FOCUS: PHOTO LIBRARIES - The rise of the screen grabber. The internet and search technology has empowered photo libraries with more images being made available to a wider audience than ever before. Peter Robinson reports

Photo libraries have spent the last few years preparing for the brave new world of technology-based search systems, often steering a Jeremy Clarkson-type course of ’my search engine’s bigger than yours.’ But does size really matter and do clients prefer using the traditional researcher anyway?

Photo libraries have spent the last few years preparing for the

brave new world of technology-based search systems, often steering a

Jeremy Clarkson-type course of ’my search engine’s bigger than yours.’

But does size really matter and do clients prefer using the traditional

researcher anyway?

Whereas photo libraries used to be constrained by how many images they

could squeeze into their bulky catalogues, web sites and CD-ROM

compilations are now commonplace and photo libraries have been piling

the megabytes onto their systems, offering millions of images for which

clients can search electronically.

But the pace of growth appears to be outstripping the ability of our

brains to interface with this massive visual overload and it seems we

still need human beings to guide us through the electronic maze.

Getty Images has an archive of over 15 million images. Communications

officer Jo Aaron says: ’A lot of our collection is on-line, but it’s so

vast that we need the skill and knowledge of researchers to guide both

us and our clients in the right direction.

’Our researchers are our most precious resource since they speak to

clients directly. They use the web and our internal on-line system so

that they can do the job more quickly.’

The greater proportion of orders are still taken over the telephone.

Aaron says: ’Clients like to communicate with researchers rather than

with a machine. We form stronger relationships this way. The human

element is important, otherwise it can all be faceless and as

competition quickens, service is important.’

Julie Wicks, marketing manager of Pictor International Ltd says that

time is also a crucial factor. ’Clients are busy, often working on

several projects at the same time. Yet you can just spend a couple of

minutes on the phone and get someone else to do it all for you. There

are now huge sources available yet less time than ever before.’

This has meant that photo libraries have often had to increase research

staff. Anna Calvert, sales manager of Corbis says: ’We are adding new

skills and have expanded our research department from three to six,

since as the technology increases the number of people wanting images


There are new ways of researching but you still need people with skill

and a keen eye to find the right image.’

The latest technology can save time for both the photo library

researcher and the client who may choose to access it. Mark Cass,

managing director of the Image Bank points out: ’We are in a time-saving

business so we use technology for clients and for our own internal

systems. But we want the researcher taking a brief to interact with the


He adds: ’They can do the search, send images and immediately talk to

the client to adjust or change, or the researcher may go out to visit

the client.

’Being given concepts and ideas for images, that’s what really turns

researchers on. The introduction of free searches has also had a

dramatic effect in encouraging clients to use researchers by taking away

the cost of access.’

Technology is now facilitating more interactive discussion between

researchers and clients. Cass says: ’We have been able to put what we

call a ’lightbox’ on to clients’ screens and post an image to them. They

can then share it with whoever they want anywhere in the world. When the

connection is cut they have a password to pass on to others so they can

view it.’

However, Milicia Timotic, library manager at PA News says that even

clients who have the technology to order and receive images

electronically often prefer to speak to researchers.

She says: ’When a client phones us, they are not just after a picture,

they also want advice. Their original idea might be unrealistic or not

thought out, and they want to know what else is around. Even newspapers

that have our bulletin board with all our images on it with the

technology to get an image direct, still phone and ask our advice.’

While technology is not supplanting the traditional researcher, it is

changing expectations of what can be achieved. Paul Henning, manager of

European operations at Comstock Photofile says: ’We used to think that

in the future computers would do all the work and people could just sit

back. Obviously that’s not happened, expectations of what can be

accomplished have changed.’

He adds: ’As the technology increases, researchers may be reduced

somewhat but service will remain important. It’s important to talk

plainly to people and use their depth of knowledge and experience. They

know the collection intimately and can help clients come up with ideas

they might not have thought of.’

While many photo libraries have the latest technology, often clients

simply do not have the technology to interface with it. Henning says:

’Some clients have every gizmo, while others just have a 386 PC with a

14.4 bps modem. We are years away from the technology becoming


Photolibraries still clearly value their researchers but what about


Karen Kelner, of the Independent on Sunday finds researchers generally

efficient, except when it comes down to finding that really difficult


’Sometimes you need to do a bit of lateral thinking,’ she says.

’Particularly when thinking of a concept, rather than a particular

subject for an image, for you may not get that idea conveyed properly

and receive a completely inappropriate picture. The trouble with

newspapers is that you can’t visit a library and research the picture


Freelance editorial designer, Bob Bateman agrees that using researchers

rather than doing searches yourself is mainly due to time.

’It takes less than five minutes on the phone and the images turn up in

the post the next day, whereas looking through catalogues, CD-ROMs or

the web, a search can easily take an hour,’ he says.

The introduction of free searches across the industry has played an

important role in getting magazines to use the service.

Art editor at Information Week, Stuart Faulkner, says: ’It’s good that

there are no charges for searches even when you don’t use any of the

images they send you. The traditional researcher is useful because

sometimes what we need can be quite obscure. Last week, for instance, we

asked for a production line shot of a 1914 Model T Ford. On CD-ROM or

computer you wouldn’t find what you want. You often need to have someone

looking through the filing cabinets for you.’

Finding out how good a photolibrary and its researchers are can often be

a matter of trial and error. Jayne Gardner, picture researcher at Woman

and Home, says: ’We have found some agencies a little old-fashioned in

what they send us in terms of the hair styles of people in their


But then we simply don’t use them again, it’s all trial and error.’

One of the ways round the problem is for the client’s researcher to

visit the photolibrary. Robert Harding of Robert Harding Picture Library

says: ’We have an open policy to all our files, unlike some libraries,

and a lot of clients do come in, especially on the editorial side.

’It can be people such as picture researchers with big book projects who

want to look up themes and like to get a feel for the pictures. People

still like to come and have a good dig around.’

CASE STUDY: Using the web to tear down barriers

One way of eliminating the need for researchers is to put your whole

library on the web. That is what Stock Illustration Source (SIS), which

opened in this country at the beginning of April, has done.

SIS, which has its headquarters in the US, is an illustration library

and has a collection of 25,000 images. General manager Maryam Faiz says

it is easier for SIS to put its entire catalogue on the web, since the

stock photo libraries often have several million images.

She says: ’Having all our illustrations on the web provides 24-hour

access, so if the office is shut you can still search our library and

down-load low resolution images for mock-ups. Also, being on the web

allows us to constantly update from the new illustrations coming into

our office, whereas with CDs and catalogues, you can’t do that. You can

also type in keywords to search for concepts as well as specific

subjects, so you have fast access for all your ideas.’

Illustrations benefit from being fully displayed since they can be

difficult to describe to clients over the phone. Faiz says: ’It can be

difficult to know exactly what the client wants since the style of the

illustrator often determines the client’s decision. So it makes sense to

make everything available on the web site and on CD-ROM, so there is

nothing between us and the client.’

Faiz used to work in a photo library and feels the diminution of the

researcher role is no bad thing. ’We would get a brief and pass it on to

a researcher, and often it was a case of Chinese whispers, so by the

time the client got their images back, they may not be what they


Also, you do not know how good a communicator the client is. A lot of it

is down to good training and how good a listener the account executive


However, for the larger photo libraries, putting their whole collection

on the web may be neither feasible or desirable. Jo Aaron of Getty

Images says: ’With a collection as large as ours it’s not possible to

put all of our images on the web. Also some are not appropriate since

they come from whole collections and might contain several shots of the

same subject.’

NO FEES: Royalty-free images give clients total control

Good quality visuals used to be the preserve of high end users such as

advertisers, designers and glossy publications which were serviced by

the rights-protected photo libraries.

But the demand for good visuals has mushroomed across a wider range of

users for whom price is often a critical factor.

The royalty-free market has developed fast over the last five years to

meet this demand. Clients can typically buy a CD-ROM with around 100

images for anything from pounds 100 to pounds 300 and use them as much

as they like without any further payment. They have full control of the

images and do not need to consult photo library researchers.

While at first the large stock libraries may have perceived this as a

threat to their more up-market rights-protected service, they have

increasingly realised that it was not a market they could ignore and are

following an ’if you can’t beat them, join them’ philosophy.

One of the latest to prepare for launching a royalty-free service is

Comstock Photofile, which launched a trial of its service in the US last

year. Manager of European operations, Paul Henning explains:

’Royalty-free has tapped into a broader market than the one reached by

rights-controlled libraries. We often talked to clients who wanted to

use stock photos but the problem was cost. Now with royalty-free there

is an alternative.’

Henning sees rights-protected images and royalty-free as mutually

inclusive rather than exclusive. ’It’s grown like two overlapping

circles,’ he says.

’If you consider one circle as the rights controlled user and the other

the royalty-free user, there is also a group of users in the middle,

where the circles overlap, who mix and match the two services.

’The royalty-free customer is a different animal, often more technically

adept and heavier users of the internet. Some high end users use both

within the same project, depending on suitability.’

Other agencies are having to consider embracing royalty-free. Robert

Harding says: ’It’s another way of providing a service. We are looking

at it since we could service new clients and overlap a little.

’But it offers no control, for instance it’s always possible that a

client’s brochure will have the same cover shot as someone else’s. That

happens all the time. Also when you buy a disk you have to consider that

anything with people on it soon dates.’

Jo Aaron of Getty Images, which owns PhotoDisk, says that the

introduction of royalty-free also gives greater flexibility to

photographers. ’On a shoot, the photographer can spread his work across

these different outlets in our collection. It also offers more freedom

for the client, so they exist happily side by side’ she says.

IMAGE BANK: Investing in people for expansion

With the web and other communication technologies enveloping us all into

one big global village, it was surprising to see one of the leading

photo libraries, the Image Bank expanding its geographical spread of

offices and opening in Dublin in January 1998.

The Image Bank also has offices in London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

Managing director, Mark Cass explains: ’We don’t think that the

electronic world will happen as quickly as we all want it to. So we’re

investing in people who have experience with their local creative

community. The new Dublin manager Gavin McAuliffe has worked in the

local advertising industry there for several years.’

Local branding is also important. Cass explains: ’We regard Scotland and

Ireland as separate countries, the people running the offices are local

and its important to build brand name and service since people buy

people. There will always be a need for that.

’I don’t think that people will go on to the internet and buy something

from a company they know nothing about and have no value statement.’

He adds: ’Our office managers are going in there and helping solve


The need for that will never change. If we just had a central server in

London and told people in Dublin that they should go on the internet we

would lose a lot of business.’

Cass emphasises that the mix of business and services is different in

each of the offices according to local demand. Edinburgh and Dublin are

involved in a lot of advertising business, while Manchester does more

corporate work. The Image Bank’s London headquarters houses its

contemporary photographic illustrations, archive collections, specialist

historical files and film division.

The Edinburgh office, which was established in 1993, also has a self

contained library which specialises in Scottish archives. The Dublin

office has a self contained library and additional Irish archives.

Film is becoming increasingly important. Cass says: ’One of our strong

focuses now is stock film footage. Ireland is already one of our largest

client bases for film and film will be an important part of the way our

business moves forward.’

While the Image Bank is not planning to open any further offices at the

moment, Cass reveals: ’We did consider Bristol as our natural next step,

which would also take in the North Wales area. But now most of our time

will be devoted to the technology and internet services where costs are


’We will have both an electronic and geographic spread and I don’t see

that changing for at least the next ten years.’

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