From Single Illustrations to Picture Stories

Posted on 6/9/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Photographs are used commercially as single illustrations or in telling stories.

When I got into this business in the 1960s, the dream of every photographer was to do a comprehensive picture story and get a 10-page or longer display in Life, Look or National Geographic. We also shot images designed to be used as single illustrations and were happy to sell them in order to pay the bills, but we were always looking for stories that could be told with exciting, dramatic pictures and often limited text.

As time passed and the space to publish such stories got tighter (particularly in the last couple decades), more and more picture editors started looking for the one great image that could illustrate a text piece, because they only had space for a single image. Often the pictures used were designed more to catch the reader’s attention and stop them from flipping through the publication than to give an accurate depiction of the entire story. For a while, most professional photographers gave up the idea of doing picture stories (except in the case of a few small special interest publications). The vast majority started thinking in terms of getting that powerful single illustration that would grab the reader’s attention and cause her to read the printed story.

Now, the market for single illustrations is under intense pressure. Advancements in digital camera technology and the Internet have opened the door to microstock. Part-timers and hobbyists are providing, at extremely low prices, much of the imagery that is needed for single illustrations.

In 2009, more than 95% of the images used as single generic illustrations were licensed at microstock prices. For most microstock photographers, the revenue generated from such licensing supplements other income sources, rather than being their sole source of income. As a result, many professional photographers are finding it difficult to license rights at prices previously considered reasonable for enough single illustrations to sustain their businesses. 

Also thanks to the Internet, now there is space for more visuals. Use is no longer limited by the cost and availability of paper and the delivery of the product. In both editorial and commercial arenas, the demand for imagery that hangs together as a story is increasing. The new buzzwords are multimedia and storytelling—the direction professional photography will likely take in the future.

However, producing picture stories can be much more complex than shooting single illustrations. Stories require more thought and, at the very least, a different type of planning.

Today’s multimedia projects may use still images, video or a combination of both. While it is possible to tell multimedia stories with stills alone, such presentations are often more effective if they include some video or are done entirely with video.

Older photographers often think that multimedia is just another name for the slide shows they produced 20 years ago. In some senses, that is true, but today’s multimedia has elements that make it very different from the old slide shows. The basic equipment necessary to produce today’s digital multimedia productions is much less expensive than that required to produce multi-projector slide shows in the past.

A successful multimedia presentation requires sound—narration, interviews and/or music—as well as lighting and editing skills that are different than those of most still photographers. The photographer, or a director/producer working with the photographer, must have the ability to organize the material into an effective story of two to three minutes or longer. Depending on the purpose, not all stories are required to be as complex as those seen on TV news, but they must hang together as a story and not just be a random group of beauty shots. Sometimes shots are needed for the purpose of transition that would normally be rejected or ignored if the photographer were thinking only of single illustrations. Experienced producers also point out that on most stories it is difficult to both take the pictures and simultaneously record the sound so such work is usually a team effort.

Thanks to the Internet, such presentations are now much easier to display to a variety of audiences than multi-projector shows used to be. National Public Radio, not normally thought of as a distributor of photography, produces multimedia stories to help promote its Web site. Some of these have been viewed more than 40,000 times on YouTube, not to mention the number of views received on the NPR site.

Clearly, the way people access information is moving away from the use of printed products and toward the Internet and electronic devices. We can argue about how long the transition will take, but there is no question that it is the wave of the future.

For the still photographer used to producing images for print, there is a long transitional learning curve in order to be able to produce video or multimedia stories effectively. But, for that very reason, there may be a lot less competition. For a photographer who wants to remain in the business of supplying visual information, multimedia and video may be an avenue to explore.

Copyright © 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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