By Lars - 8 min read
Here’s what happens when image buyers like you ask us to find photos.
You might have noticed it: There’s a little button next to each image on EyeEm, offering free curation. This is one of the core products we offer to image buyers, and it’s pretty unique: You tell us what you want to communicate, and we’ll find the right images for it.
But what does free curation stand for? And more importantly, what does it mean for you and to our curators? Read on for a behind-the-scenes look and see who does the work.
If you were to visit our Berlin HQ, walk past the reception and keep left, you’d immediately run into a long white desk that makes up what we call Creative Services: That’s our team of four full-time curators who handle all image requests. Just like the rest of EyeEm, it has a multi-national makeup: Xavier, from France, heads the department and counts Brada (from Italy) as well as Madeline and Jonathon (both from the UK) to his team. All four have backgrounds in photography, the visual arts, or even history, and their screens are usually filled with a seemingly endless grid of photos.
From left to right: Xavier, Jonathon, Madeline, Brada
Once you press “get in touch”, type in your details and submit your request, they’ll get to work and make sense of those images: “What we do is on-request curation”, says Xavier. He and his team work with the photos uploaded by the EyeEm community and submitted for sale, sort through them, identify a common visual language, and assemble their picks into a coherent whole. In some ways, it’s the digital equivalent to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but it starts very simply: By looking at pictures.
The Bigger Picture
Browsing through new images.
The curators’ days begin by going through photos that have been uploaded to EyeEm overnight. All follow a few hundred different photographers and constantly checking on their uploads makes sense in two respects: Firstly, it allows them to keep tabs on what photos are being shared and which photographers are producing the most interesting new work. And secondly, it’s about the bigger picture: Understanding what these photos have in common, what kinds of trends emerge and what visually unites images: Where photography is heading and what we end up finding tasteful or appealing.
Xavier holds up two hands when he describes the way taste develops: “It really emerges from two sides,” he says “you have the exhibitions and shows over here, where art is theorized or conceptualized. On the other side, there’s what organically bubbles to the surface in a community.”
What we end up liking often lies between the two sides, and looking at lots of pictures is how Creative Services keeps up on one side of it. The other? Through their own background and expertise.
“Curation is a bit like speaking a language”
“I have worked as a fashion photographer for three years”, recounts Madeline, who went to photo school in Manchester. “The briefings I received were often quite precise”, she says – which has helped her understand what clients are looking for when making image requests. Just like her, the other team members have worked as freelance photographers, allowing them to put themselves into the shoes of community members and clients alike.
They also have years of experience in the theoretical side of photography: Xavier studied Art History and went to Arles photo school in France, Brada has a master’s degree in photography from London College of Communication and Jonathon went to university for Film and Media Communication.
“The best thing to compare our work with is speaking a language”, says Brada. To her, curation is all about identifying the right way to communicate through images: Since each client she communicates with is different, she considers it most important to identify the right tone, vocabulary and ultimately message each image sends.
Bending the Rules
When you make your request for curation, that aesthetic language is what our curators look for. Many brands, of course, have very specific rules that define everything from how warm the tones of a photo can be or whether it can contain people or not. “If there aren’t any guidelines, we will define them with the customer”, says Xavier, pointing out that the challenge isn’t to stick to these rules but to find motifs that are both delightful and surprising: “We definitely have a desire to bend the rules a bit”, he says.
The goal is to work with a brief to identify pictures that not just fulfill the requirements but also exceed it – by telling a common story or by fitting to the same narrative.
Xavier and Brada at work.
Remember that EyeEm Market contains the work of millions of different photographers – who all see the world differently and have unique approaches to taking pictures. Finding a common ground becomes a creative challenge that Madeline finds more creative than actually taking photos herself: “I have found that there’s always a way to add spin to a request, which ties photos together based on a current aesthetics or visual trend.”
“Sometimes we send a picture to a client that was uploaded ten minutes before.”
All curators maintain long lists of favorite photos they regularly return to, and that they add to based on what they stumble across while browsing. With new photos being added every day, that can result in a fast turnaround: “Sometimes we send an image to the client that was uploaded ten minutes ago,” says Xavier. He explains that Creative Services periodically also asks EyeEm photographers to go out and shoot a specific subject, if they like their style and are convinced of their talent.
But curation isn’t just a quest for the best image combinations but also a bit of a battle against time: With the promise to finish a curation within 24 hours after you have submitted your request, the search isn’t just a scramble for the right photos but effectively an exercise in on-demand creativity.
Finding images taken in a different way.
How do Creative Services stay inspired? It’s in equal parts motivation and conviction: “I really dislike the stigma of the stock photo”, says Jonathon, referring to bland photos that are so broadly applicable that they no longer communicate anything. “I search for photos with character,” he says “something that’s not just aesthetically pleasing but packs a punch”. Brada finds inspiration in looking at the photos she sees every day: “It often surprises me how the same motif can be reinterpreted in a different way”.
And finally it’s also about becoming a bit more flexible with the taste one has developed: “Sure, I have to camouflage my taste a little”, says Madeline – “the work isn’t about imposing my view on others but rather to surprise myself.” After all, external influences constantly shape what we find appealing – which can be exhibitions, or reading about photography, whichJonathon points to as his biggest source of inspiration.
Our curators say they try to never repeat themselves – and hardly have to because the EyeEm community uploads more and more pictures every day, creating an almost limitless resource of photos curators can use.
But that ever-growing amount of images can also seem startling. That’s why Creative Services increasingly relies on a technology we have been developing: In 2015, we launched an advanced image recognition technology called EyeEm Vision.
It uses a sophisticated algorithm to understand not just what’s in a given picture but also what concepts it depicts – from photos of a camping trip, for example, the technology can infer concepts such as vacation or escape. And the lighting and colors in the photo lets the technologydetermine not just whether a photo was shot indoors or outdoors, but also the overall mood of the image.
“It makes sense to mix aesthetics with technology.”
EyeEm Vision already scans most pictures uploaded to EyeEm to help photographers tag their photos. But we can also use it to eliminate some of the overhead of curation: Once a client’s visual language has been identified, EyeEm Vision can be trained to recognize it – and filter a set of photos for a desired aesthetic.
And while the trained human eye of our curators remains crucial for selecting images, the team now has a system at its disposal that allows it to automatically identify possible candidates that might fit in an image collection. “Photography is always evolving”, Xavier says, “and it just makes sense to mix an artistic aesthetic with a tool that revolutionizes image search. The idea is to change the way we take, share, sell and buy photography, and it’s exciting to be part of it.” At the end of the day, computer vision sorts the haystack of images to make the needle easier to spot.
Want to read more? See how we challenged our curators to tell a story in five images.