"Golden Bitcoins on a gold background."
A few weeks ago, I was snarky about stock imagery on the internet.
I was looking for photos of "people coding," and the options were decidedly bad — think word clouds and whiteboards. But how would I go about translating such an ephemeral idea into visual form? Honestly, I had no idea.
Stock imagery has played a significant role in developing the visual language of technology. If you imagine all hackers wear black and hunch over green screens in dark rooms, that’s thanks to film and television to be sure, but also because of the creative images that accompany stories on websites like this one.
Yes, a lot of technology stock imagery is seriously bizarre — see the infamous bitcoin gold coin — but as people in the business told me, translating the digital into useful, 2D form is no easy feat.
Looking for symbols
How do you make bitcoin, a concept that exists entirely online, easily identifiable to anyone?
Struggling to find a representation of the cryptocurrency, Colorado-based artist Arina Habich tracked down bitcoin "miners" — small machines that run software to unlock more bitcoin — and used them to create a collection on Shutterstock.
"I had to talk to lots of people to do this, and had to do lots of research to find a really good place to really capture "bitcoins" as an idea," she said via email. "I’ve found that these are useful representatives of cryptocurrency as a whole."
Image: Shutterstock / Arina P Habich
"Row of bitcoin miners set up on the wired shelfs."
It’s a similar challenge for something like "data." When developing a stock concept, Bruce Rolff, who lives just outside New York City, said he often thinks in symbols.
"Binary code is a good general element for data. For security, it might be a keyhole or a padlock," he explained. "To represent the internet I might use the Earth, a computer mouse, a spider like web of binary code. For the cloud I might use an illustrated cloud with points of light."
He also takes colour into account. Popular colours for data are often cool greens or blues. Do you associate bright yellow with coding? Probably not, and those implicit connections (or lack thereof) are thanks in no small part to choices made by people like Rolff.
The abstract and reality
Creating a stock image for a technology concept can be an intensely creative process. That’s reflected in Rolff’s portfolio, which is distinctly hallucinatory with clear science fiction influences.
Some images he likes better than others. For example, he’s fan of a picture he created of a female android. "Shiny bronze or copper metallic skin covered with electronic circuit patterns. Vivid red hair, a slight knowing smile, her eyes looking with intent into the viewer," he explained over email. "Just think it’s a cool character."
Image: Shutterstock / Bruce Rolff
Using products like Photoshop, Adobe Bridge, Poser and Blender, he said he likes pushing the boundaries of technique and content. "I like the idea of mixing text into the work. Also the meshing of abstract and reality," he added.
Rolff said people he understands why people make fun of "crazy, goofy" stock images, but emphasised they perform a valuable service.
"Many people can find the right image for their projects, be it a book cover, album cover, web site, whatever, thanks to stock images produced by many hard working people," he added.
"It’s somewhat hard to really get things 100% ‘right,’" Habich added. "However hard I work, I find that there is no better image than the one you’ll be shooting tomorrow."
Stock photographers are artists, but also journalists
According to Habich and Rolff, the industry is all about anticipating need.
Habich has been in the business for six years. Photographers are rarely commissioned, she explained. Instead, they create images they suspect will be topical and required for books, websites and magazines, and that means keeping an eye on the news like any reporter. She said demand for bitcoin stock, for example, developed about three years ago.
For the most part, photographers get paid only if their pictures are licensed from photo agencies like Shutterstock or iStock.
Image: Shutterstock / Bruce Rolff
"Vast binary code Sea."
"There is no real ‘requests’ when it comes to stock photography — there is supply and demand," she said. "You can see what types of things are popular — what’s in magazines and TV, what people are talking about, and really topical things."
It’s not necessarily a way to get rich quick, either.
Shutterstock contributors, for example, are paid depending on the license — the percentage is also raised as earnings increase. For each image downloaded as a monthly subscriber image, for example, a contributor might be paid $0.25 in the first tier.
Rolff lives off his stock photographer work, but as a producer of images, he said it would be nice to be better rewarded. "But it is what it is," he added. "The market is quite competitive."
So, what did I learn? Pay your stock photographers some respect. It’s not that easy to make an image of the internet.