Trawling image libraries for the perfect image doesn’t have to be a chore: here are eight ways to find the perfect picture.


You know the story: your project requires high-quality images, but you don’t have the time or budget to shoot your own. But when you head online to buy the images you need from stock libraries, you end up losing hours in searches that turn up millions of pictures that are just short of the mark and take forever to search through, or a scant collection that doesn’t give you enough creative options.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as we’ve all learned how to wade through the huge amounts of information on the Internet with minimal fuss, a little know-how can turn stock libraries into invaluable and efficient tools that end up saving you time and money – and even boost your creativity. Here’s how.

Learn your libraries

The larger providers are good for the sheer size of their offerings, but there are plenty of boutique libraries that could give you a quicker route to the images you need. So if you’re after naturalistic images of the international party scene, nightlife specialists Everynight (www.everynight.co.uk) is a good bet; if you need pictures of wildlife or underwater scenes, Nature Picture Library (www.naturepl.com) and marine specialist Splashdown Direct (www.splashdowndirect.com) are good places to start, and Travellounge (www.travelloungeimages.co.uk) specializes in travel- and lifestyle-related imagery. If you regularly need images of a specific subject area then it’s well worth finding out if there’s a boutique stock library that fits your needs.

Make yourself known

Even if you’ve never bought images from a particular provider before, it’s worth registering with them. Most stock libraries have newsletters or email bulletins that give subscribers regular updates on new collections and special offers. As well as serving as reminders of each library’s collections, these can provide inspiration and, when they’re timed just right, save you cash. Some include special member benefits, such as iStockphoto’s (www.istockphoto.com) free image of the week, or Getty’s (www.gettyimages.com) facility that expands images as you roll your cursor over them, and lets you view pricing in your local currency. Registered members can usually save lightboxes and preferences, which is a real timesaver if you’re frequently searching for images of similar topics.

Get inspired

If you don’t have a clear idea of the image you’re after, but need something to fit a particular mood, it’s worth playing around with some of the inspiration tools provided by the larger libraries. Getty has just launched Moodstream ( http://moodstream.gettyimages.com), a brainstorming feature that lets you move sliders to specify the mood you’re after between poles such as nostalgic or contemporary, and calm or lively.

For each mood that you specify, it will show you a stream of appropriate images and footage, along with music – great if you’re trying to illustrate an abstract concept.

Meanwhile, Corbis has its Creative Boutique and Creative Keywords – featuring collections that take a sideways glance at contemporary trends – and Jupiter (www.jupiterimages.com) has its Express Route.

These features change every few weeks, showcasing topical collections of current trends or other topical themes, and are worth checking out if you’re looking for something seasonal, or are otherwise casting about for ideas for that tricky-to- illustrate theme.

Use the force

You may first encounter your stock library through online searching, but they have a human side as well – don’t be shy to take advantage of it. Almost all stock libraries offer telephone support lines, with specialists to help you track down the image you’re after, although these are usually only available during normal office hours.

This can save you from laboriously inching your way through seemingly endless pages of images. Call the Sales department and ask away. Some, such as Travellounge, will even put together personalized lightboxes based on your clients or publication. If you’re using Corbis (www.corbis.com), you don’t even have to pick up the phone: the library has recently launched live Web Chat, allowing users to ask for help via instant messaging.

Be picky

Faced with increasing competition, many libraries have launched advanced features to help find images that not only have the right message, but also fit seamlessly into your designs. iStockphoto has a tool that lets you specify areas of the image you need to be free of detail, which is perfect if you need to place text over a specific area of the image. Jupiter allows you to specify whether you’re after interior or exterior shots, with or without people, and even how many people you need in the shot.

Like some of its competitors, Masterfile (www.masterfile.com) has introduced a facility that tracks down similar images – so that if, for example, an image has exactly the right contents but is from the wrong angle or in the wrong colour palette, it’ll find you others that might be just right.

Almost all stock libraries allow you to specify whether you’re after a landscape or portrait photo, so you can save yourself time by having a clear idea of where and how you’ll be using the images before you start searching.

Sign up

If you’re using a library on a regular basis, it’s worth opening an account – not only will this save you digging out your credit card each time you buy, it can also help you keep track of your costs.

iStockphoto, for example, allows you to load up your account with credit in advance – so you can be certain you’re not running over your budget. Other libraries offer extra benefits to account holders: Corbis allows them to download large-scale images with no watermarks, so you can test how they work in your design, and share them with colleagues before buying.

Some libraries specializing in user-generated, royalty-free imagery such as Shutterstock (www.shutterstock.com), Fotolia (www.fotolia.com), iStockphoto and Corbis’ offshoot SnapVillage.com (www.snapvillage.com), provide subscription services aimed at users who regularly download large quantities of images. Shutterstock and Fotolia’s subscriptions let you download 25 images a day (750 a month); prices for both start at roughly £125 a month, with discounts for longer periods.

Think literally

Take some time before you start searching to jot down the keywords you’ll be using for your search, and be prepared to try a range of different keywords, in varying combinations, to track down just the right image.

Use synonyms – if you’re searching for an image of older people, try searching under the terms ‘senior’, ‘mature’ and ‘retired’, as well. It helps to understand how your library works; specialized sites often use highly specific tags (in addition to more general ones) that can help you track down images.

So while SplashdownDirect offers conceptual keywords for its collections of marine photos and footage, images are also tagged using scientific names – some quick research will make finding the shark image you’re after a speedy process.

Meanwhile, Everynight tags pictures according to event, as well as by theme and rough descriptions of the models – so if you’re trying to depict a subculture, finding out that scene’s key club nights or festivals can be helpful.

Know your rights

There’s a reason royalty-free images are more affordable than rights-managed ones: not only do you get to use them as many times and in whatever way you want – everyone else can too.

This isn’t always a problem – for example, if you’re focusing on one detail of the image or using it as a background, so the image isn’t immediately recognizable – but it can be awkward to base a piece around an image and then see it elsewhere.

When you buy a rights-managed image, however, you can negotiate terms depending on how you want to use the image and you’re charged accordingly; the library ensures that it doesn’t turn up in a similar context. When buying rights-managed images, though, it’s worth asking where they’ve appeared before.