The big collection

Despite shrinking budgets forcing some designers to seek out alternatives, image libraries are not about to disappear overnight. As Emily Pacey argues, there will continue to be a demand for high-quality pictures from specialists and cheaper images from fast-turnover outlets

In an economic slump, image budgets decline and designers seek alternative ways of adding visual interest to projects. Constraints are thought to spur greater creativity, but occasionally, doing without an image for your editorial page, poster or package can result in an inferior-looking product.

Faced with a palpable fall in demand during the economic downturn, some of the bigger image libraries are taking measures to make themselves more attractive to the cash-strapped. But others, particularly the smaller and more boutique, are not.

’The industry is having a lean period at the moment, but we are trying to use innovative marketing to catch the eyes of prospective image buyers. Instead of doing crazy discounts to make a cheap one-off sale like a lot of our competitors, we would rather build a long-term relationship,’ says Ed Steer of Plain Picture, a photographic image-only library that is not numbered among the image library giants, and which charges an exclusive £100-£600 per picture.

Steer reports that, ’The editorial market is not brilliant it is plodding along but commercial is much worse. A lot of people in advertising and packaging are using royalty-free images.’

Plain Picture’s opposite is Getty Images subsidiary iStockphoto, which has eight million images in stock and adds a further 45 000 to its collection every week. Buying an image from iStockphoto can cost as little as 50p. The library is keying into the trend for smaller client budgets by trying to find ways of helping clients to acquire images more cheaply. Last year, it launched a new website with an advanced search that can distinguish between ambiguous words such as orange (colour or fruit). It also allows users to search for images according to Pantone colours. ’For a designer, their time is money, which means that finding the right imagery in as short a time as possible,’ says iStockphoto’s Nick King.

And yet designers and photographers are not entirely enamoured of image libraries. Manchester-based consultancy Music sees the ’usefulness’ of image libraries, but prefers to do photo shoots specifically for projects, ’because you get pictures that ideally express your idea, rather than you having to fit an idea around the image,’ says Music’s Matthew Beardsell. He reveals that ’when the budget doesn’t allow us to commission our own imagery, we often prefer to come up with a graphics-based idea instead’. Beardsell adds, ’Over the past five years, brands have increasingly started to build up their own image collections, which they give us access to on projects, and they tend to be pretty good.’

His opinion is echoed by photography agent Vue’s founder Cathy Bennett, who believes that ’If clients rely too heavily on stock libraries, it can at times lead to lower-quality campaigns and to the loss of the brand’s own bespoke brand identity. A one-size-fits-all approach, in which images are shoe-horned around the copyline, is surely going to dilute the brand’s worth,’ she says.

’That said, image libraries aren’t going away. And it feels as if the likes of Lens Modern and Gallery Stock have been established to offer more artistic imagery from high-profile photographers and are trying to introduce beauty and craft into stock.’

Perhaps in answer to the general feeling that using stock imagery can erode brand value, iStockphoto is soon to launch PNG files. These will allow designers to remould and reconfigure basic images to suit different projects, and also provide a cheaper solution than commissioning private photography or opting for the upper ranges offered by libraries.

Some clients are protected from financial constraints because of the importance of imagery to their business. Penguin Books picture editor Samantha Johnson implies that her image budgets are as healthy as ever. ’We wouldn’t not use a picture because of budget pressures,’ says Johnson. ’We use the picture that is best for us to use, and that is that’. She keeps a close eye on all sorts of image providers, both large and small, insisting that ’it is all about the pictures and whoever has the right one we will go to’.

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