Stock Photography for Web Developers: Part 4 | WebReference

Stock Photography for Web Developers: Part 4

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Stock Photography for Web Developers: Part 4

By Nathan Segal

This week we're going to have a look at computers and how they've affected the stock photography industry. But before we do so, I wanted to give you a quick update on a copyright issue that developed after writing the previous article. After posting it, I did a search on the Internet using a few file names from the images in some of my web galleries. Much to my surprise I found a site that had copied 29 thumbnails from one of my web sites. Due to the nature of the infringement, it wasn't a situation where I could make a monetary claim; rather a "cease and desist" letter was sent to the infringer. Within days, the images were removed and the site was taken down. While the letter was simple, it was effective.

How Computers Have Affected the Stock Photography Industry

In 1988, I first saw the potential of computers when I was working in the multi-image industry (a precursor to multimedia as it's known today). There, the computer was used to create speaker support slides and it was much easier (and less expensive) to use than working with film, although the images were a bit fuzzy, due in part to issues with duplicating slides muliple times.

In a few short years that quickly began to change and new industries began to emerge. By around 1995, a revolution was happening with images. One could create conceptual images in Photoshop that were good enough for stock photography purposes, but the process was maddeningly slow, especially on a 486 machine. I recall it taking nearly 20 minutes to apply a filter effect on an 18MB file, but during that year, an important change was taking place on the Macintosh front. A new program, called Live Picture had entered the scene. Initially, it was expensive (at $4,000.00), but what it could do was impressive. Using two proprietary file formats (FITS and IVUE), Live Picture allowed editing of large image files with incredible speed. The FITS file was mathematical data and the IVUE file was referenced to create an image which took place at screen resolution, allowing the user to work on images in near real-time. Only when you were ready to output the image would it be built - rendered to a size of your specification. In a similar time frame another development was taking place on the PC platform culminating with the emergence of Wright Design, a program similar to to Live Picture in its operation. Sadly, neither of these programs are available for purchase today, but at the time they were revolutionary.

For those of us using that technology for stock photography, the results an incredible leap forward, allowing us to create multiples of images in a fraction of the time it would have taken using film. For stock agencies, the digital impact was also being felt in a variety of ways.

Consider this: it's relatively easy to scan a transparency and save it as a digital file, ready for copying and distribution at a moment's notice. Additionally, these images can easily be manipulated using an image editing application such as Photoshop. In some cases, images are stolen from catalogs simply by scanning the image at a high resolution, then retouching it as necessary. The quality won't be a good as an original image, but for some it's good enough.

Another issue is of image files falling into the wrong hands; an easy thing to happen with digital images. These days, some photographers have realized that the old practice of mailing out dupes (duplicate slides) or originals to clients for approval is now too risky. It's too easy for someone to scan the image quickly and return it without paying for it.

In addition, one can use Photoshop to increase the size of an image so it can be used for other applications, but that method has its limitations. One can only increase the image size so far before the quality starts to suffer.

All the above issues have created a need to manage (and keep secure) digital files.

How to Prevent the Illegal Use of Digital Files

A big challenge in today's day and age is to prevent the illegal use of images. Once an image file has been digitized it can be copied multiple times without degradation, unlike duplicating an image from a transparency.

As we discussed in the last article, one of the main reasons for infringement comes from not understanding copyright law. There are several ways to remediate the problem. One is to use encryption with images (such as Digimarc), watermarking and low resolution images on the web.

When using encryption, this technology creates a digital form of identification within the image that's difficult to detect visually or to erase. This information can be read using a decoder that can identify the pattern.

Another option is to create a watermark which makes it difficult to use the image if it's stolen, due to the amount of effort it would take to retouch the image. The only problem is that watermarking interferes with the appearance of the image and can be distracting.

The last method is to use low resolution images when displaying stock photography, to use a thumbnail just big enough to be seen on the computer screen. The problem is that the images could easily be too small and the image buyer might not see enough information to make an informed decision.

Problems with Marketing Digital Images

An old adage states: "A picture is worth a thousand words." A great statement, but how do you translate that into reality? How does a stock agency identify photographs with keywords that are easily discovered when searching a database for images? While it's easy to catalog and store images, finding the images once they've been stored or coming up with descriptive keywords for images is a difficult problem, partly because what one person thinks is adequate terminology might not occur to someone else.

As a result, creating meaningful and common keywords is often a huge challenge, made worse when there are hundreds of thousands of image types on hand and many ways to describe them. It becomes even more complex when images use descriptive phrases or a single word to describe them. Consider the word "bat" as an example, which could refer to a baseball bat or a species of bat.

In order for keywords to be effective, they need to be written in the language used by image buyers or researchers, using phrases as well as single words. This is a time-consuming (and costly) task for stock agencies.

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Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: November 18, 2005