Thoughts on picture research by Nat Bocking

Some years ago my partner and I noticed several trends that encouraged us to establish Pixlink. According to the PPA in 2002, magazine publishing had seen a 30% growth in the number of titles published in the last three years. The use of out-sourced editorial staff was growing as the publishing industry adopted job-sharing and part-time working to achieve employment flexibility.

As much as we know ourselves to be creative, we know that few picture researcher's reputations rest on creativity alone. Picture research is as much about the efficient management of image rights, budgets and delivery notes as it is about choosing pictures.

Over the years we've been trading, Pixlink has seen our workload expand and contract in reflection of the volatility of advertising spending in consumer magazines and contract publishing. The slashing of budgets usually begins with the freelancers and more frequently designers are told to source the images themselves with the publisher's rationale that "it's all on the web anyway." However publishers eventually discover that skilled designers are expensive picture researchers and that separating the creative side from the clerical side leaves opportunities for 'failures of communication'.

Most stock and editorial images are now supplied by online picture libraries enabling the picture researcher to work remotely and more efficiently. Consequently, the time scales for projects have shrunk considerably. Still, no matter how fast they are, the quality of online searches still depends on the skills of the researcher. It is our opinion that the apparent ease of online image sourcing is a honey trap. Experience shows that only a few vendors have really effective search software, few keywording standards exist and there is little integration with the downstream workflow. Only a fraction of the world's images are available online. Unsurprisingly, the online stock libraries have to recoup their capital investment with higher prices and their images are mainstream concepts intended for maximum appeal. Over reliance on online sources or, even worse, royalty-free CDs, leads to publications that are indistinguishable from everyone else's.

Professional picture researchers spend their lives working with image collections and photographers. They know each one's strengths and weaknesses and what great images are still lurking in a shoe box somewhere. Experienced researchers know of countless resources that you can't find on the Internet. We are thankful that smart publishers realise that nothing yet beats a human brain well versed in its subject with years of cumulative knowledge.