Slaving to finish a campaign, an art director needs a stock photo for a layout, fast. What to do? Call up a local stock agency and wait for an overnight package of transparencies? Or log onto an Internet stock site, purchase an image and download it directly into a desktop layout?
Amid the fur flying in the rivalry between traditional stock houses and digital upstarts, this issue is central to the future of the stock industry. And while the business struggles with digital transformation, something astounding is happening: the sources of stock photography are exploding.
Consider that a typical Yahoo Internet search for stock photography turns up 130 different options: listed next to Michael Fastoso's snapshots of Ireland are Hawaiian wildlife and girlie photos and a few sites safe for commercial purposes. Among these are Picture Network International's Publishers Depot (www.publishersdepot.com), which has 340,000 photographs, and a font and clip art collection almost 100,000 strong. About a million elements are expected to be up, including stock audio, by next year. PhotoDisc (www.photo-disc.com), which has a library of 20,000 royalty-free images that are usually sold via CD-ROM, though single-image sales are facilitated over the Net, is aiming for 50,000 images uploaded by the end of the year. Digital Stock, another source of royalty-free images, put up a site in June (www.digitalstock.com) that allows only searching online; it hopes to have 10,000 images up by next year.
Depending on where you live and how fast your modem connection is, however, ordering an image over the Net isn't always a wise move. Furthermore, big-agency New York creatives aren't apt to resort to a tedious search when they can pick up the phone and order images from local stock houses. Which, of course, is one of the major reasons some of the big guys are in a "holding pattern" regarding online searching, says the Image Bank's senior VP Don Barlow, who believes the Image Bank is doing a fine job reaching its customers without it. He adds that they are sending more files electronically to customers, something that will increase if demand rises. However, digitizing its million-plus library of images and selling it through a Web site, Barlow believes, is a task so daunting that he can't visualize it happening in the near future.
Then there are the horror stories holding stock houses back. Recently some Web-savvy thieves scanned FPG's stock catalog and began selling it over the Net. By the time FPG discovered the site, president Barbara Roberts says the bandits had disappeared before any legal action could be taken. "The Web is a disaster," Roberts carps. Disappointed with the lackluster results of the Kodak Picture Exchange (which used a proprietary online service), the still murky copyright laws on the Internet and its slow and clunky transmission rates, she says she can't imagine art directors spending hours searching for photos. The Web "is just not worth our time. The vast majority of people on the Web are doing it in their leisure time, and the majority of them don't want to spend their money on commercial photos."
In the meantime, while FPG waits for an online delivery medium like coaxial cable to speed up the Internet, Roberts says they are doing well selling CD-ROMs and digital files of stock photos.
Roberts' views apparently are not widely held; says PhotoDisc president Tom Hughes, "she's what we refer to as a digital dinosaur, someone who will make half-hearted attempts" to adapt to the technology.
Even Jerry Karpf, CEO at Photonica's parent company Ima, which plans on Internet marketing and sales in the future, thinks Roberts' comments are extreme. "I think it's unfair to disparage the Internet based on imagery theft," Karpf says. "It's a comprehensive problem that cuts across the industry-a simple scanner in an office can steal your photograph."
To protect against theft, Internet merchandisers have built things like protective registration barriers into their sites, and they've put digital ID marks on their images. For instance, at the Publishers Depot site, users have to pass through a free registration process, going through two layers of access, before they can view high-res images. PNI also etches a digital watermark into the comps it allows art directors to download for a small cost. And users have the choice of receiving the image via modem, on a CD-ROM or in transparency form.
While wandering through the levels of registration can be tedious, it's worth it to check out the surprising selection and services available on these sites. For instance, at PhotoDisc's site, which also requires a free registration, sales of its royalty-free CD-ROMs continue to grow with funky collections, which include an interesting backgrounds series. Wackgrounds, by photographer Nick Koudis, offers closeups of everything from a flushing toilet to a slab of steak, while Studio Geometry by The Studio Dog shows the closeup beauty of sheets of rusted metal or rivets. The PhotoDisc site, which was designed by Clement Mok Design (now known as Studio Archetype), has a clean look to it, with easily navigable routes to search for different photos and areas for graphic designers and photographers to show their work and discuss timely issues. Preliminary looks at Digital Stock's site seemed to be heading in a similar, even more sparse direction, with a simple but elegant design and large pictures instead of the typical thumbnail shots. Publishers Depot's Web site offers mainstream collections in addition to artsy and archival images and stock imagery like Seymour Chwast's wry illustrations. The site also has a "light box" feature, where people who are logged onto the same account can view images simultaneously in a virtual space.
And while the features are tempting, and PNI has 10,000 registered members so far, Victor Clough, marketing communications manager, admits they still haven't captured the big ad agencies. "We describe our customers as creative professionals: graphic designers, multimedia developers and corporate marketing types," Clough says, adding that the number of agencies installing ISDN and T-1 lines every day is an encouraging sign of where the market is headed.
Indeed, according to the online stockers, even if agency creatives never stop leafing through catalogs, Internet stock sources will survive, mining a new market with an insatiable thirst for low-cost photos, clip art and even audio for everything from Web sites to a local club newsletter. "Over half of our customers have never bought stock before," PhotoDisc's Hughes points out, claiming that digital stock sites have done much to expand the market and little that cuts into the profits of the biggies.
"We don't pretend that we can supplant the Tony Stones of the world," Hughes says, "but we can put pressure on them to adapt more to technology and to help their customers out, especially on the market's lower end, where their prices are out of sync." l
I dream of genius: The Tony Ston CD-ROM. They're Webbed too, at www.tonystone.com