Taking your pick

The appropriate choice of image is vital to the effectiveness of a piece of advertising or design. Consequently your understanding of how photolibraries operate and what they offer is essential before choosing that all important image for a brochure, pack or campaign.

The British Association of Picture Libraries represents over 350 photolibraries in the UK and is a good place to start your research. BAPLA’s members range from small, specialist collections to large, international stock photography agencies.

Before contacting an image resource, it is worth considering the following:

A designer’s or art director’s sketch is, for many libraries, worth its weight in gold as the concept instantly becomes more accessible. But you must be open to other ideas, as it is very unlikely that any library will be able to find an image that is an exact replica of a sketch. If, for example, the brief is specifically for a photograph of a boardroom, taken with a fish eye lens from above, with an Italian feel – the best option may be to commission your own image of exactly what you want and bypass the library route.

The designer should:

Ask the advice of the photolibrary to help choose the most appropriate images. Library staff are specially trained to understand requirements and are often experts in specialist fields.

Commission a personal search by a specialist librarian or account executive. This can lead to the discovery of a more unusual shot as many catalogues tend to offer a library’s more commercial and comfortable images. The role of the photolibrary catalogue has evolved to become more of a marketing and promotional tool than a selling instrument.

Think about the subject and exactly what you are looking for in terms of era, concept, nationality and gender and communicate this clearly to the photolibrary.

Let the library know the intended use of the image, whether it’s for a piece of packaging design, annual report or advertising.

Discuss the size the image will be shown, how big the print run will be and the work’s distribution.

Consider exclusivity.

Tell the library how soon the image is needed and for how long it will be out of the archives.

As a rule of thumb, images of popular landmarks, such as Blackpool Tower, can generally be sourced in less than an hour. If, however, you need an image of Blackpool Tower which is contemporary in style, but reflects aspects of both old and new Britain, it is more likely to take around a day.

If you can, give the photolibrary plenty of notice – extra research time will ultimately allow for a more unusual and possibly stronger photograph to be sourced. While most libraries aim to please and recognise that it is a service industry, many don’t relish the prospect of working long hours to meet a tight deadline.

Also, it is in your interest not to send long picture lists to several libraries as this is a waste of everyone’s efforts and means that you may well end up returning a lot of unused images, and possibly paying unnecessary service fees.

The way photolibraries send the images you have selected varies between libraries. Generally, most libraries will send a selection of slides for you to choose from, whereas some have taken advantage of new media and present their selections digitally. The electronic route allows a faster service and enables you to build up a dialogue with the photolibrary in order to keep working together to achieve the right image.

Some libraries, however, prefer the traditional courier route for various reasons. First, many clients, such as ad agencies, tend not to be as digitally advanced as design and client companies and simply don’t have the electronic means to receive images this way. Second, designers often prefer to have a discussion with their colleagues looking at a collection of slides over a lightbox rather than on a computer screen. This allows for the comparison of images with greater ease.


Most libraries charge a flat fee to cover research time, packaging, delivery and other administration involved in fulfilling the order. This is irrespective of whether you use any of the images or not. The larger libraries tend not to charge for searches – so it is worth checking first. Reproduction or licence fees, as they are sometimes called, cover the use of the photograph and may be negotiated before or during the loan of the material. These charges reflect the use of the photograph and are determined by how many times the image will be used and if it will be used globally or purely for a domestic audience.

Charge has nothing to do with the contents of the picture itself. If the image is being used as a central device in a global branding project, for example, you might consider whether you would like to buy exclusive rights to the picture for a year or two, to ensure that no other brand uses the image and lessens the campaign’s impact. Generally, the fee increases with the commercial potential of the use of the image.

Loan times

The normal loan time for images is four to six weeks, while many libraries charge holding fees if the images are kept longer than agreed. Most libraries will send reminders about the outstanding images.

General conditions

Photolibraries operate with fairly standard terms of business.

You must always inform the library of your intention with regard to the use of images.

When you receive the selection of images from the library they will be accompanied by a delivery note with terms and conditions attached.

Charges relating to loss or damage to the material will be stipulated.

These terms are legally binding and if you do not agree with the terms, the images must be returned immediately – unused, uncopied and unscanned.

Many libraries send out originals as it can take as much as three hours minimum to make up a duplicate. One of the reasons that sending out images digitally is so popular with libraries is that this method means that no damage can be done to the photographic material.

Many libraries ask for an additional contract to be signed if images are to be used in an electronic product such as a website. Generally, however, the reproduction fee charged will cover an agreed and specific use of the image. The licence is granted upon payment of the fee.

If the images are used for a purpose beyond the licence, further permission must be sought from the photolibrary. Examples might be new or foreign editions of books, the extension of an ad campaign, or the employment of a previously used image in a different format or piece of design.

On receiving the images, you should check them against the delivery note and inspect the images for any damage.

Once you have possession of the photographs, they are your responsibility until they are returned to the library.

If pictures are lost or damaged, the library will be able to charge according to its terms. Many frequent picture users carry insurance to cover images while they are in their possession.

All material should be returned to the library using a guaranteed method of delivery.

You should aim to keep all your paperwork together and keep the delivery note in a safe place with the photographic material.

Remember to quote the delivery note number when contacting the library as this saves time.

Try to keep the photographic material and its mounts or sleeves together, as vital credit and contact information is usually written on the packaging, as well as captions and reference numbers. Credit should always be given to the photographer.

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