Where did the Windows Vista wallpaper images come from?


Windows Vista needed some new wallpapers. Where to get them? Historically, they were purchased from a professional service, which is expensive since Microsoft would need worldwide rights to reproduce (not just use) the image, and not just for a few months, but for decades. Besides, there are a lot of good amateur photographers at Microsoft who would be thrilled to have their work displayed on millions of computers all over the world.

But why stop there? Creative Director Jenny Lam expanded the search to Flickr and contacted people who took really interesting pictures, asking them, "So, how would you like one of your photos included among the default wallpapers in Windows Vista?" The Flickr artists were excited to be a part of Windows Vista (one of them by an astonishing coincidence happened to be a beta tester), and after the lawyers had their say—because nothing is complete without lawyers getting involved—Microsoft sent the photographers on a commissioned photo shoot. Jenny tells me that these amateur photographers were great to work with. They don't have the ego problems that some professional photographers can have. (Another thing that I learned from Jenny is that photos which look great on paper do not always translate well to the screen.)

Ultimately, Jenny studied over 50 gigabytes of low-resolution images. (Off the top of her head, she estimates that she evaluated over 10,000 images, but the math suggests it was a lot more.) About two thirds of the final wallpapers are licensed from various image libraries, with the rest split among amateur photographers recruited from Flickr, Microsoft employees who enjoy photography, and a professional photographer specifically hired for this purpose. Jenny confides that the ones from Flickr are her favorites.

If you were wondering where those gorgeous pictures came from, the answer is many of them came from amateur photographers, regular people like you and me. (But with better taste.)

[Update 9:15am: Long Zheng has a bit more on those wallpapers.]

Comments (49)
  1. Gabe says:

    It’s nice to see Microsoft going out on a Lam to get cool, creative wallpaper bitmaps.

  2. Raymond has the answer .

  3. Neal says:

    There are certainly some good photos on flickr, likewise smug-mug and webshots, but to be honest the good ones are drowned in a sea of garbage ones.  I’d suggest something like photosig for finding amateur and semi-professional photographers.  The signal to noise ratio is a little better… though it too is going down as membership rises.

  4. John S. says:

    MSwanson has some that were included in some of the betas. Not sure if they made the final release, but you can find them all here: http://blogs.msdn.com/mswanson/articles/wallpaper.aspx

  5. ikk says:

    I used to think that those horrible wallpapers that came with Win95 and Win98 were created by programmers… The only usable was the default (clouds) and maybe another depending on your taste.

    Things got better with WinXP, but we still find a few that are almost unusable due to high levels of pink or annoying-desert-like-yellow.

  6. Ben Cooke says:

    I find that distinction between "use" and "distribution" interesting. What would come under "use"? I can’t think of any reason why I’d want to licence someone else’s artwork except to distribute it in some form. If I licence some stock photography for a brochure, I’m going to distribute it to people so that they can read it. So what can I do with just a licence to "use"?

    As for ikk’s comment about the Win95 wallpaper images, it should be remembered that many of them were left over from a period where a 256-colour palette-based desktop wasn’t uncommon, so there weren’t a great deal of colours to choose from. They also tended to be tiling rather than full-screen images due to there being less memory to burn on such things in those days, and graphics chips that weren’t so fancy. I remember when I upgraded from 8MB to 40MB RAM on my Win95 machine and in celebration I set my background image to a full-screen picture of some solid 3D text saying "40MB RAM!!", but it was removed within a couple of days because my on-board graphics chip with 1MB video RAM really didn’t get along with it.

    I don’t tend to use wallpaper images these days, anyway. They spend most of their time covered up by windows containing useful stuff, so what’s the point?

  7. Michael Puff says:

    "So, how would you like one of your photos included among the default wallpapers in Windows Vista?"

    First thing I do whenever I set up Windows is switching the wallpaper to "none". Because the wallpapers distract me and I always have look hard to find the icon I need.

    Besides almost all my application run maximized. Either the Explorer ist opened maximized or the IE or Outlook and my favorite IDE (Delphi) anyway. So when would I see the wallpaper? The 10 seconds before I start my application and the five seconds when I close everything to shutdown the computer. And not to forget, the wallpaper allocates resources I could need for something else. ;)

  8. Michael Puff says:

    Me again: Up to now I always thought whenever I intsalled a new version of Windows: "Gee, another disgusting default wallpaper. Coudn’t they choose a better one? All the icons seem to disappear. Besides on old Windows versions a wallpaper with icons wasn’t a good idea since the icon captions’ weren’t transparent.

  9. Mark says:

    So, we’ve learned that some of the wallpaper images were provided by professionals, and some by amateurs. I’m curious: how much were the amateurs paid? Was it less than the stock agency? Less than the commissioned professional? If there was any disparity, what was the justification, since the end quality was (evidently) equivalent?

    Amateur photos have caused a complete collapse in the cost of stock photography. This is usually touted as a good thing, but I’m starting to wonder if, in fact, the only beneficiaries are huge corporations.

    [You are asking me questions I don’t know the answer to. I didn’t write the contracts. -Raymond]
  10. tsrblke says:

    @Mark:

    I imagine these amateurs could have asked for more money and M$ would have had to either cough it up or turn them down.

  11. Stu says:

    Considering the RRP for Vista Ultimate is over $700 in some locales (UK for example), I think that Microsoft can easily afford to pack, paid for, professional images.

    In my installation of Vista Ultimate, there are 24 photographic wallpapers. You say 2/3rds were professional, that means 8 of them were from amateurs.

    So, seeing as that XP shipped with far less wallpapers, it seems that cost was not the primary reason for the amateur images.

    So, it looks to me like Microsoft has exploited some amateur photographers for PR purposes, giving them neither payment (none was mentioned in the article, so I assume that means none was given) or recognition. (I wouldn’t be surprised if they had to sign over ownership of the images to Microsoft and sign an NDA.)

    I could understand, even be supportive if this was some open-source project, even with commercial backing, as using "community" images fits with the open-source philosophy.

    I could even be supportive if Microsoft used the images to set up a royalty-free photo library (not one that requires a purchase of office).

    But to use amateur photographers entirely for PR ("Look, we can use Flickr, we’re so hip! We included a few amateur photos in Vista, we’re so community!") strikes me as morally wrong.

  12. Mark says:

    Although at this point we have no way of knowing, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the amateurs accepted little or no money. After all, if you’re a hobbyist, worldwide distribution of your imagery may be payment enough, as long as you have other means of feeding your family.

    The issue I’m trying to raise is, who benefits if the marginal cost of stock photography is driven close to zero, as is being done? By definition, the consumers of commercial licensing rights are exclusively commercial ventures. The photographers / artists sure don’t gain anything from the price drop, which leaves…

  13. Charles says:

    It should be noted that a "commissioned shoot" means "work for hire," and thus Microsoft owns all rights to the photographs. Normally a photographer would license their photo’s publication rights to MS while retaining copyright for themselves. But work-for-hire means the person or corporation that hired you automatically owns the copyrights and all subsidiary rights. Microsoft knew how to totally screw the photographers out of their property. That’s the difference between amateurs and professionals, professionals know their rights and what their work is worth to a client, amateurs will gladly waive their rights and give away their work for almost nothing.

  14. Stu says:

    Considering the RRP for Vista Ultimate is over $700 in some locales (UK for example), I think that Microsoft can easily afford to pack, paid for, professional images.

    In my installation of Vista Ultimate, there are 24 photographic wallpapers. You say 2/3rds were professional, that means 8 of them were from amateurs.

    So, seeing as that XP shipped with far less wallpapers, it seems that cost was not the primary reason for the amateur images.

    So, it looks to me like Microsoft has exploited some amateur photographers for PR purposes, giving them neither payment (none was mentioned in the article, so I assume that means none was given) or recognition. (I wouldn’t be surprised if they had to sign over ownership of the images to Microsoft and sign an NDA.)

    I could understand, even be supportive if this was some open-source project, even with commercial backing, as using "community" images fits with the open-source philosophy.

    I could even be supportive if Microsoft used the images to set up a royalty-free photo library (not one that requires a purchase of office).

    But to use amateur photographers entirely for PR ("Look, we can use Flickr, we’re so hip! We included a few amateur photos in Vista, we’re so community!") strikes me as morally wrong.

  15. Yuhong Bao says:

    And indeed, no intentenal PR resulted from amatuer photo inclusion in Vista.

  16. Yuhong Bao says:

    And indeed, I observe no intental PR that resulted from amatuer photo inclusion in Vista.

  17. Lance Fisher says:

    This is a cool thing.  I would have been thrilled if Microsoft chose to use one of my Flickr photos as a Vista background.  I’d give it to them for free and not feel "exploited".  I could always say, "hey check out this photo I took" and it would be on nearly everyone’s computer.

    Flickr is a great replacement for stock photography.  Just search by tag and license, and sort by interestingness.

  18. Obviously, the nay-sayers here have the foretold "ego." If Microsoft wanted any of my photos, I would have given them to them.

  19. KJK::Hyperion says:

    Stu: the original authors are permanently credited for their work through the metadata tags embedded in the pictures, or so I’ve read

  20. Mark says:

    I’m not saying anyone was exploited. I’m sure the amateurs were very happy with the situation, even if they received zero dollars.

    <i>Flickr is a great replacement for stock photography.  Just search by tag and license, and sort by interestingness.</i>

    Indeed. A brave new world. Who benefits? Paying consumers of stock photography are corporations with an advertising budget. If Flickr drives the cost of stock photography to zero, who wins? Not photographers. That leaves the corporations, who now have their cost of business generously subsidized by amateurs.

    The explosion of amateur content is often hailed as a triumph of some (unspecified) kind for the knowledgeable amateur. I’m sure it <i>feels</i> like a triumph for the Little Guy to have an image distributed with Windows.

    But what happens when the enthusiastic amateur decides they like photography so much they want to make a career of it? They will discover that their only real triumph was the annihilation of any paying market for their work.

  21. Brian says:

    Mark,

    So you’re against open source software for the same reasons?

    Just asking.

  22. Marcel Popescu says:

    If, as a result of this trend, people start to dismiss the idea that things like pictures are supposed to be licensed (as opposed to simply paying to buy a copy and do whatever you want with it, like you do with a TV), then maybe the copyright scam will end. As a consumer, I find that thought appealing… even though I realize it’s probably wishful thinking.

  23. steveg says:

    Digital photography’s completely opened the game up for the photography industy. It’s going to keep changing for the foreseeable future. There’s nothing wrong with free imagery — people who think there is sound like the music industry complaining about bands releasing free mp3s.

    IMO the huge difference digital photography has made is the ability for amateurs to take 100s of shots and cherry pick the 1 good one, which is just what pros did with film, a technique out of reach of most amateurs.

    With many amateurs using the same equipment pros use, it comes down to talent. A pro takes great photos with a disposable.

  24. Man that was a very inspirational ending, excellent blog post…

    "If you were wondering where those gorgeous pictures came from, the answer is many of them came from amateur photographers, regular people like you and me. (But with better taste.)"

  25. I have to agree with those who have said that the explosion of low cost stock photography and people giving away their photos has hurt proffesional photographers.

    for example, i sometimes shoot local sports for my paper and get paid for this.  but recently, i have lost assignments to local parents who send in photos for free just to get their name in the paper.  on this assignement i would make money which would go to paying to take care of my family, but the "free" photographer just gets to show their freinds at work their name in the paper and feel special.

    this is called "lowballing", and this hurts those of us who make a living at this.

    There is nothing wrong with amaetur photographers or photography, and i think digital advances have helped amateur photographers, like my parents.  but this is a proffesion for some of us.  We work hard, spend thousands of dollars on equipment, gas, and time.

    it would be similar to if i went and took someones job at burger king and worked for free, just so i could get to eat my lunch for free.

  26. Chris Day says:

    Here is a link to one of the flickr amateurs… a 24 years old hobbyist >> http://flickr.com/photos/darwishh/

  27. real image says:

    Where is the Windows XP (and wince4) field actually located in reality?

  28. Dan P says:

    …aren’t regular people like you and me?

    [More precisely, then, I could have written, “… people like you and me who just take pictures for fun.” But that would have sucked the energy out of the sentence. Don’t make me put a disclaimed at the top of this web site. “Warning: The English language is employed on this web site in a casual manner because using it in a precise manner wouldn’t be as much fun or interesting.” -Raymond]
  29. Pet Peters says:

    Hey Shithead,

    I’m a professional photographer and no, I don’t have an ego. I take as much pride in my work as most people do and I like to get paid for it, just like everyone else. If MS wants to use a blend of free images from amateurs, stock and assigned work, that’s fine, it’s their business and I’ve certainly seen lots of fine pics taken by "amateurs". But as a professional, I rely on selling licenses to use my images. Just like a musician who writes a song doesn’t want to sell it once and have everyone else copy it. How many albums do you think your favorite band would put out of they only sold one copy and then everyone copied it and gave it away from there?

    For the record, MS bought some of these images from a stock agency and I know because I am represented by the same agency.

    For those of you talking out of your ass about photogs egos, how pics should be free and copyright being a "scam", how would you like me to show up at your job and offer to do it for free instead of paying you?

  30. Mark says:

    And of course Microsoft is giving away Vista, right? Yep, it takes some ego to expect the world’s wealthiest company to offer a reasonable sum of money in return for one’s hard work, doesn’t it?

  31. Phil says:

    I’m a professional photographer.

    I work on a Mac.

    I play games on a PC.

  32. Johnny Corbis says:

    umm, di they get the images from bill gates owned corbis pictyre agency???????

  33. Chrisizzle says:

    Microsoft hated paying image rights to professional photographers with egos?

    How appropriate… cause I hate playing for software from computer programmers with egos.

    Software piracy for all!

  34. homer says:

    I’m also tired of dealing with the “ego” of programmers who expect me to pay for their hard work. Due to this attitude by Microsoft regarding professional photographers, I’ll be sure to make sure my copy of Vista is pirated.

    [Huh? Microsoft didn’t pirate the work of the professional photographers. If the egos of professional programmers bugs you, then use free software. I won’t be hurt. -Raymond]
  35. eric says:

    I know I’m gonna complain about the same thing as some of the previous posts but I hope the amateurs who did agreed to licence their images at least made some money instead of just getting a photo credit or just the privilege of saying "That’s my photo"

    Even if you are an amateur – that is still your work and you should be getting paid for your work.

  36. Shane says:

    At first, I wondered why Microsoft didn’t just use CC licensed works for free. Then I realized that they wanted exclusive rights to the photos. Makes sense to me.

    The professional photographers who have come on complaining just don’t get it. The analogy between free/cheap licenses of amateur photos and more expensive licenses of professional stock photos is not the difference between legit Vista and pirate Vista. It’s the difference between legit Vista and free Ubuntu. Some people still need the expensive product. Other people are glad to have the free alternative. It’s the market at work.

    Yes, corporations with advertising/marketing budgets do benefit from costs of photo licensing going down, but so do small businesses that did not previously have the budget for that. I understand that this hurts many professional photographers financially, and I sympathize for your situation. However, like a candlemaker complaining that the light bulb has ruined the candle market, you are selfishly promoting the interests of your own tiny group (professional photographers) over the interests of the majority of the population. If an amateur wants to give away the license to one of his photos for free, who are you to tell him he can’t do that? The forces that are driving down the prices of stock photos are from perfectly legal pricing decisions made by individuals within the framework of current copyright law.

    Just because professional stock photography might go away doesn’t mean that professional photography will end. There will always be stars who can command high prices for their works. There will always be people who commission photographers for portraits or events. The market will change dramatically, but I believe that the overall change will be positive, albeit with a few who stand to lose from the changes. Adapt and overcome; you’ll be alright.

  37. Dean Krouse says:

    My god Microsoft is lame! Time to get with the times and get a Mac people. Why bother with Vista?! Get the original that MS copied from…..get Mac OSX.

  38. prince says:

    best

  39. Did you know that more than 10,000 images were evaluated during the Vista wallpapers selection process

  40. It looks so nice at first.

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