Stock Photography - The Global Gallery

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Clipart and Stock Photography

Tom Arah shows you how to find the perfect image by exploring the booming world of stock photography.

Stock photography on the Web

Traditional Vector Clipart

Nowadays everyone understands the importance of graphics to publishing - it's the images that give focus and impact to your text and so sell your message to the reader. That's fine if you have the skill, experience and time to produce your own images, but most users don't. That's where clipart comes in. With royalty-free, ready-supplied images, you can simply drop the desired artwork into your layouts and use them just as you want. I still remember the giddy excitement of buying my first clipart CD. Thanks to the small file-size and resolution-independence of the vector EPS format, this single CD contained over a thousand images which could be used for anything from ink-jetting Christmas cards to photo-setting billboard adverts.

Of course in practice I only used them for the cards for one very simple reason - the images were rubbish. Maybe this is slightly harsh. Some of the maps were useful and I was able to use some of the simple symbols as orientating devices, but the vast majority of the images could only be used on those rare projects, such as party invitations, that celebrate their inherent tackiness. The problem is that vector clipart is just too obviously computer-generated and so draws attention to itself rather than to the text. Rather than adding to your message, vector clipart detracts from it and so the general rule has to be to avoid it.

Again this is on the harsh side. It is possible to create vector-based artwork that is both human and complementary as the latest generation of drawing packages, such as Illustrator 8 and PhotoDraw 2000, show. However by now the damage has been done. Rather than trying to sell quality, clipart manufacturers have taken to selling numbers. Each release of Corel Draw, for example, has seen the number of clipart images supplied increase until now there are 40,000. Most of the new drawings, such as the latest celebrity caricatures, are simply re-workings of the old images that you never used in the first place. The guiding principle is clear - pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap.

As a result I soon lost all interest in clipart, but I did feel something of the old excitement returning when Corel sent out its latest Gallery 1,000,000 program. This boasts no less than one million images spread across fourteen CDs. To find the image you want you keyword search a central database which shows the relevant filenames and the number of the CD they are on. If the relevant CD is then inserted into the drive, thumbnails are automatically extracted to enable visual selection. 1,000,000 is such an astronomically large number that even a 95% wastage rate should still leave 50,000 usable images.

Unfortunately you soon discover how Corel has managed to hit the magic million mark - over 800,000 of the images are web specific! This really is the pile 'em high philosophy run wild where you can change the colour or tweak the bevel effect on your 3D buttons and automatically generate another set of variations. Even if you do use the images, you are unlikely to use more than eight on a given site which gives a wastage rate of 99.9999%. Sadly the 140,000 vector images aren't much better judging by the selection printed in the manual. At a street price of 70 - and so a price per vector image of 0.05 of a penny - it's difficult to complain, but you are doing well if you find one usable image per page.

Vector v Bitmap

In spite of these disappointments, I have to say that I liked Corel Gallery thanks solely to its inclusion of over 60,000 photographs (and the bundled PhotoHouse program to edit them). Without the stylistic problems of vector art, photo-realistic bitmap-based clipart is in a completely different league. In short, while nothing can do more damage to a project than a weak vector image, nothing can add as much as a professional and relevant photograph. Crucially, the selection Corel supplies is of good quality and across a broad range. Searching for photos of "Edinburgh", for example, produced 14 options while narrowing the search to "Edinburgh castle" produced two. A similar search for "tower" produced over 400 results while the "Eiffel tower" came up with three. Even a search on a non-US, ex-celebrity like Mrs Thatcher came up with a hit.

This really is impressive and immediately opens up the possibility of quickly and conveniently finding the perfect image to partner and complement your text - exactly what the original concept of clipart seemed to offer. However it's not all good news. The nature of bitmaps is not only a strength, but a major drawback. In particular the fact that the quality of bitmaps is resolution-dependent has huge repercussions. Each of the Gallery photos is stored as a 30k wavelet compressed WI file. When converted to TIFF this produces an image of 384 x 256 pixels and around 300k. This is ideal for onscreen presentations and web pages, but it is completely inadequate for print. For photo-set output at a screen of 150lpi, for example, you would ideally need an image resolution of 300dpi which would mean a maximum size of 1.3" x 0.9". Not exactly eye-catching.

Professional Stock Photography

For serious print work another solution is clearly needed and Corel aims to provide this with its Professional Photo series of royalty-free images on CD. The images are based on Kodak's Photo CD (PCD) format which the supplied PhotoLab program can convert to a range of file formats and five set sizes - 128 x 192, 256 x 384, 512 x 768, 1024 x 1536 and 2048 x 3072. For print work it is this largest size, equating to 18Mb of pixel data, that is most useful. Again dividing by 300 (two times the output line screen) produces a maximum photo-set quality size of 6.8" x 10.2" which at roughly 17cm x 26cm is getting near A4 size - ideal for magazine work. This is much more practically useful and with over 400 themed collections at around 25 each, even if you only use a couple of images this has to be an excellent way of adding impact to your publications.

The problem now of course is the numbers. Because of the PCD format's multi-megabyte file-size, each Corel Photo CD contains just 100 images. That's fine when your publication is tightly focussed and you know that the Whitetail Deer, English Pub Signs or Spice and Herb Textures collections will meet all your needs, but most projects are not so narrowly defined. Corel has thought of this and catered for it with its Super Ten packs, a range of 28 collections of ten related Professional Photo CDs. The Business and Industry Pack, for example, offers a thousand images ranging from a JCB to a pair of scissors. At a price per pack of 40 this is amazing value - each image is effectively costing just 4p.

But what about for those jobs where the Super Ten packs are not enough? Corel's simple answer is to buy the lot. After every 200 new Professional Photo CD releases, these are bundled together as a Corel Stock Photos Library of 20,000 images. There are now four of these libraries giving a grand total of 80,000 high-resolution high-quality images to search through. However, there are drawbacks. The first is price. With the first three libraries selling for 800 and the most recent for 1000, the full 80,000 images will set you back 3,400. The second is inconvenience. Each library comes with a searchable index CD of 128 x 192 image thumbnails, but that still means swapping between the four indexes and then finding the right CD out of 800 to get at the actual image.

In fact neither problem is necessarily as insoluble as it first seems. To begin with the library image database files are actually only around 150Mb, so all four could be put on a single master CD (and then distributed on every magazine cover in the country). Also, as each compressed PCD averages under 4Mb, more images could be fitted onto each CD. By squeezing in 160 images rather than 100, the number of CDs needed would be cut by over a third. More importantly, the advent of DVD promises far greater storage capacities. With the upcoming 17Gb DVD promising to store the equivalent of 25 current CDs it would be possible to cram 4,000 PCDs on a single disk. With each DVD costing under 1 to manufacture, that would give plenty of scope to cut prices.

DVD will clearly be the distribution medium of choice for stock photography collections in the near future, but it's by no means a final solution. To begin with, searching the current Corel library would already require swapping between 20 DVDs and as the collection grows the problem will get worse. More importantly, it's just not possible to keep scaling numbers up and prices down or you end up with the vector clipart situation where quality issues go out of the window. The developer, and through them the original photographer, has to benefit as well as the customer. It's striking that Corel's price per image for the full 200 CD library collections still works out at roughly 4p an image. It's just not business sense to sell them for less.

From Corel's point of view then each image is already selling for a rock bottom price, but the user will look at the same situation from a very different angle. To the user the important figure is the number of images they actually use. If they buy the full 80,000 collection and then only use two images, each will effectively have cost 1,700! Ultimately, as the numerous vector clipart goliaths have shown, the pile 'em high sell 'em cheap approach simply doesn't make sense for anyone. For the developer there aren't the margins necessary to ensure both a quality product and a profit, while for the user there's no point buying images that they won't use no matter how cheap they are.

The Web as Content Provider

What's needed is a completely different business model that offers the widest possible range of images but in which the user only chooses exactly those images they want. Various attempts have been made to offer this sort of solution with CDs of images that can be unlocked on demand, but these have all suffered from the inherent limitations of the storage medium. The obvious solution is the only infinitely expandable storage system that will never run out of space for more images - the Internet. Moreover, with its text-searchable and visually-browsable nature, the WWW provides the perfect delivery mechanism for a truly global gallery of stock images.

The first company to grasp the importance of the Web as a source of image content is MGI. The latest version of its consumer program PhotoSuite II is built on Explorer 4 technology and offers an integrated browser. Using PhotoSuite II it's possible to literally "browse" the Web, dragging and dropping any image that catches your eye for your own use. The program even boasts of access to an "online gallery of 18 million images" which puts the 80,000 Corel images into perspective. In fact the claim boils down to little more than a link to the open Lycos Pictures and Sounds site (http://www.lycos.com/picturethis/).

Initially the Lycos site looks exciting as it enables text-based searching of the graphical content of the entire Web, but in practice it proves disappointing. A search for "Eiffel tower", for example, comes back with hundreds of hits, but these are simply presented as a list of links that you then have to visit in turn. Inevitably many of these are dead-ends either because the site has changed and the images moved or because the image is actually of "Larry and Lisa standing in front of (and so obscuring) the Eiffel tower." Eventually I did find a reasonable image, but of course it had been jpegged and shrunk to keep download times acceptable and so would only have been useful for onscreen use. Much more important is the fact that I wouldn't have had the rights to use the image. While the idea of dragging and dropping any image from the Web is tantalising, it is ruled out by a combination of the logistics and the law.

The moral seems to be there's no such thing as a free lunch. However, if you're willing to pay there are plenty of places to eat. There are lots of independent stock photography companies and each has its own web site to promote its wares. To access the full Corel collection, for example, you can visit http://corel.digitalriver.com while a similar collection of 75,000 images is available from PhotoDisc at http://www.photodisc.com and smaller collections abound - simply search on "stock photography" in any major search engine. For a completely thorough trawl you could even take in the sites of individual photographers such as those listed at http://www.portfolios.com.

The problem is again one of logistics. You want to know that you are using the best image, but you don't want to have to search each site - especially as some of the search engines are of dubious use. My "Eiffel tower" search at http://www.stockbyte.com came up with 22 hits, for example, but not of the Eiffel tower. The biggest difficulty is trying to make a fair comparison. Each site seems to offer a different range of image sizes at different prices and all complicated by the fact that buying the image as part of a CD collection would almost certainly work out cheaper. Worse each site seems to set different terms. While PhotoDisc's "use anywhere, anytime and in any medium" policy makes life simple, other providers set strict conditions that, for example, rule out the use of their images on T-shirts or postcards.

Centralization

Clearly what's needed is some centralisation and rationalisation and a focus on selling single images directly over the Web. That's exactly what Presentation Direct has tried to offer with its site http://www.prdirect.com. This offers searchable access to over 150,000 images from the libraries of over 40 independent suppliers including both the Corel and PhotoDisc collections. My test "Eiffel tower" search came up with 61 high quality image thumbnails, complete with options to download a free low resolution version for comping, to order the relevant CD collection, or to immediately download a 49 high-resolution version for final print.

The Presentation Direct site is undoubtedly a huge step forward, but there are still disappointments. 150,000 images might sound a lot but the complete Corel and PhotoDisc collections should already offer more than this between them. Likewise, the "high-resolution" downloadable images are actually only 2200 x 1500 pixels which limits their printable size and so usefulness. More to the point the 49 price is just too high. While it certainly compares favourably to commissioning your own image or traditional sourcing, it's a very long way from that 4p Corel price.

Essentially I think that the stock photography providers are chasing the wrong market. Currently the target users are professional designers, but these make up only a tiny fraction of the number of users involved in DTP in its broadest sense. If the providers can get a hundred non-professional users to spend 50p on the ideal picture for their in-house newsletter, report or annual Christmas card, they will actually make more money. And if users knew that they could get the perfect image that their project demands for just 50p, there would be a lot more than a hundred signing up for the service.

Clipart Heaven

In time then I think there really will be a global gallery where, whenever your project would benefit from an image, you simply enter the type of image you are looking for into your application's Open dialog. This request will then be sent to the Internet-based search engine and you'll be presented with a range of thumbnails to choose from. Select one, specify a resolution, click OK and the desired image will automatically download to your disk and your account will be charged accordingly - or more probably the price will be included as part of your annual Photoshop, Photo-Paint or PhotoSuite subscription.

The potential of professional content on tap in this way is mouth-watering, but even so it won't be the last word on image sourcing. In fact this nirvana already exists. If you visit the Corbis site (http://www.corbis.com) you'll find that the perfect global gallery is already up and running. Here, if you sign up as a guest member, you can search through over 1.4 million images out of the 25 million images Corbis has built up over the last century. The quality is amazing with access to images from sources such as the National Gallery, UPI and individuals such as Ansel Adams. Even better, because the choice is so large, I can refine my Eiffel tower search to just those photographs made when it was under construction. The half-built results are much more striking than the commonplace images of the complete tower today and as such demand attention. These really are images that you could use on an advertising billboard.

The problem of course is that none of these images is available on bulk CDs or for quick download. You have to pay for each picture depending on how you plan to use it - and you have to pay heavily. Prices start from over 50 for the cheapest image used no bigger than an eighth of a page in a short print-run and rise to tens of thousands for a nation-wide advertising campaign. Moreover you can't edit or even crop the image and if you forget to credit Corbis the price is tripled! The cost, inconvenience and draconian terms are certainly off-putting but in a way that's the point. These aren't neutral images designed to blandly complement your text, these are photos with attitude where the image largely is the message. These images aren't clip art, they're real art.

That's why it's so enjoyable visiting, but unfortunately in this gallery - and at these prices - I'll only be looking.

August 1998

Tom Arah


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