, there are more images available to consumers than there were in the past, and the quality continues to improve.
"At Shutterstock, we have developed an efficient acquisition process for our content. This ensures that our library grows on a continuous basis. For example, we get 6,000 photo submissions every day. By the end of the day, the images that have passed our strict guidelines for quality are available to our subscribers. This is a pace of growth with which more traditional photo agencies cannot compete."
While he might not quite see eye to eye with his rivals over the issue of whether or not the royalty-free libraries can offer good-quality images, he does agree that the market is changing rapidly and that there are more images available through more sales models than ever before.
Getty Images hasn't called itself a picture library for six years. In the future, Olofsson says that Getty will still be focused on still and moving imagery, but that it will have a lot of different distribution methods, and the way that customers pay and images are licensed will change. "Rights management is still a valid part of the business, but the subscription model is growing. Flexibility around distribution and licensing is something we'll have to keep evolving," he says.
The role of picture libraries is changing, but they are certainly not on the endangered species list - unlike the bike couriers who used to do so well out of them.
"The fact is that the use of imagery is growing. We have to find the right way of doing business with the customers who don't have a lot of money to spend, but it's a positive thing that they're there," Olofsson says.
Year founded: 1995
Getty Images has 21 offices across the globe and is active in more than 100 countries. Founded as the internet was just starting to take hold, it was the first company to licence imagery through the web. These days, it delivers almost 100 per cent of its content online. Along with the 1.8 million creative images available on the website, Getty owns the 70 million-strong Hulton Archive, which contains maps, engravings, cartoons and illustrations that date back to 1860.
The company also has a network of around 1,000 photographers all around the world who can be commissioned.
Last year, Getty Images won the World Press Photo Award with the Spencer Platt image (pictured above) taken following the bombing of Lebanon last summer.
Mary Evans Picture Library
Year founded: 1964
Mary Evans Picture Library was founded in the South-East London suburb of Blackheath, where it is still based after more than 40 years.
It is an independent, family owned library, which is known for being a specialist in historical imagery. The library aims to provide pictures that offer an insight into the past, for designers, broadcasters and publishers.
It promises customers that they can still pick up the phone and speak to knowledgeable researchers, but it now has around 200,000 images online and is adding more each week.
Although the Mary Evans Picture Library has traditionally been used as a resource for editors looking to illustrate historical features, more and more creatives are turning to its collection in search of different, stimulating imagery.
Year founded: 2003
Shutterstock positions itself as a "microstock" library, and is aiming to challenge the larger, more dominant players such as Getty and Corbis by sourcing images from a large pool of photographers and selling them via the web at rates lower than traditional agencies.
Subscribers pay $199 a month and can download as many as 25 photos a day, to use as they wish and keep forever. The collection contains photography, illustrations and images that can be used as backgrounds on websites and so on. At time of writing, the collection stood at around 1.7 million-plus royalty-free stock photos, with more than 30,000 images being added per week. Last year, it became the largest subscription-based stock library after acquiring its rival Photosights.com. That same year, it introduced its stock video resource.
THE SMOOTHIE CHALLENGE
Campaign challenged Corbis to come up with images that could bring the ideas of health, vitality and energy to life for an imaginary new smoothie brand.
The brief asked for a campaign that had a sense of humour rather than a pious feel, using photography rather than illustration.
At the same time, Simon Friedberg, a creative from St Luke's, was challenged to do his own search for images. Here, he compares the Corbis results with his own findings.
"Stock shot libraries have got better and easier to use. Before the internet made it possible to do your own searches, you'd have to send a formal brief and get the agency to do a search for you.
"I don't know how much value they add by doing the searches themselves - you can put in a couple of search terms and use that as a starting point in the creative process. Often the results may be surprising and lead to new avenues for creative development.
"I wasn't blown away by the pictures they found. I discounted the ones that were too obviously familiar - a lot of times people look too 'ad-y'. I was looking for images that do not mirror advertising stereotypes of people. So, in the case of stock shots, it's sometimes better to use shots of people in the mid-distance, or abstracted images.
"My favourite shot was the girl picking apples. It has a positive feeling and it says health and vitality without being too overt. The man at the pond was another possibility, both these images are full of life and you can imagine using them as a springboard.
"When thinking about doing my own search, I thought back to a photograph taken by Nick Waplington of a boy in a Superman suit. I thought that might be a way of looking at the brief.
"Initially, I searched on Corbis and found lots of images of the Superman movies and original artwork from the comics.
"But the image of Superman with a pine cone I found on Flickr. I like the idea of talking about a smoothie giving you energy and being healthy, while at the same time having a bit of fun with the way it makes the user feel.
"On a completely different track, I also found the picture of the kiwi fruit on Flickr. It's obviously good to start with the product, and shots of fruit which convey energy, vitality and health do this. When you blow up something small and familiar on to a huge format, suddenly the mundane becomes interesting.
"The good thing about Flickr is that you can get bigger images to throw into layouts, and I really like the fact that people aren't taking these photos with an intent. Searching through Flickr is a bit like playing and you create better when you play.
"I chose the Corbis image of the monkey because, again, a lot of the people looked stereotyped through the regular stock shot search. Using animals was a way of getting away from that. Fruit-eating animals, a whole series of them, could be fun and deliver those cues of health, vitality and energy you were looking for.
"I think the more sources you use for image searching the better.
"Overall, my feeling is that you can't drop a picture into an ad and make advertising, an ad has to come from a core idea, and that is where picture libraries can help."
Siri Vorbeck, the creative director at Corbis, says: "When we got the brief we thought 'what does a smoothie do and who is it aimed at?'.
"Smoothies are uplifting and can transport you, that's why there were a lot of active images in there. We also chose images with a connection to nature and the fruit."
Credits: Superman (c)MadVinyl, Man and Pond by Hans Neleman/zefa/Corbis, Woman by Sven Hagolini/zefa/Corbis, Woman/Apple by Iris Coppola/zefa/Corbis, Monkey by Martin Harvey/Corbis, Kiwi fruit by David Prior.
This article was first published on Campaign