The Digital Journalist
Technology is an empowering tool, not an obstacle!
July 2004

by Evan Nisselson

Part 1

Technology has turned the photography industry upside down. It has revolutionized how people create, manage, share and sell photographs worldwide. The influence of digital photography is accelerating as digital cameras increasingly outsell film cameras. And camera phones now outsell digital cameras, further increasing the ubiquity of digital image capture.

However, digital photography has created major problems that make daily photography tasks more difficult and more costly for professional photographers and buyers. I have been witness to these challenges, with 14 years experience as a photo editor, agent, photographer, software developer and digital imaging analyst.

I founded Digital Railroad in response to these challenges, with the goal of building better tools to manage, market, sell and buy imagery. I brought together a team of experienced photo professionals and software engineers. We have been working with members of the photo community to build a system that solves their technology problems and business needs.

The response of photographers and editors has been enthusiastic. Photographers say they want to minimize repetitive production tasks and to sell more pictures. They want an organized method of delivering digital images to their clients.

Buyers say they want tools to find unique photos that are relevant to their needs and within their budget. They want fast access to high-resolution downloads.

We believe that one system should be able to fulfill all of these needs.

Change rarely comes easily. Technology can make daily tasks harder before making them easier. Before the transition from film to digital photography, many production tasks were completed by clients, editors, agents and film processing labs. In today's digital environment, production responsibilities often fall to the photographer. Three to six disconnected software programs might be utilized in a typical digital workflow. Photographers finish making pictures for a client and then spend hours editing gigabytes of images in hotel rooms, borrowed offices or Internet cafes.

For example, digital photographers may have hundreds of high-resolution images that they need to edit, crop, color-correct, manipulate, caption, sort, resize, convert, archive and/or transmit to clients or agents. Digital technology enables clients to demand faster delivery of images against shorter deadlines. As a result, photographers are desperate to find more efficient, cost-effective applications to solve their new workflow issues.

A Digital Railroad beta tester recounts a story from an assignment: "After two 12-hour shooting days, I ended up with loads of images, say 1.5 - 2 gigabytes, or the equivalent of 20 rolls of film. I spoke with the editor on Sunday night and told her I would need several hours that night and Monday morning to edit and send her selects. She said she didn't want me to edit -- she wanted to see everything.

She gave me the FTP site and password. I spent a few hours Sunday night organizing and editing and attempted to send images in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Of course, there was a problem and I had to wait until the tech guy could call me on Monday morning. He didn't get in touch with me until 1 p.m. The editor needed the images that afternoon. I sent images via FTP and when I mentioned to the tech guy that she wanted me to send it all, he had a stroke. So I had a conversation with the editor and had her decide what kinds of situations she needed sent first. The rest would follow.

She made her decision and over the next four hours I edited and transmitted the specific situations she requested. We agreed that I would burn a CD and send it via Fed Ex so she could have everything else first thing in the morning.

End of story: a big snowstorm hit New York City, the CD didn't arrive by 1 p.m. the next day, and the art director wanted exactly the opposite of what they had me send. In the end, they did not run my photos.

My fantasy was that if I'd had my Digital Railroad system, I could have loaded the images over each night. Then, come Monday morning, the editor could have logged on and had everything at her fingertips.

The same applies in trying to get images to my agent. If I can load a broad selection from a shoot and let them see what they want, it would work better for me than having to make tight edits to FTP them. I would send them what I want. I can easily broadcast other images to my agent that I already have loaded onto the Digital Railroad much more quickly than having to re-edit and transmit the same images over and over again to different places.

This is one of many high-profile beta testers and advisors who have been working with the Digital Railroad team to build technology solutions designed to solve photographers' and buyers' problems.

Every day I speak to photographers who wonder how they can afford the costs and find the time to manage all of the digital equipment they require. Professional photographers' livelihoods are at risk if they don't incorporate digital imaging into their business. At the same time, photographers need technology companies to help them so they can focus on their core competency: making great pictures.

In 1998, I started researching the best way to build a technology system to help photographers manage, market and sell their photographs digitally. However, too many people were still asking "why" they should shoot digitally rather than "how."

Going digital meant that a professional photographer needed to buy at least two digital cameras, as well as lenses and accessories. That same photographer had to quickly transmit huge files around the Internet. In the late 1990s, professional digital cameras cost more than $15,000 each, image quality was poor, and 56K modems were not efficient to transmit multiple high-resolution images.

Today, photographers are no longer asking "why" but "how" they should go digital. Buying the correct digital camera, lens and a computer is just the tip of the iceberg. The learning curve can be intimidating.

Most photographers send their imagery via e-mail without the ability to secure or restrict access. At the same time, clients dislike e-mail attachments because of the influx of attachment-based viruses. Many editors automatically delete all e-mails with attachments unless they're waiting for particular files from specific people. This is a "no-win" scenario for both buyers and sellers and it is only getting worse.

Technology has also deeply affected buyers. Ninety percent of photo searching that was once in the hands of suppliers is now in the hands of buyers.

Photo buyers used to call photographers and photo agencies for specific images that they needed for their projects. The buyers called photo researchers who were familiar with their likes and needs. As relationships developed, the researchers became experienced visual translators for those clients.

Buyers could then return to other work until the film and prints started to arrive. Within a few days, a dozen envelopes containing 20-100 handpicked images were delivered, awaiting the buyer's review. Currently, online databases cannot intuitively extrapolate the needs of those buyers as traditional researchers could.

Photo editors spend countless hours using online photo databases with separate usernames and passwords for each. They are confronted with inconsistent visual metaphors and a variety of feature sets. They must familiarize themselves with search and delivery methods for each vendor and archive.

Some might say that technology simply rearranged the chores for buyer and sellers and the scales are once again evenly weighted. I would disagree. Technology has made daily tasks more difficult, costly and inefficient.

Major photo agencies, such as Corbis and Getty, have streamlined their technology systems in an effort to make transactions smoother and easier for buyers. As a result, many buyers search the major agency archives because they have a wide selection of images and act as a one-stop online shop for stock photography. However, these large agencies only comprise about 40 percent of the over $2 billion stock photo market worldwide. I hear everyday from my magazine and advertising agency friends, who say they consistently find images in the major online archives that are over-published and no longer unique; for these art buyers, the pursuit of fresh imagery will never end.

Merely publishing images at a photographer's Web site is ineffective because buyers cannot easily locate the sites. If photos cannot be easily found and viewed then they have absolutely no business value. We all make pictures to visually communicate. If no one sees the photos after they are created, then we have failed in our core endeavor.

Other software companies have suggested that they offer solutions to these problems, but I don't believe anyone has delivered what the customers need to minimize their production responsibilities while maximizing their sales opportunities. Some companies provide online portfolios, lightbox solutions, local archive management and the ability to edit images, but these are only pieces of a much larger puzzle.

Hopefully, professional photographers will soon be able to focus on making great pictures, rather than spending their time managing technology.

If you face these challenges in your own creative business and would like to beta test a solution, please contact us at beta. To receive future Digital Railroad announcements, sign up.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which we will give more specifics and examples of how you will soon be able to leverage the Digital Railroad platform to more easily manage, market and sell your imagery.

Evan Nisselson is founder and CEO of Digital Railroad, Inc. He has worked in the photography industry for 14 years and has focused on digital imaging since 1995. He has seven years' experience at technology start-ups, from VP Business Development, EVP of Content and Product Strategy, to manager of product launches and content teams. Evan has negotiated and signed deals with Microsoft, AOL, Warner Bros., HBO, Intel, Telecom Italia,, Island Def Jam, Getty Images, Magnum Photos, and Time Inc. Additionally, he has been a photo editor, software developer, lecturer, moderator, contest judge, a published photographer and a digital imaging consultant.
Evan has developed, built and launched two Internet consumer photo portals: in 2003, for Telecom Italia's #1 Internet portal,; and in 1997, he conceived and managed the first broadband Internet photography portal for Excite@Home. This became a multimillion dollar joint venture with Intel. Evan has also worked as a photo editor at SABA Press Photos, an assignment editor on photo book projects and he continues to work on his documentary photography projects.