Digital Railroad

Posted on 9/7/2004 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



September 7, 2004

It was announced at VISA Pour L'Image in Perpignan, France that the editorial photo agency VII has chosen New York startup Digital Railroad (DRR) technology to power their agency and to handle their workflow, distribution and archiving. VII anticipates use of the system will drastically reduce costs, and speed the distribution to its clients and sub agencies of news stories produced by the agency's globally based photographers.

"Digital Railroad clearly will revolutionize photography management and its delivery as we know it," said John Stanmeyer, VII co-founder and Time contract photographer. "At VII we're committed to a solid integrated digital workflow with photojournalism. Digital Railroad provides us a complete end-to-end photographic distribution and marketing system that fully taps the power of the Internet to deliver timely images to our clients. Digital Railroad returns the power of photography back into the hands of the photographer."

Reza, world-renowned photojournalist and National Geographic contract photographer, will also leverage Digital Railroad for AINA Photo, Afghanistan's first photo press agency following Taliban rule; and Webistan, Reza's own Paris-based agency

While these agencies have adopted the Digital Railroad system to handle the work of all the images they represent, DRR has been designed to offer individual photographers an online image management program that should greatly ease and simplify the process of managing a digital file of images and getting selected images to market.

"We created Digital Railroad to empower renowned and emerging photographers with an affordable, easy-to-use online archive system for managing and distributing their images globally," said founder and chief executive officer Evan Nisselson. "We minimize technical hurdles for photographers and allow them to concentrate on their passion-being creative."

In its initial version DRR was designed more with an eye to the needs of the editorial and assignment shooter than for stock shooters who do concept work and seldom, if ever, deal directly with clients. Nevertheless, stock shooters should also take a hard look at this program as many of its features could help them streamline their operation and cut their time in getting images to market.

There are several key steps in selling stock images in today's world. (1) Create, (2) Digitize, (3) Caption and keyword so the images can be found in a digital environment (4) Get the images where buyers can see them in an easy, convenient way.

Since the majority of images offered as stock today are being created digitally steps (1) and (2) are taken care of. If you're still creating with film then you've got to get the images digitized before you can use DRR. One of the most powerful features of DRR is its system for editing, captioning and keywording. However, the photographer shooting film will probably edit before digitizing to control costs and thus not be able to take full advantage of the powerful bulk captioning option once they have uploaded their images.

Editorial Shooters

When I talk of editorial/assignment shooters I'm referring to people who regularly do assignments and whose shooting often revolves around activities, events, personalities or locations. On their shoots, they produce a group of images that need to be edited, captioned and shown to the customer quickly. When a decision is made concerning the image to be used a full size file must be immediately available for delivery. Digital Railroad solves all these problems.

The system is designed to encourage photographers to upload an entire take and edit online. This works great for a photographer who is shooting everything digitally because all of his images are stored in one searchable database and the prime images (those that the photographers has designated 1sts) are conveniently linked to all the similars from each shoot. Also if the bulk captioning feature is used correctly all the seconds will be captioned with the information that is added to similar prime select images.

The bulk captioning feature makes it simple to add one general caption to the entire shoot and then add additional more specific information to smaller segments of the take. Keywords can be added separate from the caption, but the search algorithm currently looks at both captions and keywords when pulling up images so it is not necessary for the words in the caption to also be keywords. (Some agency search engines only look at the keyword list so if you plan to deliver some of the images you post on DRR to other sites it can't hurt to include all the same words in both fields.) The captions and the keywords are imbedded in the IPTC header and travel with the image whenever it is downloaded or reviewed by the customer.

While editorial photographers have always understood the need for captions, many stock shooters have been sloppy about captioning taking the attitude, "my images illustrate concepts and that is obvious from looking at the image." The problem with that attitude is that in the digital environment the only way people find images are through the words attached to them. Thus, caption or keywords that describe the concepts -- if that's what the image is -- must be included. The other attitude has been, "my agent will take care of the captioning," but agents are so overwhelmed with this work that images without some good caption information either don't get put online at all, or they are relegated to the bottom of the pack and take forever to rise to the top. Like it or not -- if you want to sell images -- photographers are going to have to take on more of the responsibility of supplying good captions and some keywords with their images.


The program has so many features that it can be overwhelming at first, but I urge photographers to take a hard look at and see if it can help streamline your workflow. You can sign up for a 30 day free trial to experiment with the system, and if you commit for one year before October 1, 2004 the cost is $49.95 per month. (After October 1st the monthly cost goes to $99.95 so there is a real advantage to moving quickly on this.)

At DRR each photographer has his or her own keyword searchable site showing only his or her images. Photographers can allow customers to search through all the images on their site, or direct them to a particular segment of the site that is part of a lightbox or Group. The photographer can feature images on his or her home page and link them to individual images or groups driving the user from the home page deeper into the collection. It is very easy to update and change the work shown on the home page.

Photographers can easily create light boxes based on customer requests and email the customer a link to the lightbox. Many editorial customers are sending e-mails to large numbers of photographers outlining the images they are looking for and asking for submissions. Using DRR the photographer can quickly respond to such requests giving the editor a selection of images to review. If the editor receives responses from a number of DRR photographers she can integrate her selections from all the various DRR photographers into a single DRR lightbox making it easier for the editor to manage her project. (Images received by the editor from non-DRR photographers can not be added to this DRR lightbox.)

The photographer can also designate a rep or assistant to have access to his image database and prepare lightboxes to respond to such requests. Such reps can also be designated to handle negotiations in the photographer's absence.

Stock Shooter

For the stock shooter one of the critical issues is to get images to agents around the world who will represent their work. The photographer can prepare a lightbox for each new submission and submit it to several agents simultaneously. Once an agent selects the images he wishes to represent, the photographer can release the large files for downloading by the agent. Files are only uploaded once and this minimizes repetitive tasks for the photographer.

If the photographer is providing the images to the agency on an "image exclusive" basis he can then delete the selected images from the lightbox and send the remainder to the next agent for consideration. Or, if the agent is given non-exclusive rights to represent the images, the photographer can send the same lightbox to several different agents simultaneously.

The photographer can share groups of images in lightboxes either privately or publicly with any user on the DRR system and can invite clients to review digital lightboxes via e-mail. By sending links to lightboxes rather than e-mails you direct the editor back to your online archive. Then they not only see the specific promotion, but they can search your entire archive as well as get pricing information. When sharing image the photographer has control of whether the recipient has permission to view only, or download or edit. With lightboxes you can collaborate with an editor online.


While DRR has a number of advantages, the current major weakness for stock shooters revolves around my point (4) "Get the images where buyers can see them in an easy, convenient way." The system is fine if you deal directly with most of your customers, or if your major concern is in getting captioned and keyworded digital images to the agents who will represent your work. But, if you are looking for a portal where potential customers you've never heard of may go to find your images, DRR doesn't currently solve this problem.

When you first load images into the system they go to a "Production" area where the photographer and a very limited number of people the photographer designates have access. This area is designed for editing, captioning and keywording of the images. In this area the photographer may decide to delete a number of images and will prioritize some as 1sts and others as 2nds so the 1st can be brought to the top of the collection.

Once that is complete the photographer then uploads the images into Publish:Public or Publish:Private. In most cases the photographer would not want to upload into one of these Publish areas until at least a broad general caption has been added to the images. This makes it possible to use keyword search to find the images which will be particularly useful as the photographer's database grows. Once pictures are in the Publish:Public section of the site anyone with the photographer's URL can come in at any time and search through all of the photographers images.

The site was set up this way because this is what many of the editorial photographers wanted. They want customers to come to their site because of their name, and they don't want the customer to be able to see similar images taken by other photographers. The down side to this is that people who don't know the photographer's URL have no way of viewing his images.

It is my understanding that in the near future DRR will have a directory that lists all photographers along with their specialty. At that point an art director who is just looking for an image could go to the DRR site, search the DRR directory, pick some photographers whose file they are interested in seeing, and then search each database individually. That will be helpful, but it is also cumbersome. If the art director chooses names of ten photographers that might have the image she is looking for, she will have to do ten separate searches rather than entering the keyword once and getting a return that includes all the appropriate images from all ten photographers.

Another common way for customer to search for images is to e-mail a request to a group of photographers and request that they submit a lightbox. Assume the customer is looking for images of traffic on the Los Angeles freeway. This customer sends e-mails to DRR photographers A, B, C, D, E, F and G that she knows and asks them to submit lightboxes, if they have images that fit this specific need. Photographers A, D and G do have such images and submit lightboxes to the customer. The customer can search each of their lightboxes and put the selects from all three into a single lightbox, if she so chooses.

However, DRR photographers L, M, P and X also have great Los Angeles freeway pictures in their Publish:Public archive. The problem here is that the customer doesn't know that photographers L, M, P and X exist so she hasn't submitted a request to them.
(The directory may solve this, if it contains enough specifics.) As it turns out, if all of the photographer's pictures were lined up together M's picture would have been the one the editor would have chosen - but she didn't see it.

Future Potential

This site gives photographers a powerful tool to manage their database of images, but looking into the future there is another feature that could make the site much more useful to those stock shooter not focused on doing assignments. We are encouraging Nissleson to consider this options.

For the pure stock shooter the biggest current weakness is that a potential buyer has to somehow know that a particular photographer has taken pictures on the subject that interests him in order to access that photographer's images. For those who specialize in a unique niche the directory will be a helpful solution. But, for those who cover a wide range of general subjects this may not be so useful. A little will depend on how many keywords a photographer is allowed to put into his directory description of subjects covered, whether it is easy to update the directory, and whether the customer can search the directory using keywords and get a list of all photographers with pictures of John Kerry, the Los Angeles Freeway, etc. Hopefully, a photographer will not have to keyword his images, and place many of the same words in a separate directory.

We would hope that sometime in the near future DRR would make it possible for buyers to do a general search on the site that would show all images on a particular subject that are categorized as 1sts, regardless of who the photographer is. We believe this is the way most customers want to search and that it would be a more "customer friendly" option than the system currently offered.

I recognize that some photographers will have images in their database that were shot for a particular customer and that customer is the only one who should have access to them. But, it is likely that these photographers will also have other images that they would be willing to license for other uses so long as they can control the rights. The trick is to make these other images broadly available for searching. In other words thumbnails of these images need to be in a database that is available for searching by anyone.

While not part of DRR as currently formulated, this would be an easy feature to add. Photographers interested in having some or all of their images made available to customers around the world could authorize the listing of those images in a separate database that is available for searching by anyone. As part of the production options when images are "published" the photographer could be offered the option of selecting "Global" or "Reserved". If the photographer chooses Reserved then the images can only be seen by people that go to the photographer's site directly. But if the photographer chooses "Global" then a thumbnail of the image would be searchable in a general area that anyone entering the DRR web site could review. Buyers would still have to go to the individual photographer to negotiate rights, but they could search through a collection of images created by hundreds of photographers with whom they might never have had any previous contact.

This takes the database from one that offers photographers focused marketing and an efficient way to manage their production to one that also offers the potential to reach a much broader base of customers. Each photographer would have total flexibility on an image-by-image basis to choose whether to market each image as Global or Reserved. The photographer should also be given the option to set a default for this step to either Global or Reserved depending on which strategy the photographer expects to use most frequently. In this way fewer clicks would be required by the photographer on those rare occasions when he wants to deviate from his normal choice for a particular image.

If a customer enters this site and searches for Los Angeles or apples or Marines in Iraq they would see ALL the images from ALL the participating members on these subjects. Each individual photographer could still control the licensing of the image, or the photographer could delegate that task to one of several reps in various territories.

This would seem to be an obvious first step to making the current database more broadly available to buyers worldwide. But, building a tool that gives customers easy access to a large body of imagery is only the beginning of what is needed. The next, and equally important step, will be to make some provision to market the site so a broad base of customers will know that it exists and begin using it. At the moment promotion is up to the individual photographer and the agents that have signed on. Promotion is a complex issue and could be approached in many ways, but it is hardly worth considering until there is easy access to the total database.

It is important to recognize that building a full-featured portal is a multi-stage process. DRR has supplied a very impressive initial product that fulfills many critical needs for a large number of photographers. It is also possible, without much difficulty, to add additional features that will enhance its usefulness for many of its initial photographers as well as make it a more desirable tool for a wider group of photographers. Nisselson seems to be listening to photographer's needs and we fully expect DRR to expand into a broadly used marketing tool in the future.

Copyright © 2004 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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