Choosing pictures is no longer a case of leisurely poring over
glossy catalogues or searching through dusty archives. Images are
available on screen at the touch of a button, thanks to digital
technology - which is taking an increasing chunk of the picture market
in terms of distributing images.
When the owners of major photolibraries - such as Getty Communications
and Image Bank - start making major investments in digital distribution
systems, this suggests that the days of photographic prints are
News is leading the digital revolution, since this is where speed is
paramount and high resolution is not so important for newsprint. Digital
cameras, which allow an image to be directly imported onto a computer
and downloaded to the picture desk via ISDN, are at the cutting edge of
photographic technology - but it is important to make the distinction
between digital images - taken on a digital camera - and digitised
images which have been taken on film and scanned into a computer.
Martin Spaven, picture editor at the People, is using more and more
digital pictures primarily because of the time savings: ’If I am getting
something from Yorkshire and have film couriered it can take up to a
day. I can have a digital image within an hour.’
According to Clive Howes, of photographic agency FNP: ’Most newspapers
are looking to go filmless. The Daily Mail spends a million pounds a
year on film without the cost of processing, so they could save pounds 2
million a year by going digital’.
However, PA’s head of syndication, Bridget Croker, warns: ’I think
agencies going only digital with digital cameras are ill-advised, unless
they are only interested in newspapers’.
This is exactly what Clive Howes was interested in when he launched FNP,
the first completely digital picture agency, a year ago. FNP has had 800
pictures published in the national press to date, and its three
photographers had 40 pictures printed in the Sunday press following the
funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Digitised images originally shot on film are a serious growth area with
products and services emerging to meet communications needs.
Corbis Corporation was founded in Washington in 1989 by Bill Gates to
take a piece of the digital media action. ’Corbis Corporation’s raison
d’etre is the digital market,’ says general manager Martin Ellis.
Searching for an image takes seconds with its archive system, and
clients can be sent selections on CD-ROM or ISDN more quickly than via
most traditional libraries.
Despite more than 50 per cent of their clients still wanting pictures in
print form, Ellis points out that two years ago very few were able to
take pictures digitally and believes that in three years’ time the
majority will be on-line. ’Print will not die, but it will definitely
move into the minority,’ he says.
Two of the newest products on the market are Image.net and PA’s
Image.net runs on software, which is distributed to journalists free of
charge, while PixElect uses PA’s dial-in ’bulletin board’ system which
distributes pictures to the UK press.
The benefit of both services is that pictures are made instantly
available to picture editors, saving time and the expense of manual
Companies can also store corporate identities and their full range of
visual material on the system. British Airways, for example, used
PixElect to distribute images for the launch of its new identity.
Clients get regular reports showing exactly who has downloaded what
image when, and clients can collect reports hourly if they need to
monitor a day’s news story.
Image.net’s statistical report on Twentieth Century Fox’s blockbuster
The Full Monty makes impressive reading, showing that over 200
publications downloaded images in the two-week preview period, ranging
from the Bath Chronicle to the Face and the Big Issue.
While these products position themselves as an alternative to
traditional photolibraries such as Tony Stone and Image Bank, these are
also embracing digital technology.
Image Bank, which is owned by Kodak, bought Picture Network
International last month, which will serve as a digital distribution
network throughout the world carrying images from Image Bank and other
photo libraries. Managing director Mark Cass says that the company is
also working on digitising everything including its film, stills and
And Getty Communications - which owns Tony Stone Images and Hulton Getty
- has just snapped up PhotoDisc, which supplies images on CD-ROM, giving
Getty a digital distribution network under the new company name Getty
Images. As far as creating digital pictures is concerned, Tony Stone set
up a digital design team two years ago to experiment with creating new
digital images from scratch or by fusing digital technology with classic
Not all photolibraries are as fast to move to digitisation, however.
Robert Harding is one who is being more cautious. His picture library
was originally established to service publishers but now does about 50
per cent of its work for advertisers and designers.
’We are working on a new corporate identity and investing in ISDN, but
we haven’t upgraded before now because our clients do not have the
At least 95 per cent still want hard print - that is where the market is
at the moment. We send out CD-ROMs and catalogues, and for every one
image sold via CD-ROM we sell 500 from the catalogue. We are getting
calls now for ISDN, but that’s nearly all from newspapers.’
Harding points out that the costs involved in digitising a library of
two million pictures would be enormous. The smaller specialist picture
providers and charities are largely unable to afford to go digital.
Friends of the Earth, for example, scans in transparencies itself for
use in its campaign materials, web site and quarterly newsletter. It
does not have an ISDN facility, however, and therefore cannot provide
sufficiently good quality images digitally.
The Ministry of Defence is among several large organisations which have
opted to employ an agency to set up a digital library system for
It took on Image Data Systems (IDS) to centralise its archives and now
has 30,000 images on the system this year, and aims for a further 15,000
per year over the next two years. The MoD is also about to launch a new
’hot folder’ of news images on its system.
It appears, then, that print and digital technology will continue their
co-existence for a while yet. But, as the People’s Spaven says, content
always wins over other factors when choosing pictures: ’At the end of
the day you want that ideal picture and it doesn’t matter what it’s
taken on or how it’s delivered to you.’
CASE STUDY: A SPORTING CHANCE FOR DIGITAL CAMERAS
Less than five per cent of news images are currently taken on digital
cameras. In sport, the biggest growth area, it may be between five and
ten per cent. The price of digital cameras is coming down and the
quality is improving. The compact types selling in the shops for around
pounds 200 produce an image that looks as if it has been taken off a
Professional quality models like the Nikon AP Kodak used by PA’s chief
photographer Adam Butler cost around pounds 10,000 but he believes they
will soon be reduced to around pounds 5,000, bringing them within reach
of freelance photographers.
He says that almost all the photographers trailing the general election
were using digital cameras: ’You had to in order to keep up. I did the
last election on film and it cost the office thousands to get people to
meet me at various points in the day. This time all the parties had put
the necessary equipment beside each seat in the bus so we were literally
transmitting pictures en route between photo opportunities.’
With a digital camera the photographer’s life is much easier. ’I don’t
have to warm the chemicals, process in a makeshift darkroom and scan in
the image before I send it down the phoneline,’ says Butler.
Freelance photographer Dean Hollowood, however, has no inclination to go
digital: ’I like being in the darkroom and playing. Things happen there
that you don’t expect and that’s part of the creative process.’ Paul
Wombell, director of the Photographers’ Gallery, held the first
exhibition about ’photovideo’ - photography and the future of
digitisation - in 1991. He believes that picture libraries are not about
to become obsolete.
’Photography has always existed alongside other media and one of the
reasons it will survive and has done for 150 years is technology. Film
won’t disappear in the same way that books won’t,’ he says.
CASE STUDY: FUNERAL OF DIANA, PRINCESS OF WALES
The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was undoubtedly the biggest
photocall in history and speed and quality of pictures were vital.
The Press Association used 30 photographers to cover the event, three of
whom used digital cameras. The first pictures of the Princess’ cortege
were out on PA’s wires within 15 minutes of it leaving the palace gates,
thanks to a digital camera and a Macintosh computer in a nearby hotel
room. It would have been difficult for a runner to get through the
crowds to a photographer to pick up film at that time.
PA’s head of syndication, Bridget Croker, worked round-the-clock with a
team of a dozen people when the crash news broke in the early hours of
Sunday morning. On the day of the funeral she left the office at 3am
after sending images digitally around the world during the day.
’Every major magazine in the world has run our pictures - from Paris
Match to Australian Woman’s Day. However, if magazines have a choice
between a digital camera picture and one that is shot on traditional
film, they will still usually choose those shot on film,’ she says.
Newsweek waited the extra time it took to get the film version of the
picture of the procession through Hyde Park which they had by 10pm on
PA’s chief photographer had one of the six prime positions opposite
Westminster Abbey. Head of news pictures, Martin Keane, took the
decision to put a film camera in that spot because he regarded it as too
important to opt for the poorer quality images of a digital camera.
He also wanted to have a permanent record of such a historic event,
bearing in mind the market for the onward sale of pictures which could
not be achieved with just one image captured on a PC.
On the day of the funeral, the Evening Standard was on newsstands by
12.30pm with a picture of the three princes looking over Diana’s
The picture had been taken on digital camera by an FNP photographer,
manipulated by Clive Howes and transmitted to the news desks within 15
When it comes to the coffee table version of what the media are
referring to as the most high-profile funeral in history, no digital
camera images will be used and pictures will probably be selected from
prints over a period of weeks, if not months.