September 5, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Corbis move paves way for higher-end microstock

SnapVillage, the Corbis "microstock" site that lets buyers such as ad agencies find low-cost imagery, has made a change that could pave the way for sales of photos in a higher-end format than the conventional JPEG.

Microstock sites typically sell images encoded in the JPEG file format, which compresses images so they're easier to upload, download and store. But many photo enthusiasts shoot photographs in "raw" formats, the unprocessed data from camera image sensors.

Raw images aren't degraded by "lossy" compression, and they give more latitude for fiddling with exposure and color balance. Image buyers are interested in that flexibility, and SnapVillage consequently is considering adding raw support, said SnapVillage director Nandini Ranjit Kumar.

"It's more from the buyers, because they can do more with their files," she said of the demand for raw support.

On Monday, Corbis made its first major change to the site since it launched SnapVillage publicly in June. One change in particular is important for raw image compatibility: support of an Adobe Systems file type called XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform).

Photographers can use XMP to describe raw image settings such as exposure and color balance, and choosing such settings is a key step in "developing" the images into useful forms. Support for raw images "was one of the reasons that XMP seemed the right thing to do," Ranjit Kumar said.

The move could give SnapVillage an angle in a crowded market. Microstock rivals including Fotolia, iStockphoto and Shutterstock don't support raw images, though Dreamstime does.

With its revamp, SnapVillage also added support for the earlier IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) metadata format that's widely used to add titles, captions, keywords and other information to photos. That support is useful for photographers who add such data to their images on their own computers; ideally, the sites to which they're uploading images will recognize the data so photographers won't have to enter it for each one.

Corbis, founded by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, is a major but still unprofitable player in the stock art market. The microstock market has been blooming for years, and rivals such as Getty Images and JupiterImages already have bought their way in through acquisitions. But Corbis argues the microstock market is still young.

"We don't for a moment feel we're too late," Ranjit Kumar said.

SnapVillage seeded its site with about 10,000 images, and since the public launch, more than 50,000 more have been added, she said. The company expects the library to grow quickly in coming months, in part because of a plan to release a new Java-based upload tool "sometime around November" that eliminates the five-image limit of the current upload form.

"As we revamp our upload, I think the numbers are going to get bigger," Ranjit Kumar said. "We expect hundreds of thousands by the end of the year."

Also in coming months, the company plans to expand sales from just United States buyers to anywhere in the world by the end of the year, she added. She declined to comment on sales to date, saying only that SnapVillage won't market itself aggressively to buyers until it has a solid portfolio.

"I think we'll be there in about a couple months," she said.

SnapVillage is still in beta and will always evolve, but Ranjit Kumar doesn't envision a years-long testing period like those of Flickr and Gmail. "It's going to be a few months (more), but certainly not longer than that," she said.

The revamp also affects search results. Until now, searches retrieved the most recently uploaded photos. Now, a SnapVillage search returns the image ranked highest in "snappyness," a score based on factors including downloads, comments and creativity. Users still can choose to search by recent uploads, and SnapVillage is considering adding other options such as a random pick of relevant photos, Ranjit Kumar said.

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