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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Picture-perfect career

By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to The Sun

It's often said that a good picture is worth a thousand words, and perhaps no one knows this better than visual researchers, the critical allies of publishers and filmmakers who help bring their work to life.
Marina Pinto, a visual researcher with TVO's nightly current affairs show Studio 2, thrives on the fast-paced, deadline-driven environment. She enjoys the "adrenaline rush."

Visual or picture researchers source out and manage images for a wide range of projects, including newspapers, magazines, books, electronic publications, corporate advertising materials, films and TV shows. The work may include obtaining camera-ready reproductions; preparing descriptions of illustrations, diagrams and maps; overseeing the production of final artwork and conducting financial negotiations with artists and picture sources.

Client's budget

A key part of the job, says Vivien Leong, a freelance picture researcher and editor, is finding image sources that meet a client's budget. This determines whether picture researchers turn to generally pricey stock photo agencies or low/no-cost options such as company and association archives.

"You're usually doing all of this with a very limited budget," Leong says. "That dictates where you're going to look for pictures and images and how much time you are going to spend on the actual search. You have to avoid sources that are really expensive or use them sparingly."

In the six years Leong has worked in the field, she has participated on projects such as a 300-page coffee table book called The Canoe for Firefly Books; a high school textbook on Canadian History for Oxford University Press, and a public exhibit on Medicare for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Another main feature of the job, she says, is negotiating usage rights, which requires extensive knowledge about copyright laws, the client's specific needs and much more.

"You need to know: Is the photo required for editorial use? Commercial use?" she says. "You also need to know about rights relating to territory, the differences between Canadian and American copyright laws, where the publication is being published and distributed, language rights and much more."

Picture researchers should also be well-versed in the technical aspects of digital photography.

"A lot of electronic knowledge is required -- do you need JPEG or TIFF file formats? Can the image be reproduced well? How well does it need to be reproduced? At what size will it publish?"

The vast amount of industry knowledge a good picture researcher must possess requires them to be efficient information managers.

"You need a solid system to keep track of all the small details pertaining to each project," says Melanie Isis Tinken, a freelance picture researcher and creative writer. "Often you'll get a call down the road from a client wanting to use an image again, and you have to know where it is, who to contact for it and how much it will cost to reuse it."

After completing a degree in photography from Ryerson Polytechnic University (now Ryerson University) in 1994, Tinken worked at two stock photo agencies, where she was responsible for fulfilling the photo requests of magazine and newspaper

publishers, book publishers and advertising companies. Today she works on a freelance basis, and her most recent project involved scoping out images for a Canadian book of essays and short fiction due out this September.
One challenge that picture researchers face is increasing public recognition of the profession in Canada. "There is no association representing picture researchers in Canada and most people don't know what the job entails.
The truth is that it's very complicated, involved work," says Melanie Isis Tinken, a freelance picture researcher. Currently the Editors' Association of Canada ( is the dominant industry organization representing picture researchers. The most current fee guidelines of the organization's Toronto chapter set the rate of picture research work at $37 to $72 an hour.
Further information on the profession can be found at:
  • Picture Research Association, UK:
  • American Society of Picture Professionals:

  • Tinken says it can be daunting to break into the picture research field, which she describes as very insider-oriented. However, she says that persistent networking will help most competent people get their foot in the door.

    "As with any industry, you have to call up people and introduce yourself," she says. "The more relationships you establish with people in the industry, the better chance you have of getting regular work."

    For Marina Pinto, a visual researcher with TVO's nightly current affairs show Studio 2, the main challenge lies in fulfilling daily footage requests in a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment.

    This involves perusing TVO's image stock library, daily CTV and CNN news feeds and on occasion, sources such as the Library of Congress and the National Library of Canada.

    The often-hectic environment means that sometimes Pinto has an hour or two to find the right image.

    "When the show's lineup suddenly changes, the turnaround time can be very tight. We may have barely an hour to find the right images," she says.

    But Pinto says she enjoys the adrenaline rush -- just one of the many highlights of a job she says feels more like play than work.

    "You're in touch with all kinds of people and every day is different. There's a lot of variety to this work and a lot of learning involved," she says. "This is not work to me -- I always wake up happy to be coming here."

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