Stock imagery is a part of the creative process whether you like it or not. We investigate how you can get the best from picture libraries.

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The right image is too often an elusive goal. Many creatives can see the image they want in their head, but have neither the resources nor the time to recreate it. Stock photography presents one answer. 
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These days, massive collections of stock are available for purchase and download online, taking the middleman out of picture research. Thanks to the Web, giant books of stock imagery are increasingly redundant. 
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In the past, you’d often need to contact an agent or researcher who would search the library for you. The image would sometimes need to be digitized too. 
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Now though, armed only with the right keywords, you can find that perfect image for any project yourself by typing in an online site’s search box. Or at least that’s the idea. 
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Robert Smith, creative director at Jog Design, often uses the online search facilities as part of the creative process. “You might randomly search for a set of images that you find interesting and then find some association with the brief,” he explains. 
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“That can lead to some unexpected solutions and can be quite fruitful.” However, this approach can be frustrating. 
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“Online searching is even slower than flipping through a stock book,” says Nick Carter, creative director of Positive by Design. 
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“Before the online revolution, designers couldn’t be bothered looking through books and used the researchers. From a business point of view, it doesn’t make sense for my designers to be spending the whole day online looking for images. It’s just not cost effective.” 
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Some libraries do offer advanced search capabilities, so it’s a good idea to find out what the library is capable of to help you hit the right image sooner. Filters for colour/mono or dimensions/orientation when searching can be useful, as well as using Boolean terms. 
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Picking up the quirks of search engines should shorten your search times too. “For example, ‘newborn baby NOT animal’ would give you humans,” says James Cape, European sales director for Photolibrary Group. 
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“But if you put ‘human newborn baby’ it will most likely come up with less results because, the keyworder is unlikely to have always used ‘human’ as a keyword, as it’s an obvious assumption. The words ‘copy space’ ‘etchable’, ‘nobody’ and ‘concept’ can be useful for design briefs.”
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However keywording skills at libraries vary wildly, so if you want a picture to depict ‘summer’, you may have to think of what that typically might be – a beach, a meadow, or flowers, for example. Some libraries do no keywording whatsoever – designers simply have to second-guess the caption.
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Is it a beach or the seaside? Is it a meadow or a field? Are they flowers, or specifically poppies? The problem is always if you make your search too general, you risk having to wade through hundreds, if not thousands of possibilities. Make it too specific, and you may miss out on suitable images. 
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<h2>Photo stories</h2>
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Abstract ideas, such as ‘purity’, ‘tenderness’ or ‘trauma’ can also be difficult to search for, not least because these qualities can be very subjective. 
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What you may feel conveys ‘purity’ might not have been what the keyworder thought. And that’s even if a library/agency has had the wherewithal to keyword images with abstract qualities in addition to mere content. 
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Of course, the ideal is always to shoot your own images, says Nick Carter. But it’s not always necessary. “You can purchase uniqueness, through rightsmanaged ownership for a period of time, but that’s very expensive,” he says. 
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Rights-managed imagery is shot by individual photographers, and often offers photos from art-directed shoots. “The other option is royalty-free,” says Carter. 
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“With royalty-free imagery you’ve got to accept that you’ll see the same shot in other places or publications, but you can use it as many times as you like.” 
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Royalty-free does not necessarily mean cheap, though. Quality images are pricey, and if you’ve chosen an image for a particular purpose, it might be cheaper to negotiate a fee for one-off use of a rights-managed image. There are other considerations designers need to take on board when using stock. 
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“Make sure you look at the comping image in detail in case there are things you don’t spot in the background at the small size,” suggests Mark Wilson, creative head of MWA Design. 
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“We often have to retouch out the wording on a sign or people in the distant background of an image that weren’t noticed until you’ve bought and downloaded the high-resolution A4 file.” 
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You should always check the colour values and always expect to do a bit of tweaking. “I may be showing my age here,” says Wilson, “but you have to put your trust in the digital image and be happy with what you’re seeing, as you have no original transparency to see what it was like when shot.”
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<h2>Image conscious</h2>
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The cheaper end of the market may mean cheesier shots, less resolution, poor service, and a smaller library. At the really low end of the market (such as free sites) the images are often not taken by professionals. 
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There’s a wealth of sites that distribute photography from anyone who’s taken the time to register. Royalty-free collections still tend to focus on the commercial end of the market, such as studio and staged shots of objects and people. 
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Most royalty-free is model released, which makes it difficult to find royalty-free reportage images. Checking the necessary rights clearances is probably the most important thing to consider from the outset. 
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“Many designers don’t realize the range of rights that can be hidden within an image,” says Gordon Craig, manager of rights services EMEA at Corbis. 
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“For example, you are perfectly at liberty to use an image of the Eiffel Tower – it’s old enough to have been in the public domain for years – but if you want to use it at night then you have to clear the rights held by the company that built the light show.” 
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Removing this uncertainty over rights can give designers the creative courage to continue with a project without fear that their idea is going to be pulled to pieces at the last minute. Often the stock libraries can help, so a phone call to them could quickly free up any such roadblocks to the creative process. 
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<h2>Case study</h2>
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<b>Project:</b> Trade press advertising<BR>
<b>Client:</b> Self promotion <BR>
<b>Agency:</b> Affiliate Window, <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.affiliatewindow.com" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">www.affiliatewindow.com</a>
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<h2>Original brief!</h2>
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