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Stock Imagery: Winds of Change

Image providers are helping users create more effective messages.



Change is one thing that’s certain in life. No one may be more aware of this than those companies producing and providing stock images. Constantly tracking the current trends—what’s hot as well as what’s not—is critical for these companies in order for them to provide exactly the images that graphic designers, clients, and print providers need to convey a creative message.

And it’s not just the longer-term trends they have to be concerned with; they have to look at the short-term trends as well. If the economy surges upward this year, creatives will be on the hunt for relevant “optimistic economy” images. If a particular technology, such as tablet computing or 2D barcodes, is suddenly on everyone’s radar, then there need to be images to help visualize these themes. And, just having the images is not enough—there must be a search engine in place that allows the prospective image user to find the image in the first place.

The Big Picture sat down with eight image providers in the marketplace to get their take on the state of stock: Alamy Images (, Corbis (, Dreamstime (, Fotolia (, Getty Images (, iStockphoto (, PhotoSpin (, and Shutterstock ( We asked them what types of images are at the forefront of users these days, what improvements they’ve recently made to their search engines to help customers find the perfect image, and what they see down the pike for the stock-photo and image industry.

What do you see as the overall current trends in the stock-image market?
Corbis: Twenty years ago, if someone wanted an image for use, they would commission a professional photographer who would create the image with film and put the negatives in a catalog of slides. This catalog would be sent to graphic designers to go through and choose their image. Today, this is a thing of the past with the ready availability of high-quality, lower-priced digital cameras and photo-editing software. Creating high-quality, readily available images for design use has become easier and more intuitive, causing a rise in the number of photographers trying to get into the stock-image business and making the price point to do so very low.

iStockphoto: Camera technology and the artistry has improved so much that there is a trend toward naturalistic or journalistic style in many of the shots that are popular.

Alamy: We’re also seeing a continued increase in imagery as cameras become more efficient and more affordable.


Fotolia: Without question, contributor competition increases every day. Professional cameras and products are more affordable and more user-friendly than ever. That means the quality of the content being uploaded is increasing. The advantage to buyers is obvious.

Shutterstock: We’re also seeing healthy competition among stock contributors who provide high-quality images, and who use increasingly professional equipment to shoot better images.

Getty Images: Getty is seeing a huge impact from consumer-shot imagery, both in terms of volume and quality.

And what trends are you seeing in royalty-free (RF) and/or micro-stock versus rights-managed (RM) stock?
Dreamstime: As the quality of amateur content improves, there’s a strong migration from traditional stock agencies toward microstock. Microstock’s main characteristics are: lower prices, bigger databases with a broader selection to choose from, and community-oriented platforms. The openness of the platforms helps its growth, which far overcomes any traditional agencies. This doesn’t translate just in a bigger number of images, but in more authentic and contemporary imagery.

Getty Images: Microstock is heavily subscribed to, driven primarily by its price point and ease of use. Online and digital use of images continues to grow. Customers are no longer willing to pay the prices they used to for images because of the wide range of choices they now have. This is challenging for stock-image producers since return per use for them has declined. This means more volume and less return per use for producers.

RF imagery is the most frequently purchased content among our customers as it has a lower price point. However, we are still seeing customers license RM imagery for their higher-end uses. While it may not be in the same volume when compared to RF, the revenue from RM continues to remain strong.


PhotoSpin: We only offer royalty-free images. Each type of image has its advantage, however. Rights-managed will have an image history associated with it. Thus, these types of images are better used for a branding image—an image that a specific company will be associated with for years. This is an image you do not want your competition to have access to. The cost of these images is greater, but you, as the advertiser, can be in control of that image for a period of time. Royalty free is just that—no additional royalties. Typically less expensive to use, these images are still very high in quality and, in many cases, because the royalty-free collections are larger collections, a bigger variety or selection is available for the customer to choose from.

iStockphoto: Microstock opened the floodgates to people who never could have purchased stock previously.

Fotolia: Fotolia’s focus has always been royalty-free. Even our Infinite Collection, which features contributions from some of the most well-known agencies and artists in the world, has royalty-free licensing. While rights-managed has its niche, most buyers are looking to purchase and download images that they have flexibility using. One of Fotolia’s competitive advantages is our usage licenses because they are fairly liberal. Between our standard and extended licenses, users have the ability to download and use images in as many copies as they need, for as long as they need, and without geographical restrictions. By keeping our usage fairly open-ended, it’s challenging to track where all the images are being used. But, we get feedback from contributors who are excited to have seen their work in a magazine, commercial, or on a billboard.

Have you seen an increase in stock-image buyers?
Corbis: The number of consumers of stock imagery has gone up significantly. Because of the ready availability of microstock images, and the fact that lots of companies are building websites and getting more market savvy, the amount of people that need imagery has gone up significantly. From an industry standpoint, we expect the volume of the [microstock] business to grow 10 percent year over year.

Dreamstime: There are more and more buyers acquiring stock than ever before. Some are newcomers to the market, some are replacing more expensive custom imagery with convenient, high-quality stock photography.

Getty Images: There is an insatiable appetite for content. There is greater volume and variety—the need for new imagery has never been more acute. Some are motivated by price point, some by quality, most by the need for the right image—right now. We are seeing companies taking advantage of subscription offerings and augmenting this need for volume with ad-hoc purchases from RM when high quality and impact is required. There is a different need for imagery when it is used to rapidly replenish a website versus imagery used for prints ads, displays, and posters.


Are there trends in the images themselves?
Shutterstock: One trend is the appeal for futuristic imagery in response to the rapid development in technology and how it influences lifestyle. With reference to environmental issues and ecology, companies are keen to highlight their “green” credentials and show them to be environmentally aware, so this can influence their choice of images to advertise themselves. Image buyers are also interested in natural-looking, spontaneous images of people. As our customer base becomes more global, it’s no surprise we see increased demand for more ethnic diversity and locally relevant images.

Many customers search for design elements to use as part of larger compositions. Images isolated on solid-color backgrounds are increasingly popular, as are vector illustrations. Many buyers also look for conceptual images to illustrate ideas in business presentations.

iStockphoto: Stock buyers still love business and abstract images, but they want more realism, more diversity, and “green” is big in the last two years. Also, vector art is very popular. What we are seeing at
iStock is a continued hunger for well art-directed, fresh, very natural shots.

Alamy: Stylistically, clients are tending to veer away from typical stock photography, preferring to source more authentic, cozier, less-posed, model-released lifestyle images with a more snapshot sensibility. Image buyers are also considering less stereotypical generic models, opting for more character development like hip seniors and “stay at home” dads, adopting lifestyles that are more aware of the environment, and going back to core values of life.

Additionally, photographers and image providers are using Photoshop in a more subtle, less literal way—playing with color palettes, for example. The result is simpler, cleaner, and more contemporary images replacing the heavily lit, over-manufactured images of before.

Current issues like global warming and concern about the environment are creating a new category in stock photography as well as influencing lifestyle shoots in terms of styling and choice of locations.

Getty Images: Authenticity. There is a definite need among customers for images that convey realism; that suspend your disbelief with non-posed, believable moments captured in a documentary style. The trend is toward less stock-y images, more “Flickr-esque” imagery that carries greater honesty in reflecting people’s lives.

Fotolia: There have been two distinct needs from buyers: business basics and masterful shots. But what these categories have in common is that buyers demand clean, high-quality images for an affordable rate. We see a lot of traffic on our website to the most popular downloads of the week section.

PhotoSpin: Advertising reflects the people and culture of society. Our job is to provide the creative professional the tools to help create a viable and timely ad. Having images that reflect current trends is essential in sustaining our business. As a result, we post a “What’s Hot” blog that goes out to our contributing artists letting them know what our customers are looking for in terms of images and what they need for their campaigns.

With the world in recession and the multitude of plagues and natural disasters that we have experienced, images that show hope, family, personal victories, and resolve are becoming most popular.

Corbis: We divide images into commercial, editorial, and microstock. In the commercial space—which is advertising, company brochure, or annual report, etc.—we don’t see a lot of change. We think the market could actually grow. Editorial, with print and book publishing versus Web, we will probably see impact on that. What imagery people are using is not changing as much, but customers are finding it hard to find a reason to buy a high-quality image versus a microstock image, because there might not be that much of a difference.

Dreamstime: People and lifestyle imagery remain the most popular, while eco was among the most popular subjects this year. Real-life trends show up in stock. There is a particular interest toward the authenticity of the content. Buyers complain about unnatural looking models or fake emotions, therefore there is a growing demand for real images.

What are you seeing when it comes to image-search engines?
Getty Images: Relevance. It is important that our search enables the buyer to locate the right image as quickly and efficiently as possible. In addition, our site functionality enables the buyer to search by price point, by popularity, by uniqueness. It also features granular search functionality, which enables the buyer to drill down through a broad search via specific requirements, including camera angle, model types, locations, etc., as well as holistic searching, since not everyone searches the same way.

Stacking, which keeps similar content from a production or trip together in an easily searchable way, is also important, as well as a transparent search tree, which helps in customizing the search experience for different users. Additionally, keyword weighting, which gives greater relevance to the most important keywords to ensure relevant searches, is very important.

Corbis: We have created an RM simplified buying experience, reducing online buying to three clicks from nine. Since we’ve re-launched it, we’ve had a 34-percent increase in people buying quick licenses.

Additionally, we have re-launched our shopping cart experience. Five to 10 years ago we had to teach people how to use shopping cart. Now that people are familiar with the shopping cart, we made it very similar to the shopping cart for most products online and added small pieces that would help from a creative point of view.

Fotolia: Fotolia offers a variety of business and creative solutions for our buyers, ranging from the first-to-market image plug-ins for Microsoft Office, to various API and non-API options. The Fotolia ribbon is free to download and provides instant access to our collection of over 9 million images. Users can download the royalty-free photo or HD video they need without having to leave their Word document or PowerPoint presentation.

Fotolia also offers customized sub-accounts where design teams can share or assign image downloads, track images, and implement multi-level billing. They also have the capability of integrating Fotolia collections into their own intranet site for easy and trackable image access.

PhotoSpin: We have doubled our collection in the last 12 months, and expect it to double again within the next six months. Our interaction with our customers and contributing artists allows us to gain timely insight into their needs and, as a result, we rank very high in customer satisfaction. Search by orientation, search within a search, search by color, and search by similar are popular.

iStockphoto: iStock recently revamped its search engine. There must be a focus on appropriate keywording, because unlike Amazon, what a designer buys one time has zero relevance to his next project. You will see further international pairing searches in the future, where we take data about where you are from and match it with your keyword search, so that the image you get of a “biscuit” is correct for you, which can be very different for example in the UK, versus the US.

We have a wonderful new highly art-directed image collection called Vetta on our site. Our members told us that they would be willing to pay more for really pristine, original images, if we made them easy to find.

Dreamstime: Dreamstime provides three ways of browsing the content: Regular default search, Dynamic search (an automated retrieval of the content), and Flash Browser (click the Flash Browser button on the any search results page to open a different interface). Each of these three interacts with the lightboxes section, that allows designers to organize their downloads.

What changes do you see coming in the future?
Getty Images: Greater choice, greater volume, greater quality. Technology continues to push the quality bar with higher resolution and overall technical quality, particularly with user-generated content.

PhotoSpin: Stock is going to continue to be a large percentage of an advertiser’s overall budget. The major advertisers will always need new product shots, but stock will continue to be what they need to complete their advertising and marketing demands at a reasonable cost. Growth and consolidation will continue over the next 12 to 18 months. The barriers for entry are low, so everyone thinks they can be a stock agency. The difficult factor is getting the customer. So as the country is still trying to come out of the recession, more and more photographers are going to attempt to build and maintain their own sites. These sites will be micro, subscription, rights-managed, and traditional royalty free. Niche stock providers will offer specific content for specific industries. Photographers who have not traditionally embraced royalty-free will offer their images for sale.

Shutterstock: The volume and the quality of royalty-free images will continue to improve. As collections get bigger, search will become increasingly important to help buyers find the right images.

Dreamstime: On the buyers’ side, the demand for better looking images will continue to increase, while the prices will be expected to decrease. Platform-wise, I see better platforms and more interaction, which will lead to the customer being served better and faster.

Cincinnati-based freelance writer Kacey King is the former associate editor of The Big Picture magazine.



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