29 August 2007

Affordable Stock Photography

Let's face it, a stunning photograph slapped on the front of a web page or brochure can say professional like nothing else. People are used to seeing high impact imagery and they respond to it. But at $80 bucks a pop it's a hard sell in a low-budget university world. Well, I may finally have the answer...

So, my iPhoto library is packed with desperate outdoor adventures snapping hundreds of pics of friends in suits, pawing mobiles, smiling blankly at cafe tables sipping cold coffee. All this in attempt to produce stock-style photos on themes like "corporate e-learning", and "emerging technologies". You get a few acceptable shots, but you can only reuse that same image of the RA on the grass so many times before it goes deadly stale.

Enter affordable stock...

The subscription approach

One approach is stock by subscription. Companies like PhotoSpin and ShutterStock offer access to their entire stock library for a monthly, quarterly or yearly rate. This can vary from around $300 to a whopping $2000 a year, depending on subscription type, and it's less for shorter term. It's an ideal solution for producers of e-learning programs on varied topics. If you design programs about health, finance, technology, etc., you'll probably need plenty of photos of doctors, bankers, and laptops, and you'll need new ones all the time. Regular access to a full library of updated stock is a very practical way to make that possible. How much you spend will have an effect on the quality of the photos you have access to. Cheaper usually means, fewer stunning pics, fewer shots with people in them (models cost more) and more cheese factor. That doesn't mean the cheaper options may not be exactly what you need. Have a look and decide what's right for your situation.

Dollar Store Stock

Sounds shaky on quality at first, but it turns out you really can get excellent print quality professional images for 3-6 bucks a pop. I guess it works because they're getting people that wouldn't have spent any money on stock otherwise (me), and once you're in, you get addicted and buy more (me). I have found iStockPhoto.com has solved most of my stock problems. I traditionally need good images on various themes but I don't need dozens a year. I've been thrilled to find that the images on offer (all of which are offered from web size to large print) are excellent. The last quick job I had revamping a degree program brochure, I managed to convince the department head to part with $8 for two stock photos and it made all the difference.

But I wanted more long term commitment, so later, I convinced the IT manager to budget $150 bucks on iStockPhoto credits (that was about 200 credits -- a much easier sell when it represents our total photo needs for the coming year or two, rather than just one image). This means I can zip to the site and pick a photo whenever I need it, and 20 or 30 photos later, I'll ask for an account top up.

Trouble is, once your in, you get hooked, because the little goodies are so cheap. I even snagged some squeaky desktop style icons to use for an interface and a stunning iPod style hyper-colour dance vector image provided in Illustrator, to add a bit of modernity to an academic postcard. They've got flash animations as well, but I haven't gone that far yet.

Free Stock

Sometimes, you need pay nothing at all. There are a slew of community stock websites like Stock xchng, bigFoto, and FreePhoto. Obviously quality, resolution and selection are far more limited with these, and some are web only and require a link back or attribution. As usual, photos featuring fresh faced models are particularly hard to come by. But if you're looking for objects, cities, or nature, check here first. I got an excellent "iPod on the grass" shot off of stock xchng.

Bribery works too (the Web 2.0 approach)

Why not take advantage of the zillions of folks madly snapping away with their digital cameras and uploading the good ones to Flickr or Picasa, or photo community sites like photo.net? Remember, everything is copyrighted by default, so don't just find and grab, but there are ways to get permission. Sometimes it's just about asking. My co-worker, Adam Ullman needed a beauty shot for a spa website he was putting together and what did he do? He found one on Flickr and then emailed the photographer direct, offering to buy him a Flickr Pro account in exchange for use of the photo. Voila it worked! Some people are even happy with just some credit somewhere. See what you can get. Just don't insult a professional photographer by asking for a freebie, please.

Royalty Free does not equal Free

Don't forget that "Royalty Free" doesn't mean "free" as in gratis, nor does it mean copyright free. It usually means you can use the image in multiple ways and only pay once (as opposed to having to pay each time you use it). There are many different business models for different purposes. Big companies may need an image all to themselves, they may hire their own photographer, models and locations for tens of thousands of dollars. In contrast, your affordable royalty-free stock photo can be used by you freely, but it can also be used by anyone else many times over.

Please leave a comment if you know of any other approaches or websites that can be useful for sourcing imagery in the e-learning design world.