Some say the photographic stock industry is moving Web-side so fast that soon it'll be swallowed by a writhing mass of fibre cables. That's what some say, but one thing is certain, the emergence of online image delivery and CD-ROM catalogues has the world of negatives, trannies and paper-based prints looking hard over its own shoulder.
So, are stock Web sites the future, or are they a doomed branch of the photographic tree, just as Neanderthal man was to that of humanity? Have they got what it takes to compete with the high-quality pages of the hard copy catalogue, its fast and handy CD-ROM brother, phone-based ordering traditions and the "bike it over" delivery culture? What about the issue of copyright? Has the Net got what it takes to overcome these hurdles? Despite the hype, the actual number of libraries with a Web presence is still very small. Glance through the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA) guide and you'll find that only nine of the 54 companies listed under "general stock" and five of the 20 listed under "news and current affairs" actually have a Web address. That's surprising considering that most libraries are heavily online wired as well as cash-rich.
Image library sites break down into three categories: self-promotional; partially interactive; or totally archive-wired. Those which fall in the first category are top-heavy on marketing and lazy on archive access and delivery services. Surprisingly, this group includes such prestigious firms as the Telegraph Colour Library and Rex Features. Sites in the second category tend to showcase a limited selection of their latest imagery, but then disappoint customers who need price tags, ordering and delivery facilities, or deeper archive access. Image Bank and Archive Photos fall into this category.
Only a handful of libraries can be found in the final category. These rare specimens offer a rich smorgasbord of online services, including direct archive access via smart boolean search engines; ordering and delivery options; stacks of information on selected images and collections; a constantly updated gallery full of new imagery; and rigorous copyright safeguards.
Some even offer a virtual shopping trolley. Of course, all this comes gift-wrapped in a sexy, racy and super-friendly interface which doesn't charge for searches. It might sound like a tall order, but most picture researchers and editors consider it the bare essentials for doing image business via the Web.
While many sites offer a wide range of services, there remain the nagging questions of whether they are actually worth the struggle, and the copyright issue. Here, the experts disagree.
WHAT'S THE TAKEUP?
When asked about overall image sales via the Net, managing director of Corbis UK Martin Ellis admits to "quite a small and not available" percentage, but then continues more optimistically. "The takeup and growth varies between different types of clients. Wired up sectors like advertising, graphics and new media are increasingly using the Net, while other sectors like print publishing are slower to respond."
Mark Cass, managing director at Image Bank UK, pins down the amount of Image Bank Net clients to around "two per cent" and forecasts a figure of "five per cent" within the year. For the moment then, Photodisc is in the lead with some 10 per cent of total sales being made on the Web. Kevin Dazley, marketing director at Photodisc, reckons that "by the year 2000, over 50 per cent of sales will be made on the Net".
But will the whole stock industry eventually be gobbled by the virtual world of fibre? Ellis is confident: "In the future, Corbis's Web-based services will replace all traditional means of searching, ordering, purchasing and delivery." But he also admits that "limited bandwidth will pose the main challenge".
Are we then witnessing the last generation of print-based catalogues? Not according to Cass, who argues that "the printed catalogue will always play a pivotal role in marketing images. In the future, it'll become more of an image builder and less of a search tool."
Lauren Mundy, marketing manager at Tony Stone Images, points out that many clients still prefer printed catalogues. "It's enjoyable to flick through the pages, picking up creative ideas along the way. There will always be a place for a well thought-out, creative catalogue," she says.
LEVELS OF ACCESS
Another hotly disputed issue is whether stock sites should go for multilevel user access to safeguard images from copyright abuse. Unlike Corbis, which at the moment is offering all potential image licence buyers access to its archive, Cass intends to steer Image Bank in a slightly different direction: "In the future, we'll determine the level of access depending on the type of client. Only a select few will be able to download screen-sized images for comping purposes."
Chris Lewis, IT guru at the Telegraph Colour Library, also believes that different levels of access will help curb copyright abuse, but maintains that "it won't solve the copyright problem on its own".
The copyright issue is certainly one of the main concerns for stock libraries with a Web presence. Janet Ibbotson, electronic copyright specialist at the Designers and Artists Copyright Society (DACS), is convinced that the level of image copyright abuse on the Net is extremely high, although she admits, "it's difficult to quantify the exact amount".
Corbis has tackled the problem with various approaches: encrypting watermarks and digital signatures on all their screen-sized imagery; employing specialists to keep track of all downloaded images; and posting warnings on the Net. But Ibbotson isn't satisfied and argues that "watermarks can be removed so they're not a perfect solution. Also there is no central registration or policing organisation which monitors these watermarked images."
On the other hand, Lewis is more concerned that "the whole concept of watermarking is flawed since it's based on mistrust of the customer. Semi-translucent logos also interfere with the aesthetics and people will always prefer viewing images without them." Lewis is currently pressing for the development of a new generation of intelligent images which protect themselves by informing their rightful copyright owners of cases of piracy. But until such intelligent image software is on the market, the copyright problem won't go away.
As for picture researchers, they should continue to play an important role in libraries, argues Cass. "What we're likely to see is clients doing the more basic searches and researchers concentrating on other, more complex searches such as finding images to match concepts," he says.
Lewis forecasts the marriage of the search engine and the researcher, who in future will work hand-in-hand with clients on the Net. "This would certainly solve the problem of cultural and linguistic diversity," he explains, "as clients could then work together with culturally specific search engines as well as researchers that speak their language."
Whatever happens next, the shape of the image supply chain looks set to alter radically as more libraries go online. Inevitably, there will be casualties along the way. Cass, Ellis and Dazley all agree that those hit first will be those working in colour repro houses. Cass believes "they'll be driven into a tight corner".
Smaller specialist libraries that can't afford to make images available online are bound to lose some business. Not only that, they will also be hurt by falling image prices - a natural by-product of library saturation on the Net. As Patrick Cunningham of the Sue Cunningham Photographic Library points out: "We would love to equip ourselves with the latest digital gear, even offer an out-of-hours service, but it's not financially viable. Many libraries are offering free archive access on the Net at a time when we're expected to invest in new technology. It doesn't add up."
Nonetheless, the smaller libraries still have the trump card of providing high-quality images in niche markets. That, coupled with recent research from the US which suggests that the increased use of image digitisation has contributed to a decline in picture quality, should guarantee the survival of smaller libraries. Perhaps then the specialist library will live happily alongside the new generation of Web-based digital giants.
At its pulsating heart, the Corbis site parades a racy and intelligent search engine that offers direct real-time access to over 600,000 images, ranging from Ansel Adams's timeless landscapes to Tim Page's disturbing coverage of war-torn Vietnam.
The search engine allows configuration of a long list of filters or variables which include a description of image content, the date of exposure, the name of the photographer or artist, and the name or date of the photographed object or event. Other filters allow you to search by way of keywords, concepts, events or topics.
Image hits appear either in thumbnail size or full-screen resolution, vertically or horizontally. Loads of specific text-based info such as caption material is also extractable with a click of the mouse. The pictures can be saved in special image sets which are kept on the server, or ordered for viewing on CD-ROM or hard copy.
Other superb features include a neatly curated gallery, a final ordering and download facility and stacks of articles on issues like copyright or new international image standards like FlashPix. Also available is a handy low-down on the library's contents such as Corbis's 16 million-strong Bettmann collection which contains the entire UPI & Agence France Presse archive as well as 10 years of Reuters news photography. The only thing missing is a price guide, but Corbis senior picture researcher Derik Ferguson insists "the site will soon feature one".
Corbis's precocious site obviates the need for flash online marketing by simply making available a full range of stock services. At Corbis, the customer is king - it is the undisputed leader in Web-based provision.
HULTON GETTY (www.getty-images.com)
When it comes to user friendliness, the Hulton site is a worthy benchmark. It's brilliantly designed and easy to use. It allows for direct real-time archive access using a smart multilayered boolean search engine.
Customers are welcomed by the arresting image of a mysterious figure glowing in the silvery light of the moon, underneath which a scrolling logo reads: "If it's out of the ordinary, it's out of Hulton Getty."
The site then quickly loads the home page, a black canvas featuring three images up top, each one metamorphosing into another shot within seconds. Below are gateways into the four sections: search what's new; about Hulton Getty; contact Hulton Getty; and help. The search page is free of gimmicks, featuring only the bare essentials - a dialogue box for enquiries and a few other functions.
Customers can trawl through some 200,000 images, using either the basic keyword facility or the more sophisticated and multilayered advanced mode. Images can then be displayed in four ways: as text-only descriptions; thumbnails and text; slightly larger thumbnails with no text; or in medium-size format without text. The visuals upload quickly.
Alternatively, clients can wander through a gallery space which showcases imagery within cleverly curated narratives, each one opening up an intriguing story. The site's only drawback is that Web-initiated ordering and delivery is unavailable.
There are two ways to search for images on Photo-disc's site: key-wording for the precise and analytical, and visual matching for the conceptual and creative.
About 500,000 images are available at the click of a mouse, with 2,000 new images added each month. Unlike other sites, this one features a handy shopping trolley service where you collect images as you go. You can then purchase them with cybercash and have them delivered online.
The site, launched in 1995, has cost Photodisc about $2 million to date. It receives about 3,000 hits a day and grosses more than $250,000 in image licence sales a month - about 10 per cent of Photodisc's overall monthly sales. It also contains an online price guide as well as immediate ordering and delivery facilities.
HOW THEY RATE
Archive Photos (www.archivephotos.com)
A surprising let-down considering Archive Photos contains some 20 million images and is set to become one of the world's largest stock suppliers. Most facilities are still under construction, but watch this space - change is imminent.
Image Bank (www.imagebank.com)
A cocktail of promotionalware intermixed with a gallery showcasing a limited selection of still and moving images. Ordering images for further consideration is its only interactive dimension. The site is user-friendly, but the gallery space does undermine the library's 20-million strong image collection. This site is currently undergoing a major overhaul.
Tony Stone Images (www.getty-images.com)
Again, this is a rather disappointing site considering the company's world-class status. However, it's one of the few sites to offer information on its member photographers.
Pictor International (www.pictor.co.uk)
The displayed images are too small. But it does include a pricing scheme and download image service.
Telegraph Colour Library (www.stockdirectory.com)
Extremely user friendly, fast, well-designed, but gruesomely lazy on both arrive access and interactivity, which is reduced to the level of ordering print-based and CD-ROM catalogues.
Greg Evans International
Spectrum Colour Library
Timon Oefelein ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist and contributor to Internet World.
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